Hugh Jackman was – at first – the replacement Wolverine. Stepping in for the contractually tied-up Dougray Scott, Jackman got the key role in the X-Men franchise that would come to define his career. Now with Real Steel, Jackman’s star-charisma is being used outside of Wolverine for a feel-good robot-boxing movie, that is an against-the-odds winner of a movie. Jackman has a repuation of being a class act, and he couldn’t have been more gracious in our interview, as he talked about the film, his continuing role in the X-Men franchise, and more. Check it out…
In Real Steel I was reminded of Iron Giant for a minute when he first realizes that maybe Atom knows what’s going on.
Is that what you think? That’s interesting to me.
When Dakota’s character is looking at Atom and then Atom just starts moving around.
But he has the shadow function so whenever he moves the robot moves.
Yeah but he’s like ‘You understand me?’
That says a lot about you. See there’s some journalist in me now. (Laughs)
So what’s your take on it?
My take is no, no it’s a robot but it does have some kind of like — it has a version of heart. Even the way my character says “He takes a lot of hits,” that way that he keeps getting up. It never is conclusive, I really applaud the way Shawn — I’m sure for a movie that does play for such a broad audience it’s very tempting to make a clear choice, especially for kids. Ironically what has happened is kids like my daughter, my son will tell you until the cows come home that that robot’s alive, that it knows what’s going on.
And for people who are “young at heart” shall we say want it because that boy sees Atom as his life-line. He’s lost his father, he’s essentially not there, his mother’s dead, that robot to him represents everything until his father comes back to life. So emotionally you can understand why he does that and so Shawn is allowed some people to go through that journey as well or other people there’s nothing conclusive about it which was a huge decision by the way making the movie.
Now in the movie they used actual robots because Steven Spielberg thought it was a good idea. You’ve done the green screen, you’ve done all the action stuff, what do you prefer?
First of all there was no green screen. Even when it wasn’t real robots, all the robot boxing had been choreographed, shot and partly kind of rendered before we did it so I could watch it and knew exactly what it was. Having the real robots meant for me, in particularly for Dakota (Goyo) there was no leap of imagination on “what’s this going to look like.” We had the robots on set there and the guys in green suits up there doing it.
The most difficult scene that I had was a scene where I’m shadowboxing with Atom outside the lawn of the motel so I’m actually doing that with Eddie Davenport – who’s wearing a green suit with sensors all over him and stilts pretending to be a robot. I was told that if we were not in complete sync that it’s very very difficult to change the visual and very expensive, so we worked on that like we were a synchronized swimming team.
How does it feel being taught by Sugar Ray Leonard?
Great, I was a little star-struck meeting him and I had to say — last February we went to the Superbowl to promote the movie with Sugar Ray. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the Superbowl, they have a ballroom that’s filled with press, they camp out there all week. There are some of the biggest football stars around and you go around with Sugar Ray and these guys just turn into mush, they just turn into little kids.
He’s helped me so much with the boxing, and what it’s like to be a boxer. I was trying to trace through what it would be like for someone like (my character) Charlie whose livelihood has always been boxing – I always thought of Charlie as not educated, a little kid who thankfully found boxing at the right time otherwise he would’ve been in jail. That was his life and now it’s rendered useless, he’s been discarded from that and he’s trying to make a living in this new kind of world. I said to Leonard “You were the champion of the world, what it’s like when you give it up? How do you find that? What happens?” He talked about the sacrifices he made as a boxer family-wise and the loneliness, the difficulty. He talked about being a corner man – which is essentially what my part is – and he really gave me a lot of gull, pure gull.
Was the experience of making the film different than you thought it would be?
Yeah, better. As I read it I was like “Is this going to be cumbersome? Is this going to be slow?” Generally with visual effects everything slows down and I saw that last fight, I read that and I loved it on the page but thought “We’re going to be there for six weeks shooting this.” It’s so complicated and there’s so much with the shadowboxing on the outside, the fighting in the ring, and the crowd. But we never felt bogged down. Then – to be honest – the biggest things I had with the film was that I didn’t think the film would work at all if there wasn’t a connection between me and whoever played Max. That was Dakota (Goyo) and he’s one of the greatest actors I’ve worked with. Shawn (Levy) became one of my closest friends, and that’s rare. He’s a great director.
That’s what I was going to ask you about the chemistry between the kid, how do you feel about the beginning how it was and –
It was always good. He’s a very polite boy, very well brought up and hopefully I’m a little nicer to kids than I appear in this film. So both of us needed to be needled by Shawn and we hung out together a lot. The thing for me was that I had to remind myself and him that I’m not an adult, we’re like buddies. Not even buddies, we’re just contemporaries, so I never wanted him to feel overwhelmed or like “I better let him decide” if he wanted to ad-lib something. I would say to him “Do you want to do another take? Is there anything you want to do?” and he’d say “Yeah I thought maybe we could do this” and I’d say “Let’s just do it!” I wanted him to feel like he was as much in charge of the scenes as me and Shawn, well – I helped him but really Shawn mentored him. That boy’s life is forever changed with working with Shawn because Shawn is gifted with younger actors and really brought out the best in him.
Anthony Mackie called you the captain of the team, is that something you’ve chosen to do when you make a movie?
Yeah I’m a little old school in that way. I do think you need someone to marshal the troops, set a tone, set a way of working and normally I would probably be more of that if it’s not someone like Shawn because a lot of directors are not how you would imagine. They’re not Cecil B. Demile at all, they’re quiet as they stare at their monitors and some of them – like Woody Allen, for example – never says a thing. You would believe he was the second grip’s assistant the way he sits off the side in the corner. So Shawn is old school, he is the leader, he’s producer. I was a studio head he’d be a dream. He’s never over time, never over budget, he communicates a hundred percent, he’s right by the camera = his energy. So I had to be less of a captain.
So when did you know or did you ever feel that this project was special?
Probably two or three weeks in. We didn’t really shoot the fighting sequences, those big fighting sequences, till the end. So it was pretty much just all drama. It’s relationship story or a road movie between this father and son and the stuff with Bailey (Evangeline Lilly) and I was drawn into it. Watching it back I would find it would bring a kind of tear to my eye. I find it hard to watch myself but I was drawn into that relationship of father and son.
How related do you feel to Charlie?
In many ways we’re very different, Charlie’s a “put all the chips on one number” all-or-nothing kind of guy and I’m not. I’m much more even balanced and as my wife says I’m very even-steven. I’m much more of a pack horse than Charlie is, Charlie’s like just go for it all the time. I think, however I always feel empathy in a way for Charlie because Charlie takes big risks and there’s been points in my life where I’ve taken big risks which have kind of worked out for me. But if those things had not worked out for me…
The very first time I sung publicly I was asked to sing the national anthem at a big Rugby game in Australia, millions of people watching it, a hundred thousand people in the stadium and I had a panic attack the night before, I was terrified because I had in my head, right or wrong, if I screw this up it’s over and I was terrified. I had seen people booed off singing the national anthem badly and never work again because Australia’s a small place. So it was like our Superbowl and I was petrified.
Now if I had been booed off, if things had not gone well, I know I wouldn’t be here today, I know it. Life is fragile, you have to really never take anything for granted. Charlie is someone who has good intentions. He’s tried his best, he kept failing at the wrong time and eventually it hurt too much so he shuts down. And all of us are prone to that at some point in time and I think it’s good to remember that.
You were talking about how nervous you were when it came to singing the national anthem. Do you still have that kind of nervousness?
No, I’ve never been that scared again.
No, that was fifteen years ago. July 26, 1996, I still remember it. My wife we’d planned a month’s holiday and it was the worst holiday of my life because the entire month I was just petrified of this day. It’s great to have those moments, to get through them, and that’s why I’m saying if that had not gone well I may never have had the confidence to do other things. Without that moment I would have never hosted the Oscars, wouldn’t have had that confidence.
In Hollywood nothing’s ever for sure but do you get nervous when a project like say Wolverine has these obstacles and then things don’t happen. Do you ever get nervous on that?
Frustrated. I get frustrated.
Do you get nervous that maybe this shouldn’t happen, that it’s an omen or something like that?
No, my experience particularly with X-Men, I don’t know why but there’s never been an easy ride. And one thing I learned in Australia is when you first get on a horse, first impressions don’t matter. Sometimes the most uncomfortable first ride can end up becoming the best ride of your life so you’ve got to just stick with it and trust your instincts about why you’re doing it and know that any movie that gets made is a miracle. Somehow, I mean I can’t tell you how many reasons or potholes that could derail any movie and it’s so miraculous it gets made and gets out there. So I never really take it for granted, it’s an exciting business to be in and I’m glad I’m on this side of the camera cause the other side I’d want to slit my wrists.
What was it like working with Evangeline Lilly?
I don’t know if you guys know but she’s famous for saying no to things in Hollywood, she turns down almost anything. Lost was the first audition she ever did and I think she did it as a joke or a laugh.
Right. (Laughs) Now she’s been in this show for seven years and has done one other movie, The Hurt Locker and she said yes to this because she really loved the emotion. She brought so much to it. There was a lot more to that part and that relationship and often you hear people talk saying “You know we’re going to create something where you guys are kind of at each other’s throats but we secretly see that you’re in love with each other” and you go “Yeah, yeah.” I’ve heard it before but it’s rare to actually kind of achieve that and I think she was a big reason why we did.
Do you think there’s going to be a sequel?
I don’t know but it’s not the right time to be talking about it. We need to concentrate. It’s kind of like the week before the Superbowl saying “You think you’ll be in the Superbowl next year?” I know it’s being written and I know in a way it’s planned and it’s been always there. I have signed on for one if there is but none of us involved are thinking beyond October 6th. That’s not the mentality you have.
So if there was a memorable moment for you what would it be from working on this project?
I always remembered that moment of standing with Shawn at the monitor watching Dakota in that final scene. It’s in slow motion of the film but when we were shooting live obviously it wasn’t in slow motion where he’s watching Atom and suddenly he looks over at Charlie his father. I was already always kind of in love with this kid, with Dakota and I have such affection for him. A tear rolls down his eye and all of us were like — because that proved to me what this movie was about. In a way this kid is putting all his hopes into Atom but really what he wants is a dad. He sees his father coming to life in that moment and it melts him. I’ll never forget that moment, it was great.
Is that really you on Twitter?
I’ve started on Twitter recently. I’ve come to it like a commitment-phobe, so yes I have been doing it now for the last four months or so. I started on Twitter and I started posting things and my publicist rang me one Sunday night and said “You just posted your home address on Twitter.” I said “What do you mean?” and she says “Look at that picture you just took” because my daughter’s swimming in the fountain outside my house with her friend, and I didn’t want to show her face because it was so cute to me and I didn’t realize I put my street name. So she said “From now on you must send me everything you post.” So what I do is I do a tweet and I send it to her and then she forwards it on.
What’s next for you?
I’m going to Broadway to do a one-man show for ten weeks, do some real sweating. Then I go and do the movie version of Les Miserables, the musical that Tom Hooper’s directing. Russell Crowe, myself and I can’t tell you who some of the others are. It’s very close, I think it’ll come out tomorrow and then Wolverine. I have an eclectic year ahead.
Are you particularly excited for The Wolverine because it seems like Wolvie’s more or less an extension of you at this point because you’ve been playing him for practically a decade. You are Wolverine at this point.
I play it at home obviously. (Laughs) For parental control it really helps, trust me. So yes I’m very excited for it and I’ve always thought the Japanese saga was the ultimate backdrop for a movie. From X-Men 1, when I first started reading the comics, because I’ve never read them before… I don’t want to give away too much. You know, by the way, that saga is quite disparate. There are some that have got the wedding and the X-Men involved. And I’ve been waiting to make this movie all year so there’s been many reasons why I’m so ready to make it.
Speaking of Wolverine, you worked with Kevin Durand there. Were you instrumental in getting him cast?
No, it just happened and I was so thrilled because he’s fantastic in the part. The way he follows it through the end and he’s such a great actor. We first knew of each other on Broadway because he was doing Tom Sawyer when I was getting ready to do The Boy from Oz. In a way we have similar backgrounds, we have a kind of bit of a kindred spirit and I think he is a phenomenally talented actor that is yet to get the roles he deserves so I’m really happy to see him. Everything he does he’s great and I’m happy to see him in this but hopefully next time I see him in a movie he’ll be the lead.
You work on movies and you do a lot of stage work, do you feel like it’s a different gear?
It’s a slightly different gear for sure. But for me each one sharpens the other. It’s like — it’s essentially acting is the same thing, but it requires slightly different muscles and there’s something about theater with the discipline of the theater that no matter what’s going on in your life, eight times a week that you need to be on. They pay eight hundred bucks for a ticket, they don’t care what’s going on with your day, they don’t care about that. You need to be at a hundred percent, it’s one take effectively and that’s always great for film. I find that if I’ve been on stage and I go back to a film and I’m much more on it.
Just curious, did Steven Spielberg or Robert Zemeckis have a lot of input with you on this film?
Zemeckis I personally never spoke to at all. I rarely spoke with Steven because that would be wrong for him to talk with me, particularly he just needed to talk with Shawn and he mentored Shawn. Have you interviewed Shawn yet?
You should ask them what is the one intervention Steven did that made the most difference to this film. Like there’s a number and I don’t know why one he’ll tell but it’s a great example of co-producing. What Steven saw was this was, in fact I heard him quote it. He said “Shawn has made many, many successful movies but this is his first film.” It’s a big step up and it takes someone of Steven’s brilliance and his trust and ability to know a director to know what’s in them.
Did you watch any boxing movies as inspiration for this film?
I watched Rocky again, I watched Raging Bull.
Did you put a little Jake LaMotta in your performance?
(Laughs) No, it’s more — what’s always surprising about Rocky is first of all how little of fighting is in it and still how engaging it is, how inspirational it is and how far you can take a character and still be rooting for him. He’s not a great guy at the beginning of that movie.
Real Steel opens October 7. Check it out.