Jackman explores the dark side in ‘Prisoners’
First Posted: 9/30/2013
For Hugh Jackman, it’s no more Mr. Nice Guy.
Sure, he’s had plenty of opportunities to show off Wolverine’s famous “berserker rage” in the “X-Men” movies. But when he’s not playing the Clawed One, Jackman is almost always typecast as a good guy.
Think “Kate and Leopold,” “Someone Like You,” and “Australia.” Heck, in “Les Misérables,” he played a man so saintly, he might have worn a halo.
“When I started out as an actor, the first movie I did in Australia was ‘Erskineville Kings,’ which was very dark in its own way,” says Jackman. “Look, the danger for any actor is a label. ‘You’re a nice guy.’ Whenever anyone says that to me, I just let it go because I am completely capable – and often capable – of not being nice.”
Jackman has just the movie to back up those claims. In “Prisoners,” he morphs, over the course of seven or eight stressful days, from a kindly suburban Pennsylvania carpenter to a vengeance-seeking kidnapper.
The action begins on Thanksgiving, when his six-year-old daughter (Erin Gerasimovich) goes missing along with the seven-year-old daughter (Kyla Drew Simmons) of neighbors (Viola Davis, Terrence Howard). The only clue is that earlier in the day the girls were seen playing around a camper owned by a greasy-haired oddball (Paul Dano, whose father was born and raised in Scranton).
When a police detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) admits he doesn’t have enough evidence to hold the suspect, Jackman takes matters into his own hands and kidnaps Dano, whom he begins to “interrogate” in hopes of finding out the girls’ whereabouts.
“Terrence Howard actually vomited in that [interrogation] scene,” recalls Jackman. “We went to a place that was really intense. We had to go to some really intense places in this movie.”
If early reaction is any indication, all of that intensity paid off. In a rave review of the film for Variety, critic Scout Foundas wrote that “Prisoners” is “a spellbinding, sensationally effective thriller with a complex moral center.”
It was just that “complex moral center” which originally intrigued Jackman, the father of two children with actress Deborra-Lee Furness, his wife of 17 years.
“This movie exists in the fact that there is no right answer, that there is always collateral damage, that [revenge] is not easy, that there is moral ambiguity. This is life. Very rarely do we see [that ambiguity] in the cinema, and very rarely do we get an opportunity to see it in a thriller. And you get a chance to ruminate on that long after you’ve left the theater.”
No other fictional scenario could hit Jackman quite as hard as a parent being unable to save his child.
“We’ve all been parented, and we’ve all known that feeling of completely relying on someone,” says the actor. “That’s really what this is about… It is maddening to be a father in that situation, just knowing that your kid can’t understand why you’re not there for them.
“The child is not thinking, ‘Why aren’t the police here? Why isn’t the ambulance coming to find me? Why isn’t the government helping out?’ They’re innocent and they rely on you for everything. So this is elemental to everybody because we’ve all been parented or had some experience of that. I think that’s why the movie resonates.”
In addition to wanting to work with Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies”), Jackman was also fascinated with the challenge of playing a character who undergoes an enormous transformation over the course of two and a half hours.
“What I think is great about the movie is that during the first few minutes, you see these nice, happy families having Thanksgiving dinner,” says Jackman. “If you could walk past, you wouldn’t see anything abnormal. One event happens and look what happens to those people. They become polar opposites.”
For Jackman one of the keys to unlocking the film’s mysteries was understanding what would happen to his character if he went days, even a week, without sleep.
“In this situation, the idea is that to sleep is to fail your child, in a way. It’s impossible to just go and rest. We looked into that and what would happen if you don’t [sleep]…and it’s why misjudgments happen. People make mistakes.”
During much of the movie, Jackman is clad in long-sleeved shirts and coats. The wardrobe choices were intentional, notes the actor.
“Denis wanted me completely covered up the whole time because he didn’t want people thinking of Wolverine. I think that’s vital because the nature of the violence in this is unsettling. It’s not glorified in any way, and there is a certain element to comic book movies where we enjoy the violence and we go for it sometimes.
“This movie [was meant] to feel [different]. It’s like when I first saw a fight in Australia. I remember going to a pub with my friends and a fight spilled out on the street. It was really violent and it was sickening to watch and listen to. I can still remember the sound of it. Real violence is unsettling. And that’s what Denis wanted in this film.”
Throughout his career, Jackman has bounced back and forth between popcorn fare like the “X-Men” movies and more thoughtful films like “The Fountain” and “Les Misérables.” He’s also worked extensively on stage, playing Curly in “Oklahoma” and Peter Allen in “The Boy from Oz.”
“It’s great,” he says of having the opportunity to continually change up. “It helps to jump from film to theater. I think weirdly, for me, it makes me better for the other. You might think that if you’re going to do one art form, you should just stick to that and get better and better but, for me, the wider the range of characters and the wider the range of genres and places I act, the more it helps me with the others.
“If I’m on film, I do better on stage, and if I’m on stage, I do better going back to film. I like it. It’s something I love about the business – the variety.”
Ever since he took up acting, Jackman insists he’s only had one goal.
“I just wanted to be able to pay the rent. I always thought, ‘If I can pay the rent as an actor, I’ll be OK,’ because I knew that 95 percent of actors can’t pay the rent, so I thought if I could pay the rent, that would be amazing.
“Maybe I should have set goals, but if I had set goals 20 years ago, I wouldn’t have done almost everything that I’ve done in my career. Sometimes goals can be limiting… I think I’ve just stayed open to opportunities. I’ve tried to go with the flow.”