Director, script, variety: how Hugh Jackman picks his roles

Versatile Australian known for Wolverine role in X-Men franchise plays capricious pirate Blackbeard in Peter Pan origin story Pan, and says he was drawn to role by film's 'visionary' director Joe Wright

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 October, 2015, 2:10pm
UPDATED : Friday, 02 October, 2015, 11:26am

Hugh Jackman  was a little tired, but had given himself an energy boost by spending a few minutes meditating in the car on the way over to our interview on a recent Saturday morning.

“What happens in your brain when you meditate is a kind of rest you don’t get when you sleep,” says Jackman, a longtime proponent of Transcendental Meditation. “It doesn’t matter what race or religion you are. You don’t even have to believe in it, and it still works. It gives you more energy, creatively opens you up, brings down stress levels.”

On the eve of the global release of the widely anticipated Pan, starring Jackman,  the versatile Australian actor will need all the moments of relaxation he can squeeze in.

Pan, directed by British director Joe Wright  (Pride  & Prejudice,  Atonement),  is a live-action prequel to the story of Peter Pan first published in 1911  by J. M. Barrie  under the original title Peter and Wendy.  It has since seen a multitude of adaptations – books, comics, radio shows, plays, TV versions, video games, operas – and, of course, movies.

The new film is not another reimagining, but is instead an inventive back story: How did Peter Pan become the boy who would never grow up? How did Captain Hook become so evil? And who, exactly, are the Lost Boys?

“If Joe [Wright] had wanted to do another Peter Pan, I would have done that, too,” says Jackman. “He’s enough of an original, and he would have only done it if he had a genuine reason to do it, not because it’s been so many years since the last one and the market could stand it.”

But this approach, he says, was much more compelling. Jackman was brought on to play Blackbeard,  the infamous British pirate who terrorised the islands around the West Indies in the late 1600s and early  1700s.

Blackbeard, while a major character in the Pirates of the Caribbean  franchise, barely rates a mention in Barrie’s Peter Pan. Still, screenwriter Jason Fuchs,  who wrote Ice Age: Continental Drift,  and has the upcoming Wonder Woman  to his credit as well, has made Blackbeard a lead character and villainous counterpoint to the innocent Peter, who only wants to find his mother.

Peter is played by Australian newcomer Levi Miller,  whose taped audition in Brisbane was circulated around the world to the powers-that-be: with good reason, too – he brings both a wide-eyed wonder and a steely determination to his character.

In the film, he’s lived in a miserable post-war London orphanage his whole life, until one night he and the other boys are kidnapped and taken to the fantastical world that is Neverland. As the story unfolds, he sets off to find the mother who abandoned him years earlier, eventually allying himself with Tiger Lily  (Rooney Mara)  and a very earnest and likeable James Hook  (Garrett Hedlund)  to battle the dreaded Blackbeard.

“It’s a very different story with the same characters,” says Jackman. “We are getting to know how they became the characters we know. The plot is completely different. And in Joe’s hands, there’s a real joy in discovering that world and a real intelligence that the writer puts in the story you know and this movie.”

Because this is an origins movie, there was no real limit to what Wright could do. As the opening sequence announces: “I’m going to tell you a story about a boy who would never grow up. But this isn’t the story you’ve heard before. ... Sometimes, to truly understand how things end, we must first know how they begin.”

Blackbeard is, of course, as villainous and treacherous as expected – and in Jackman’s capable hands also has an almost beguiling lunacy. “There’s one line about Blackbeard in the book,” says Jackman, “that Hook learned his trade as a boatswain from Blackbeard. That’s it.”

Still, it was enough of a jumping-off point for Jackman, who undertook other avenues of research. “He was a real eccentric,” he says. “He had a short run of infamy that lasted about  11 months, but at one point had two hundred to three hundred pirate ships underneath him. It was almost like an army. He became very powerful until he was chased out and eventually killed.”

Through his research, Jackman discovered that the man he would spend eight months on a set playing also “created an aura around himself”. “He was incredibly wealthy at one point. He was a classic criminal. He could do anything.”

In the way Jackman plays him on screen, Blackbeard is now top dog of the pirates; he’s got the better of the natives of Neverland and the fairies. “He’s sort of winning,” the actor says. “He’s controlling Neverland. But what makes him frightening is not his violence and brutality, but his unpredictability. One minute he’s friendly and warm and the next he’s a raging maniac.”

The visuals of the film are, as you might expect, lush and striking, filled with floating ships and a Tree Village stacked with Mongolian yurts, Inuit tupiqs  and circus tents. Parts of the film were shot on location in London’s Kensington Gardens and the Royal Albert Hall, and much of   it   on sound stages in London-area studios Leavesden  and Cardington.  

“Joe is a true visionary,” says Jackman. “It’s a great sign of the industry that we’re in when it will give hundreds of millions of dollars to filmmakers like him. It shows that this is still a place where there is genuine invention and risk-taking and art. Joe is an artist, first and foremost. He’s a big kid, too. And I love that someone with his inventiveness and visual style is given the canvas of Neverland.”

The part is another memorable one for Jackman, who has made his mark on the cultural landscape with his long-running part as Wolverine  in the X-Men  franchise.

He’s a multiple threat as well – he was nominated for an Oscar  for his role in Les Misérables  in 2013,  and won a Tony  for The Boy from Oz.  He can sing, dance, act, host, play the romantic lead as well as a menacing antagonist, and all with grace and charisma.

“When you begin, you take whatever you can get as an actor,” he says of his early days. “When you start getting choices you get pickier. For me, now, there are three things: the director, because a film is a director’s medium; and then the script. And then I love variety – going from a musical to a comedy to drama. It feeds me and keeps me hungry and improving.”

“I’m looking to do things I haven’t had a chance to do yet,” he adds.  

Pan opens on October 8