Best know to the world for his portrayal of X-Men's Wolverine, in terms of versatility Hugh Jackman is an actor with few peers. He is equally at home in a Broadway musical as he is an action thriller, a romantic comedy, an operatic period piece or a comic book superhero flick. In this months' Prisoner's, director Denis Villeneuve's pitch black crime drama, he reveals even greater depth to his talent, turning in the most emotionally raw performance of his career to date.
Jackman plays Keller Dover, a father whose tightly controlled world is shattered when his daughter is abducted. Keller is a man who trusts no one but himself to protect his family. And when he fails in that duty he is cast into a personal hell, driven to ever more violent extremes in an effort to get his daughter back. In pursuit of a monster, he becomes a monster himself. He's a complex, deeply flawed character, and it's a testament to Jackman's superb portrayal that he gives him not only credibility but humanity, too.
Empire spoke to Jackman at the Zurich International Film Festival where, following a red carpet screening of Prisoners, he accepted the festival's coveted Golden Icon Award.
Were you able to leave work behind at the end of the day, or was this a character who stayed with you?
I don't stay in character. But I can't say I was ever fully relaxed at the end of the day. It's a weird thing. Acting is kind of the greatest privilege; you get to inhabit lives and you get to touch real emotions; even though the situation is not real, you get to feel them. And at the end of the day you get to go home. You feel like you've just played a game of rugby and had a nice bath. But at the same time, you're thinking, Okay, I've got to climb that mountain again tomorrow. With Prisoners, it wasn't like there was one emotionally draining day, there were sixty of them.
You must have known it was going to be a very intense role to play. Why were you so drawn to it?
I loved the script. I thought it was an unconventional thriller and I hadn't done a movie like this, one that was gripping and thrilling and entertaining and a whodunit with all the twists and turns. It was also ambitious in that it wanted to move people and it wanted to be thought-provoking. I felt it had some very important things to say about the nature of violence. I've done seven movies playing Wolverine where the violence is celebrated, people go to see the violence, they clap and cheer it. And it is what it is. But real violence is uncomfortable, it's messy and the collateral damage is huge, and I think it's important to look at that.
What was it about the character specifically that attracted you?
| I don't feel boxed in, but, as I said to Denis, there is a danger that people see Wolverine and think, 'Oh, that's all he can do'.|
I love those kinds of characters; I love them in life, too.
You mean flawed?
Incredibly flawed. Life has been a struggle for Keller. His father committed suicide in his home when he was little, so you get a sense of his upbringing. I looked into his past - he's a recovering alcoholic, he's a survivalist; he has no faith in any institution or in anyone else but himself. In that sense, he's a control freak. He's built these things around himself to keep the demons out. I get the sense of a man who needs help but who can't rely on anyone else, who's worked so hard every day to become the best version of himself he can. And then in the eight days covered by the movie, it all unravels, which is heartbreaking to me.
Denis Villeneuve said he felt that, before Prisoners, you were becoming boxed in with the kind of roles you were being offered. Is that a fair assessment?
Yeah, a little bit. I think certainly when I went outside of New York or America I was very well known for Wolverine. I forget that people don't know I did a play with Daniel Craig where I played a character very similar to Keller. Or that I did a musical playing Peter Allen, a very flamboyant gay man, or Oklahoma or Beauty And The Beast. So for me I feel I do a variety of things; I don't feel boxed in, but, as I said to Denis, there is a danger that people see Wolverine and think, Oh, that's all he can do. And I was starting to reflect on the kinds of things I was getting offered.
Was that perception of you frustrating?
Day to day it didn't feel frustrating because if I wanted to play a certain type of character I could. I don't know. I'm surprised at pretty much everything that's happened in my career. If it was just Wolverine I'd be grateful for that. All I was ever hoping for as an actor was to pay the rent (laughs). And before I was an actor I was at the Amateur Musical Society, I never thought I could make a career out of it. So if it all stopped tomorrow, I'd probably go back to the Amateur Musical Society. I always try to remember how lucky I am. If I only ever got to do Wolverine, that's still pretty good, you know what I mean? But the greatest luxury an actor can have is choice, and I've got more choice now than ever.
Denis said that he was a little scared to take on the movie because he's a father himself. As a parent, did you feel that at all?
I wasn't scared. When I watch a movie I'm not easily shocked, and as an actor I think venturing into darkness is important. What would've scared me was going into it with the wrong director. I did not sign on until Denis signed on, even though I loved the script. I could see where it could go and where it needed to go, and it needed the right director to take it there. There's different versions of this movie. You could've made it a more generic thriller, you could've glorified the violence a little more, it could've been less uncomfortable, it could've been shorter and faster and pacier. But the effect of the movie Denis made makes you think about it long after the credits.
But did being a father help you to understand the character better, or to add more depth to him?
|One father, whose five-year-old went missing said that the most maddening thing, and he meant maddening literally, is the powerlessness; knowing that your child is waiting for you.|
Probably. I always like to think as an arrogant actor, Yeah, I can play anything! But just reading this script I felt it in the pit of my stomach. And I always thought it was vital to the story that the audience didn't judge Keller too quickly or too easily. There was a lot more religion in the original script. The first scene on the deer hunt, the whole time he was listening to the Bible on tape. I was like, If that's the first impression, I have a feeling a lot of audiences are going to go, Ugh, he's a religious nut and I don't understand him. I thought the religion was fascinating and vital to understanding the character, but I wanted people to understand him.
There's a scene where you're agonizing about your daughter and her wondering why daddy isn't coming for her. Did that have particular personal resonance for you? Could you see that from the child's perspective?
I know what you're getting at, because my mum left. But no, I'll tell you exactly where that scene came from. I wrote it on the front cover of my script. I had unparalleled access to real life cases of child abduction, and it was so disturbing, the most disturbing thing about the whole process. And I can tell you there are many, many examples that are way more violent and horrific than this movie. One father whose five-year-old went missing said that the most maddening thing, and he meant maddening literally, is the powerlessness; knowing that your child is waiting for you. Not for the cops, not for anyone else, but for you to come through that door. I teared up reading that stuff. And as a parent I can totally relate to it.
Denis also said that in the scene in the bathroom where you're menacing Paul Dano with a hammer, almost hysterical with rage and frustration, he felt he's pushed you closer towards your own dark side than you'd ever been before. What's your take on that?
Here's the truth. I was exhausted, and Denis likes to run the camera. We were doing that stuff for days, and it's exhausting. I remember in that scene thinking, I'm out, the gas tank's empty; I'm done, emotionally, physically, in every way. But I also remember thinking, That was the take. Thank god, we got it. That was the one before I slam the hammer into the wall. Denis came up to me - I saw him coming - and he put his hand on my shoulder and thought he was going to say, 'Merci, tres bien. It's a take.' But he said, very kindly, 'Hugh, I need you to go there.' And I said, 'That wasn't there?' He said, 'Non, It was not there.' And he walked away. I was exhausted, frustrated - with myself, not with Denis - and it hit me that what the scene required was complete abandon. He's in hell. None of the lines I was screaming at him were in the script, none of smashing the hammer into the wall. I had no idea I was going to do that. I just said, 'Roll the camera.' I waited and everyone waited, and then I went for it. At then end, it shocked the hell out of me. What really shocked me was how close to his head I was when I slammed the hammer into the wall. It was way too close. I watch that scene now and I cannot believe how Paul didn't flinch. He just quietly faints away. There was silence on the set. I had gone into a weird place where there was still two per cent of my brain that was aware of what I was doing - I was never going to put the hammer through his head (laughs) - but the rest was total abandon. And that was because Denis pushed me. It was weirdly cathartic in a way.
Was it also frightening, knowing that you have that rage inside you?
No. We all know that's there.