After a decade and a half of donning the mutton chops and claws, Hugh Jackman has yet to tire of Wolverine, his most famous alter ego. In fact, the actor finds himself warming more to the Marvel superhero with each passing year.
“It was 1999 [when I first played Wolverine] and I am enjoying playing him more than ever,” says Jackman, 44. “I was just reflecting on why would that be. Wolverine is somewhere between 250 and 300 years old, and on some of the four o’clock mornings [on the set], I felt 300 years old, too.
“But, really, I do believe that me being a little older has [helped me understand him].”
Another reason Jackman feels so warmly toward Wolvie at the moment is that he’s just finished digging deep into the character for “The Wolverine,” the second attempt after 2009’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” to feature the superhero in a stand-alone movie.
While the earlier film was an origin story, this time around, the action is set years after the other entries in the franchise, including 2006’s “X-Men: Last Stand” and 2011’s “X-Men: First Class.”
The plot is drawn directly from a popular “X-Men” comic. The ageless, self-healing Wolverine is lured to Japan and offered a shot at mortality. But nothing goes as planned for the superhero, and soon he’s battling mutant villains Silver Samurai (Will Yun Lee) and Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) as well as tangling with the Japanese mafia and clashing with deadly ninjas.
For Jackman, the real draw of the project was the chance to plumb the depths of the Clawed One’s psyche, in hopes of finally understanding what makes the edgy superhero tick.
“With this script…we are focusing on [Wolverine] and his journey towards intimate and more interior stories,” says the actor.
“This isn’t wall-to-wall mutants and people flying around, and lasers coming out of eyes. This is a real, true character story.”
Key to the film’s evolution, notes Jackman, is the presence of director James Mangold. While Mangold has directed action-thrillers like “3:10 To Yuma” and “Knight and Day,” he’s best known for hardcore dramas like “Walk The Line,” “Girl, Interrupted” and “Copland.”
“Having someone like Jim onboard [was a big plus],” says Jackman. “He not only gave the action an unbelievable creativity and originality, but he also made it a true drama so you could see that human side and the vulnerabilities of Wolverine.”
Amazingly, Jackman has been longing to send Wolverine to Japan since 1999 when he first read the comic on which the movie is based. The actor was smuggled the book while he was shooting the Bryan Singer-directed original.
“Bryan Singer actually had this mandate that no one could read comic books on the set because when he was creating the first ‘X-Men’ movie, he wanted it to be really human and three-dimensional, and he was worried that actors would come on set with an over-the-top performance and be two-dimensional,” recalls Jackman.
Since the comics were banned by Singer, all of the actors wanted to read them. “We were passing them around, and I remember being handed this comic book, and it was like contraband,” recalls the actor with a laugh. “After I read it, I said to the producer that it would make a great [movie].”
Initially, Jackman imagined the plot would provide the basis for an “X-Men” flick, but then he began thinking that the story would be even better for a Wolverine movie.
“This idea of taking Wolverine to a place that’s completely foreign and making him completely unhinged and not knowing who anyone is – it’s a great [plot] because he’s a natural outsider,” says Jackman. “I think the customs, the atmosphere, the history, and the samurai codes of honor are the opposite of Wolverine, so it’s just the perfect place to bring that character.”
Initially, it looked like “The Wolverine” might not end up reaching the screen at all. Originally, the film was scheduled to start production in April 2011 with Darren Aronofsky directing. But then “The Wrestler” helmer dropped out, and Mangold was brought onboard.
Jackman had already worked with Mangold on “Kate and Leopold” and was a fan of the filmmaker’s work. “Jim said to me in our very first phone conversation about ‘Wolverine’ that he was thinking, tonally, the film should [resemble] ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales.’” Immediately, I knew we were going create something different.
“We didn’t want it to feel like any other Wolverine movie or any other comic book movie. We weren’t worried about the ratings; we just wanted to bring this character to life.”
But as jazzed as Jackman was about Mangold, the loss of Aronofsky forced the movie to be pushed back. So, “Wolverine” had to wait until Jackman went off to the UK to shoot his starring turn in “Les Miserables,” which wound up netting the actor his first Oscar nod.
In retrospect, Jackman is glad that “The Wolverine” was delayed. It not only gave him more time to get into good shape thanks to grueling, three-hour workouts and a diet of five-chicken-breasts a day, but it allowed Mangold to polish the script and intensify the role played by Japanese supermodel (and first-time actress) Tao Okamoto.
“Women are sort of Wolverine’s Achilles heel, and in this movie, we have a predominance of women, including [Okamoto] and Famke [Janssen], who’s back [as Jean Grey] and plays such a key role in this movie. It was fantastic because in such a short time, we got to explore their relationship more than ever.”
While the majority of the movie was shot in Jackman’s native Australia, the production spent a number of weeks shooting in Japan. Jackman brought his entire family along with him, including his wife of 17 years, Aussie actress Deborra-Lee Furness, and their two kids, Oscar and Ava.
One of the highlights of Jackman’s tenure in the country was the day he and his son visited Mount Fuji. Afterward, he enjoyed eight different kinds of baths, all set at different temperatures. At one point, recalls the actor, he was relaxing in a steaming bath and using a washcloth he was handed to dab himself with cold water.
“I was getting really strange looks. I was the only [Caucasian], and I thought that maybe I wasn’t meant to be there. Finallym this guy in the next tub looks at me and I realize the washcloth was meant to be covering my privates. Here, I had spent about an hour waltzing around with it on my head and a beer in my hand.”
At the moment, Jackman is waltzing around Montreal, where he’s reprising Wolverine yet again for next summer’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” the latest chapter of the X-Men saga. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen co-star and Bryan Singer is back behind the camera.
Playing Wolverine for the seventh time has given the actor even more respect for the dark, iconic character.
“Wolverine was one of the first anti-heroes,” notes Jackman. “He had claws and could heal himself, but his real defining characteristic is his berserker rage. He may not have, on paper, the greatest powers, but he is the last person you want to piss off.
“He’s the person you want on your side and that’s what makes him formidable. That’s why I think teenagers particularly relate to him because there is confusion, emotion, and unresolved anger there.
“That’s what makes the X-Men comic really interesting and why audiences have loved the series and why it has lasted so long as a movie thing. All these characters, they somehow use [their] dysfunction and pain [as] their strength… You can call it darkness, but I really think it’s just complexity.”