Originally created 05/10/04

Hugh Jackman battles monsters, belts out show tunes



NEW YORK -- Wanna meet Hugh Jackman? It's easy, though it could be expensive and a little embarrassing.

All you have to do is buy tickets for his Broadway musical "The Boy From Oz," preferably in the front row, and show up late, preferably after the first couple of numbers have come and gone.

You will undoubtedly find yourself on the receiving end of what has become Jackman's now-famous heckling.

That's where a group of four tardy women were during a recent matinee when Jackman - who remained flamboyantly in character as Australian singer-songwriter Peter Allen - forced them to stand up, swivel their hips and show the rest of the audience the fake Kate Spade purse one of them had just bought.

The foursome - and the audience - ate it up.

"I was a bit nervous about it at first. I mean, what if you start heckling someone who stumps you? And New Yorkers are pretty vocal," said Jackman, star of the upcoming movie "Van Helsing."

"Then after a while I kind of realized, it kind of doesn't matter if you come up with something that's not very funny. ... People just, I think, like the fact that you're going off the script and that you interact with them. And the effect on the show - I think it's made the audience more relaxed."

"Relaxed" is a great word to describe Jackman, too, even though the roles he's best known for are intense characters who couldn't be more different from one another.

The 35-year-old Australian actor was first seen by American audiences as the morose, metal-clawed mutant Wolverine in the first "X-Men" movie in 2000, a role he reprised in the 2003 sequel. In "Van Helsing," another big action movie opening Friday, he takes on Dracula, Frankenstein's monster and the Wolf Man.

But his background was in musical theater, most notably "Oklahoma!" in London. His stage charisma and booming voice led him to playing Allen, Liza Minnelli's first ex-husband, who wrote "I Honestly Love You" for Olivia Newton-John and "I Go to Rio" for himself before dying of AIDS in 1992.

The aerobically demanding role has earned Jackman universal rave reviews (though critics haven't been quite so kind to the show itself) and he's expected to be a nominee June 6 at the Tonys - which he happens to be hosting for the second consecutive year.

"I get people coming to the show, I know are only coming because they've seen me in 'X-Men.' ... I don't mind that. When I trained at acting school you do fencing, Shakespeare class, modern dance, circus school, all before lunch," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

"The Boy From Oz" director Phil McKinley said the on-stage ad-libbing began as a nod to Allen's interactive style.

"He has become brilliant at it and the audience loves it," McKinley said.

McKinley, who called Jackman "a director's dream," said he envisions Jackman continuing to cross back and forth between film and stage, and ultimately doing solo concerts. "He's going to have this amazing career where he truly will be an all-around superstar performer."

"Van Helsing" writer-director Stephen Sommers said Jackman was the only actor he wanted to play the lead role.

"How many guys out there are that good-looking and that talented?" Sommers said. "It had to be a man, it couldn't be a boy. A lot of younger actors are really good but Van Helsing's kind of worldly - he's been around. He has to have some weight to him, yet he's not of Harrison Ford's age. There are not that many great-looking, super-talented guys in their early 30s."

One role Jackman turned down was Billy Flynn in the movie "Chicago," which earned Richard Gere a Golden Globe and would have given him a chance to do on film what he does so well on stage.

"I almost just said, 'I'm doing it,' because this might be my only chance to ever do a movie musical, which is a bit of a dream for me. But I kept getting to that line where he says, 'I've seen it all, kid.' And you could argue, 'Oh, they could change the line,' but that's integral to not only who he is but the balance," he said.

"You've got these two girls who are ambitious and rising and becoming the hot thing, and if the Billy Flynn is the same - if he is the hot shot, the new guy - I don't know, it's crazy. A 33-year-old lawyer is not a seasoned professional."

The youngest of five children, raised by their accountant father after their parents divorced and their mother moved to England when he was 8, Jackman initially studied to be a journalist. Then he realized he would have been too easygoing for the craft: "I think with journalism you've got to have that grab-onto-the-bone kind of mentality."

So if he was a reporter, what would he ask himself?

"The most interesting question is, why do you act?" he said. "I act because I have felt in acting some of the most free moments of my life. ... I think it's also one thing that scares me the most. I'm someone who can quite do a lot of things pretty well. I've always been that kind of guy. Not outstanding - I wasn't, like, at the top of my class. But I could hold my own in a lot of areas. I think by the time I was 22 and started to get into acting, I was shocked at how challenging it was. I was kind of the dunce of the class in acting school. And the essence of acting is knowing who you are. I didn't have any sense of who I was. ...

"I know I have a desire to be respected by people ... and I'm sure I've got attention issues," he said. "Maybe I need attention. I mean there's all those things, but I've never been to a therapist so I can't give you any independent confirmation about that. I'm sure there's lots of neuroses that I'm not admitting to."

Jackman said he's learned who he is by attending classes at New York's School of Practical Philosophy for the past decade.

At first he thought the philosophy course would improve his acting, "and then after about a year of doing the course, then I realized, the course or what I'm learning there is bigger than what I'm learning at acting school."

Fatherhood also has taught Jackman about himself. He and his wife, Australian actress Deborra-Lee Furness, have a son, Oscar, who turns 4 this month.

"I see why people have more and more kids because it kind of brings out more of yourself. I imagine, every kid you have, it makes your capacity for love even greater," he said.

"When you fall in love and you get married, it's such a relief. ... You're like, 'Oh, this feels so right and this woman is just so great and I love her.' And then you have a kid - it kind of just gets even bigger. And it's frustrating and it's tiring and all those things but your sense of, like, living life becomes so much bigger."