LOS ANGELES – Is there anything that Hugh Jackman can’t do?
The man sings, dances, shifts from action hero in “Wolverine” to a musical film lead in “Les Miserables”—and is very good at any of these.
“I’m terrible at saying no,” claimed Hugh, dapper in a gray suit at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York. He also admitted, “I’m a double booker, much to the chagrin of my wife. I am incredibly vague and very forgetful. I am the world’s worst handyman. I can drink coffee but I can’t make it. There’s a long list and if you want to speak to my kids, the list will get even stronger.”
Anne Hathaway told us about her “Les Mis” costar in another interview: “Hugh is not supposed to exist. You’re not supposed to be that macho, that tender and that athletic, and be able to sing. At some point, you figure there’s got to be some clumsy gene inside of him but there’s just not. Although he has a very light touch, he takes things very seriously.”
The actor can even putter around in the kitchen. “I really love cooking,” said Hugh. “Both my parents are incredible cooks. So I grew up with them cooking a lot. We have a little thing that whoever was not working would cook. So when Deb (his wife of 16 years) was working more, I cooked. Lately, I’ve been working more so I have not been in the kitchen a lot. I like cooking Indian. I go to the market, get all that stuff from scratch. To me, it’s like an all-day event. The smells in the house are just amazing.”
You have heard that director Tom Hooper’s “Les Mis” finally showcases Hugh’s singing talents. Crooning comes naturally to the multitalented Aussie. He quipped: “I sing every day.” It drives them (his family) crazy.”
Hugh sang a scale and said, with a grin: “It starts in the shower. My kids (he has two) are complaining about it, ‘Please, dad, enough. Stop with the scales.’ We’re a very musical family. There’s always music on and we’re usually always singing. My wife sings a lot, too.”
Asked what kind of songs he favors, Hugh said: “I have an eclectic taste in music. But my wife generally chooses what music to play in the house. She always has music on—from Barbra Streisand, which is fantastic, to Yanni. She likes that kind of music. So, at our parties, our friends always bring the music. It’s like, ‘Deb, please.’ ”
While Hugh as Jean Valjean in “Les Mis” recently earned a Golden Globe best actor in a comedy/musical nomination, he admitted that there was a point when doubts engulfed him.
“My wife was visiting about three weeks before we filmed,” he recalled. “I had a particularly bad day at the rehearsals. I remember seeing, out of the corner of my eye, Claude-Michel (Schonberg, the musical’s composer) walk out of the room. I was like, ‘This is not good.’ It turned out he was frustrated with something else.”
Hugh added: “But at first, I interpreted it like [Claude-Michel asking], ‘Why was this guy cast? This is a disaster.’ I went home and said to Deb, ‘I think I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. I’m a little bit worried now.’ She said, ‘You go through this on every job at one point, usually about three weeks before [filming].’ I forget that bit. She said, ‘If you don’t feel that way playing this role, then you’re not meant to be playing Jean Valjean … it’s demanding more of you than you’ve had before and you should be a little bit nervous. You need to work harder than you’ve ever worked before.’ Luckily, by the end of that, she talked me off the cliff. That’s where Deb is so incredible.”
But before landing the plum role, Hugh fought hard to win it. “I was very aggressive in chasing the role,” he stressed. “I’ve never been so aggressive going for something. I rang Tom Hooper before he’d even signed on to the picture. He was like, ‘Mate, this is a bit premature.’ I said, ‘No, I want to talk to you.’ I went for it and then I got it. It was that moment of ‘Oh now I’ve got to do it.’ I knew I had the role for a long time, probably seven or eight months before we shot. So I had a long time to prepare.”
On a visit to the “Les Mis” set in the United Kingdom last May, we observed how Hugh sang live during the film’s barricade scene. In the New York interview, we asked him about Hooper’s decision to let the actors sing live, not lip-synch to prerecorded tracks.
“When I first saw the movie, it hit me—the risk he took,” Hugh said of his director’s pioneering gamble. “First of all, what if someone got sick? We were shooting in London in the winter. It was a lot of risk to take. But if you think about it, his reasoning was perfect. The entire movie is sung. There may be 100 spoken words. So the alternative is to dub the entire movie. Or lip-synch an entire movie, which would have been incredibly difficult and restraining to us actors.”
He cited one compelling reason for the actors to sing live. “The very one thing Tom wanted was to hold closeups and for the audience to feel that it’s immediate, present, natural and really happening,” Hugh said. “So, as an actor, I was so happy that Tom was doing it. It was challenging, of course. When you’re on top of a mountain or doing a night shoot, singing at 3:00 in the morning—there were many things that were difficult. But the benefits far outweighed any challenges.”
Hugh said that playing Jean Valjean offered more hurdles than being Wolverine. “It’s a very different character to me,” he said. “‘Les Mis’ was this set of challenges like I’ve never had before. And usually all at once. So, at the end of every day was a mixture of complete exhaustion. I had to be very aware of taking care of myself vocally because we’d be singing the next day. My routine would be to warm down in the trailer, just take a minute. I would meditate. When I go home, I would usually not speak. I would steam my voice. I would often find myself just sitting on a chair. I got into jigsaw puzzles. I’ve never been into jigsaw puzzles before. Now, I’m hooked on them. I needed, in a way, to go beyond the meditation to unravel my mind.”
Hugh also had to face the physical demands of slimming down for the film’s early scenes in which Valjean was a prisoner. “I spent a long time losing weight,” he said. “I still had to be in the gym because unfortunately, just skinny is fine, but he still had to appear to be a strong man. So I was in the gym but on a very restricted diet. In the first scene, I didn’t have water or any liquid for 30 hours before that. That was a trick I had heard from bodybuilders. What it does is really sink in your cheeks, eyes and things like those. It wasn’t the most fun day on the set, I’ll admit.”
In a way, the heroic, generous Valjean reminds him of his father, Chris Jackman, according to Hugh. “I had an unbelievable example of unselfishness in my father,” Hugh said. “My mother left when I was quite young. My father brought up five of us. I don’t think he ever had a minute to himself for probably a decade. I never heard him say a bad word about anyone or ever complain. Or say, ‘Don’t you know what I do for you?’ Not ever. So I feel grateful to my father.”
He added: “And when you’re playing someone like Jean Valjean, it pretty much reminds you daily that you have a long way to go. I mean, walking back into this luxury trailer, including every break, it always felt like, hmmm, I don’t think Jean Valjean would be going back to this trailer. He’d be saying to the extras, ‘You guys use it. You need it more.’ So there were constant reminders.”
Having a stage actor in the cast was an extra treat. “The guy who plays the bishop is Colm Wilkinson, who originally and very famously played Jean Valjean on stage,” Hugh said. “It was a pinch-yourself kind of moment for me to be acting opposite Colm.”
Hugh pondered how Valjean resonated with his own self: “He’s someone who has this incredible example of love and mercy from the bishop at the beginning that he’s trying to live up to. And partly because he’s being constantly reminded of his past by Javert (the ruthless policeman played by Russell Crowe), I think he feels that no matter what he does, he’s falling slightly short, till right at the very end.
“One thing I learned from Valjean is I am bit like that. I’m quite hard on myself … I think one of the greatest things I learned from Valjean and particularly his journey is accepting that you fall short—accepting humanity, mistakes and in other people as well.”
E-mail the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at http://twitter.com/nepalesruben.