It all started on a cricket pitch in Australia over three decades ago. Thirteen-year-old Hugh Jackman, a.k.a. “Sticks” because he was all limbs, was playing slip—a position that puts the player very close to the batter. (For an American sports equivalent, imagine someone crouching with no protective gear next to a baseball catcher.) You have to make split-second, reflexive catches. And boom, here came the ball. Off to his right. He had to reach. He went up.
Sticks doesn’t remember the rest.
“I passed out because I’d ripped out all the muscles attached to the lower left part of my spine.”
Leading up to that moment, young Hugh had grown 11 inches the previous year. He was a self-described beanpole. His spine and legs had erupted into adolescence, and his muscles and tendons hadn’t had time to catch up. They were basically stretched tight, and reaching for that ball shredded them.
The good news: He made the catch.
Besides muscle and bone, a man is nothing but a collection of experiences. Our experiences force action, reaction. They cause pain and laughter. They leave deep, memory-flooded furrows in our minds, places we return to when we’re trying to make sense of new situations. In the end, like the way prehistoric life eventually becomes a fossil fuel, we’re (hopefully) left with something valuable: wisdom.
Hugh Jackman has some memories. Good and bad. Painful and funny. They’ve made him the man he is today, and there’s a reason he wouldn’t give any of them back. For instance, that cricket catch. Sounds painful, but hardly life altering, right? Well, in many ways, that one moment helped Hugh Jackman become an actor. And a world-class dancer. And a man who in his fourth decade is stronger and fitter than anyone you know who’s half his age.
“I spent about 10 days lying in bed [after the catch],” he says. “I had a bad back for a couple of years. I had to do a lot of physiotherapy for it. What I couldn’t understand at the time was why the therapists had me doing a lot of stomach work.”
This was long before the word “core” had become fashionable. But Jackman had to slowly nurse his entire core to health and into good enough condition to support his back—forever, basically. So abdominal conditioning has been a priority for him ever since, and the foundation of training for every physical role he’s ever taken—from playing Wolverine in the X-Men films to his role as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, probably the toughest onscreen transformation he’s ever had to make, he says.
“My transformation covers about 30 years. At the beginning, my character is released from prison, which was basically a labor camp. He’s emaciated yet known for his strength. So I was as lean and strong as I think I’ve ever been. I had sunken cheeks, this sallow look. Then in a matter of weeks during filming, the story jumps 9 years. I’m the mayor of the town and wealthy, so I had to change my look. So it took me about 3 months to get into that shape to be a convict, and then during 3 months of shooting I was eating nonstop and was 30 pounds heavier when we finished. That tees up with where I have to be for Wolverine.”
Jackman has made some kind of physical transformation for virtually every film he’s done, from X-Men to Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain to the robo-boxing flick Real Steel. And all of it has started with ab work.
“Physically, that catch changed a lot for me. I feel like I had a head start. It made me more athletic in the long run. And it made me understand very early on that you need a strong core to protect your back.”
As a young man with a bad back, Jackman was forced to become passionate about fitness. And where else other than a gym would a fitness buff wind up working, especially when he’s trying to make enough money to pay for acting lessons? Ten years after his injury, Jackman was working at a fitness club in Sydney, when something else unexpected came around and changed his life.
“I worked at the front desk of this gym called the Physical Factory. I handed out locker keys to people, towels. I’d sign people up and give tours of the gym. So this woman came in. She was very vivacious. I showed her around and she said, ‘I want to join.’ I said, ‘Terrific. Would you like a 3-, 6-, or 12-month membership?’ Right at that moment she looks at me, gasps, and goes ‘Ohmigod.’ I’m like, ‘What?’ And she goes, ‘I just want you to know, I’m a white witch and I see things. And you’re going to become a massive international star.'”
Jackman giggles at this. “I was like, ‘Riiight. Sorry, was that a 3-, 6-, or 12-month membership?’ I thought she was off her rocker. So I sign her up and her name is Annie Semler. And I said, any relation to Dean Semler, who had literally just won the Best Cinematography Oscar for Dances with Wolves. She said, ‘Yes, that’s my husband.’ She wrote down the name of this woman, Penny Williams. She said, ‘She’s an agent in Sydney. You’re going to ring her tomorrow, things are going to happen very, very quickly, and you’re going to have to just go with it.'”
At the time, Jackman was a couple of months into an acting course; looking back, he’s the first to admit that he knew nothing. “I knew what an agent was but never thought I’d actually have one. So I go and meet the agent the next day. And she says, ‘I’d like to take you on.’ And I said, ‘Don’t you want me to do a monologue or anything? How do you know if I can act?’ And she laughs at me and says, ‘Don’t worry, I know. I’m sending you on an audition tomorrow.’ I’m thinking, ‘An audition, this is unbelievable.'”
The next day Jackman tried out for an Australian show called “Neighbours,” a nightly soap opera that was also a launching pad for Guy Pearce and Kylie Minogue. Down Under, it was an institution. “So I audition . . . and get the part! When I hear the news, all I can think about is this white witch, Annie Semler, things are going to happen very quickly.” Here Jackman’s voice turns conspiratorial. “I admit I was a little uncomfortable. Like, I’ve entered a realm here. If I annoy someone, will I upset the spirits? And it gets weirder. The very same day I was offered a slot at a very prestigious drama school.”
Now he had a major choice to make: Real-world experience on a big-time TV show? Or hard-core, much-needed dramatic training (and in the back of his mind, perhaps angering the spirits)? “I agonized. But I made the choice to go to the drama school. I immediately rang up Annie because I didn’t know what would happen. I said, I’m sorry, I didn’t follow your advice.’ And she said, ‘No, no, no. I didn’t say what was going to happen. I said a lot would happen. You’ve made the absolute perfect choice.”
He smiles. “I have to tell you, I was at Pine-wood Studios last week, and Annie Semler was there. Annie always checks my aura whenever she sees me. And it’s crazy, but pretty much everything she’s told me has come true.”
A few years later, while working on “Correlli,” another Australian TV show, Jackman met actress Deborra-Lee Furness, who was already a star Down Under. They married in 1996.
“When I married Deb, I’ll never forget the minister giving the sermon. It was very quick. One of the best sermons I’ve ever heard in my life. He said, ‘Look, you’re all here. I’m just going to tell you one little bit of advice about marriage. Nothing else I’ll say today will sink in, but listen to this. At any point in your marriage, there will be times of difficulty, decision making, or some kind of crisis. In those moments, ask yourself one question: ‘Is this good or bad for my marriage?’ If it’s good, you do it. If it’s bad, you don’t.’
“That really stuck with me,” Jackman says. “That’s something Deb and I have always adhered to, and now it applies to our kids as well. At some point, something has to be sacrificed. For me, because of my upbringing, the focus has always been my family. I don’t always get it right. But if I ask myself that question, that answer is usually pretty simple.”
Jackman has two adopted children—Oscar, age 16, and Ava, age 11. He was the youngest of five siblings growing up in Australia, and becoming a father has helped him better understand a life-shattering event that happened with his own parents more than 30 years ago.
“A friend of mine has a 12-year-old son, and the kid screams at his dad, ‘I hate you, you’re the worst dad in the history of the world!’ And my friend screams back, ‘Well, this is the first time I’ve ever done this and I don’t know anything!’ And the kid stops and goes, ‘Oh.'” Jackman laughs. “Great moments in parenting, right?”
Parenting is a big deal to Jackman. His mother left his family when he was 8 years old, moving to England and leaving behind Jackman’s father and his four siblings. He had some deep resentments about that while growing up. “That kind of experience changes you in many ways. I’m quite an independent person, and I had to be. As a boy and growing into a young man I had to look out for myself. And now I’m very family-oriented. It’s a big priority in my life.”
Like many first-time fathers, Jackman discovered that his parents were just people doing the best they could with what they had. “The moment your kid’s born you realize no one knows anything. No one goes to classes. You just have a kid. You can read all the books you like, but unfortunately none of our kids have read the books so they don’t care. You’re basically making it up as you go along.”
As a result, “as you get older you have more respect and empathy for your parents I have a great relationship with both of them.”
It’s a Hollywood truism that Hugh Jackman is one of the nicest guys in the industry, and being nice is a characteristic instilled in him by his father. But for any man raised to respect those around him, knowing when to go along to get along and when to take a stand can be tricky.
“I’ve never heard my dad say a bad word about anybody,” he says. “He always keeps his emotions in check and is a true gentleman. I was taught that losing it was indulgent, a selfish act. And I’ve lost it a couple of times on set.
“On the first X-Men, they had hired these guys from Hong Kong to shoot a particular fight sequence. These guys were quick. They knew exactly what they wanted and we were doing something like 33 setups a day, which is incredible.” At one point, Jackman, as Wolverine—wearing real metal claws for this sequence—had to cut through a section of chain-link fence that was thrown at him by Mystique (Rebecca Romijn). The fence was a “breakaway” prop that he was supposed to rip through, including a hard rubber bar at the bottom. So the cutting was very real.
“Now, I’d already been saying, ‘Guys, we’re overtired, I want to practice.’ They’re like, ‘We only have one fence, it’ll be fine.’ I’m like, ‘What about that last bar, how do I cut through it?’ And they’re like, It’ll be fine.’ I had no clout whatsoever, so no one was listening to me. But I instinctively knew something was off.”
When they called action, Rebecca Romijn’s stunt double charged Jackman with the fence. “As she comes at me, she falls forward, and as I cut through the fence I just missed hitting her eyes. I tilted up my hand and the heel of my palm went straight into her chin and knocked her out.”
Jackman chuckles at the memory—now. “I can safely say that was the only time I’ve ever hit a girl in the face—and I knocked her out. But at the time, it was a shocking moment. I just felt this wash of embarrassment and anger and humiliation. I was half mad with myself and half mad at those guys, and I lost it. Just lost it. I’m yelling and screaming, ‘This is amateur hour!’ and I walked off.”
Jackman pauses. “The moment was totally indulgent, all about me. Totally selfish. And that’s what I felt bad about. So I learned a lot that day. The film is important. The people making the film are more important.”
Since then, Jackman reserves his outbursts for Wolverine’s berserker-rage scenes. For everyone else, it’s professionalism and pleasantness. But he learned something else that day: When your gut tells you something is off, speak up loud and fast.
In one scene from his 2001 film Kate & Leopold, Jackman’s character, a 19th-century time traveler, would be galloping a horse through modern-day Central Park. Jackman balked. “I said, ‘I’m not doing this stunt.’ And they’re like, ‘What do you mean? We just spent an hour and 15 minutes setting it up.’ I said, ‘I don’t feel right about it. You’re asking me to ride a horse across these metal gratings and cobblestones that are wet. I’m not a good enough rider to help the horse if it slips.’ They were mad and had my double do it.
“And lo and behold, my double got up—and he’s a seasoned horseman—and the horse slips. My double was able to jump off, and the horse was all right, thankfully. But I probably would’ve killed myself and the horse.”
Knowing when to hold back: It’s a lesson that would have saved a 13-year-old beanpole a lot of pain. But it wouldn’t have built the man Hugh Jackman is today.
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