Hugh Jackman is feeling reflective. It’s easy to understand why. In his latest film, The Son, he plays an absentee, workaholic father struggling to help his estranged and acutely depressed teenage son. The role changed Jackman, he says, “as a man, as an actor, as a father, as a husband”. Such a part would inspire a period of introspection for most parents, let alone soon-to-be empty nesters such as Jackman, 54, and his wife, the actor and producer Deborra-Lee Furness (they have two children, Oscar and Ava). Also, towards the end of production, his father died.
“We were close,” says Jackman. “Here’s a great way to describe my relationship with my dad: we could go to Test cricket and be totally comfortable sitting together, and over a seven-hour Test we’d talk for 20 minutes.” Jackman is speaking over a video call from the home of his publicist. He’s relaxed and open, often undercutting serious emotional points with a punchline and a booming laugh.
“My mother left when I was eight, so my father raised us,” he says. “He taught me really great values. He was never really interested in things like fame and money. He was always encouraging about education and treating people well and keeping your word.” His father, Chris, would visit him on set, where he would sit quietly, doing his crossword or sudoku puzzles, occasionally glancing at Jackman to give him a thumbs up. “He saw everything I ever did. He never said a bad word about anything,” says Jackman. “A lot of who I am today is because of him.”
Jackman visited Chris in Australia shortly before filming for The Son started in London. His father had been living with Alzheimer’s for 12 years and his health had been deteriorating. Jackman knew that it was probably goodbye. When Chris died, Jackman stayed in London to finish making The Son, partly because his father was the type to never miss a day’s work and would have expected the same of his son, but also because the film helped him grieve.
“It was a film that was about vulnerability, that was about family, that was about generations and about how our past informs who we are today,” says Jackman. The Son explores the all-encompassing stranglehold of depression, tackling weighty themes such as the scars of divorce, generational trauma and severe mental illness. Taking on such an exposing role feels almost subversive for an actor more closely associated with comic-book blockbusters (he was X-Men’s Wolverine in nine films) and musical box office juggernauts such as The Greatest Showman and Les Misérables. But Jackman’s performance is assured; he has been nominated for a Golden Globe and is an outside bet for an Oscar.
Filming was intense, on set and off. As a result of the pandemic, Jackman hadn’t acted for a few years when he started filming and was still living in a Covid bubble with his family. “It was technically difficult. It was emotionally difficult. And I just sort of let go a little bit,” he says. “Stuff from my upbringing was coming up. My worries as a father.” He started experiencing sleepless nights. “That’s a new thing for me. I was thinking about it and dreaming about it. I was more of a hot mess in this than in anything I’ve ever done.”
But it was an enlightening experience, too. “I grew up in a large family with difficulties and some mental health issues,” he says. After doing the film, “I understood the complications around it and that I may have leapt to some judgments about certain people’s behaviours”. Now, he is “much less judgmental about it”. He started therapy during filming.
Jackman’s time on The Son also changed his perspective on parenting. “I thought my job was to project confidence and safety,” he says. “And there’s an element of that, I guess, that’s true. But I think now, particularly as they’re older … being more open on my vulnerability, letting them in on what’s going on inside of me, is something I’ve learned and I would do it differently now.”
Is there anything else he would do differently? “I would have moved around less,” he says. “But I thought – Deb and I thought – at the time: I’m doing movies; the lesser of two evils is to have everyone together. I’m not 100% sure, but sometimes stability may have been more beneficial.” He would have been more selective when choosing roles, too. “There was a period where things were hitting for me and I felt like: I’ve got to take this opportunity. But I look back now and I go: you could have just completely chilled out there and everything would have been fine.”
Jackman grew up in Sydney, the youngest of five siblings, with British parents who had emigrated in the 60s. It was a “busy” childhood. As a teenager Jackman was lanky (his nickname was Sticks), active and “generally the good boy”, bar a brief angsty period as a teenager when he would “tell teachers to F-off and all that”.
For a time, he was also very religious, like his parents, who were devout Christians. “I went to an all-boys school, so church was really handy, because it was where I got to meet girls. But I was genuinely really into it. And then my perspective broadened a bit by the time I was about 16.” He’s no longer religious, but describes himself as spiritual (“more of a universalist”).
Jackman fell in love with the theatre during trips to visit his mother in England. He decided to go to acting school and planned to pay the tuition fee with an inheritance from his grandmother. He sought his father’s opinion. “He said: ‘I couldn’t think of a better way for you to use it, but I have some concerns.’ And I said: ‘You don’t think I’m good enough?’ And he said: ‘I think you’re good enough, but I think you’re too thin-skinned!’” He laughs.
“He’s right: I am thin-skinned.” He refuses to read reviews. “But it’s also a strength as an actor. Thin-skinned is sensitivity, which is something you need. And so I’m still learning to cope with it.”
After graduating from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts in Perth (and turning down a role in Neighbours), he got his professional break on a prison drama, Correlli, where he met Furness, his co-star (they have been married since 1996). The show lasted just one season, but stage roles, including playing the lead in a West End production of Oklahoma!, put him on Hollywood’s radar.
Jackman was still a relative unknown when the director and producer Bryan Singer approached him about playing Wolverine in the first X-Men film. Back then, such a role was not the guarantee of stardom it would be now. But X-Men, released in 2000, was a phenomenal success. The franchise spawned 13 films, which grossed more than $6bn globally and helped usher in the comic-book movie era.
For all their success, the legacy of the early X-Men films has been called into question by allegations made against Singer. In recent years, he has been accused by multiple men (some minors at the time) of sexual misconduct, which Singer has categorically denied. Have these allegations tainted the way Jackman sees the films?
“You know, that’s a really, really complicated question,” he says. “There’s a lot of things at stake there. X-Men was the turning point, I believe, in terms of comic-book movies and I think there’s a lot to be proud of. And there’s certainly questions to be asked and I think they should be asked. But I guess I don’t know how to elegantly answer that. I think it’s complex and ultimately I look back with pride at what we’ve achieved and what momentum that started.”
A Hollywood Reporter article also detailed claims of an X-Men set where, “behind the scenes, crises raged, including drug use, tantrums and a writers’ feud”. Halle Berry, who was directed by Singer in three X-Men films, recently said of him: “Bryan’s not the easiest dude to work with. I mean, everybody’s heard the stories …”
Do these reports chime with Jackman’s experience? “This was my first movie in America, you gotta understand; it was all so new to me,” he says. “I think it’s fair to say that …” He pauses. “There are some stories, you know … I think there are some ways of being on set that would not happen now. And I think that things have changed for the better.” It’s as much as he’s prepared to say on Singer. More generally, he says: “There’s way less tolerance for disrespectful, marginalising, bullying, any oppressive behaviour. There’s zero tolerance for it now and people will speak out, and I think that’s great.”
Although Jackman had originally intended to retire as Wolverine after 2017’s much-lauded Logan, in which the character was killed off, he announced earlier this year that he would be returning to the role in Deadpool 3, which also stars Ryan Reynolds, a close friend. He rebuts the idea that he has trouble letting go of his career-defining role. “No, I was OK,” he says. “I wasn’t tortured by it. When people would ask me [to reprise the role] – including Ryan, every five seconds – I was like: I’m done.” But he says he realised how much fun he would have doing a Deadpool movie: “I just wanted to do it and I felt it in my gut.” Plus, he adds: “I get to punch the shit out of Ryan Reynolds every day.”
Jackman is a commercially viable leading man, capable of embracing camp theatricality (Les Misérables, The Greatest Showman) and collaborating with auteurs such as Darren Aronofsky (The Fountain), Christopher Nolan (The Prestige), Baz Luhrmann (Australia) and Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners). He’s a reliable Broadway star (he’s nearing the end of his production of The Music Man) and his concert tour was a critical and commercial success.
He is happiest, as an actor, on stage. He puts it down to his childhood: “I like all the chaos and I can feel very calm within it.” He came to dancing later than he should have, after one of his older brothers put him off by suggesting it was for “poofs”. But he rediscovered it (and his brother apologised) as a young adult. Did he carry any of those hang-ups with him or worry that his camper performances might discourage offers for more macho roles?
“Oh, no. I don’t care about any of that,” he says. “I think it’s the silliest thing ever. It’s crazy. I grew up at the time when the women danced on a dancefloor in a circle and the men stood on the outside with a beer and I was like: what are you guys doing over here? The women are all down there with their handbags in the centre dancing around. I’m like: this is easy pickings, there’s not one man on the dancefloor!”
Jackman has long enjoyed a reputation as one of Hollywood’s nicest A-listers, to the extent that he has to deny it. “I’m not always nice,” he says. “I’ve had my moments on set, for sure, when I haven’t been nice. And I’ve behaved sometimes on set where I’ve yelled a bit or done something where I’ve been angry that I’m not proud of.”
Once more, he looks to the lessons of his father. “I had a great example, particularly from my father, of always trying to be respectful. Everyone is trying their hardest. And my experience is if you turn up, you give everything, you act respectfully, then that’s generally what you get from other people.”
The Son is in UK cinemas from 10 February
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