Portrait

An allotted nine minutes, 3.5 metres from Hugh Jackman. By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Hugh Jackman: the talent

Your interview’s been pre-approved,” the publicist says on the phone. “But you’ll need to see the film before we allow you to access the talent.”

A week later, a sprinkling of entertainment reporters are peppered around a huge empty movie theatre in South Yarra’s Jam Factory. “What are we even seeing today?” a man behind me asks his colleague. “Kid’s movie. Prequel to Peter Pan. For the Hugh Jackman interview.”

Pan’s Blackbeard the pirate, played by Jackman, is an unapologetic serial-killing psychopath, albeit in a charming fairy-dust-snorting, pirate-ship-racing manner. At one point, Blackbeard conducts thousands of enslaved boys in a thunderous a capella version of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. Minutes later, he catapults several to their deaths. His glowering could-snap-at-any-moment dark eyes and grey-stained teeth are embedded in deathly white skin. But Blackbeard is also showy, agile, full of revelry; offering young child protagonist Peter gourmet chocolates, cracking wry jokes. This mixture of evil and flamboyance – of overlord and entertainer – is a maniacally intense combination. Jackman wears the contradiction as if it were tailored for him. Like Jean Valjean meets Peter Allen meets Wolverine.

The location for the Pan media junket, South Wharf’s 1885-built ship the Polly Woodside, is on-theme marketing genius. The glass walls of the media holding room look out onto the docks. Tall masts, tightly wound sails and rope netting rise into the clear blue just-gone-spring Melbourne sky.

I wait next to the life-sized cardboard cutout film characters. The official Pan movie trailer runs loudly on loop on an overhead screen. To pass the hour-long wait, I flick through Hugh Jackman’s Twitter feed on my phone. Profile picture of the actor and his dad, both grinning widely into the camera. Faded photograph of a decades-younger Jackman playing cricket – favourited by his followers more than 2000 times. Polaroid of his old footy team – under 8s perhaps – ankle-biter Hugh balanced on bended knee in the first row, chest puffed out proudly beneath ’70s bowl-cut. Our Hugh. Hollywood Megastar. Ordinary Aussie Bloke.

A young woman clutching a clipboard calls my name. “You’ll be sitting a fair way away from Hugh for the interview,” she says briskly, as we walk to the adjoining building. “At least three or four metres. There’ll be one camera on you, and a separate camera on Hugh. We’ll give you the footage from each camera on separate SD cards, with instructions on how to edit them together.”

Is there any leeway on the interview time at all?

“No. Strictly nine minutes for each interview, with a three-minute turnaround. You’ll be given warning when your time’s about to expire. And you know not to ask any personal questions? We said photographs were okay, but there’s also been a change now, so no photographs, okay?”

She shrugs apologetically.

I stand at the entrance to the dimly lit interview room. The small space is crammed with cameras, lighting gear, an audio desk, chairs and at least 10 other people. Four or so are huddled with their backs to me. They slowly part from their fussing to reveal Jackman, who rises from his chair: dark suit and tie, crisp white shirt, freshly trimmed hair, square-shouldered dancer’s posture. The actor’s leaner than I imagined, achingly handsome, dressed so formally he looks as if he’s just taken a break from hosting the Oscars. He offers a firm handshake, friendly smile crinkling into deep crow-footed laughter lines.

“Can you take a seat over there now, please?” one of the many interview directors gestures to an empty chair on the other side of the room. I watch from 3.5 metres, as the make-up department dabs at Jackman’s face, powdering the slight shine from his forehead.

Perched at attention in his chair, Jackman looks as uncomfortable as the whole set-up feels: face neutral, palm of each hand laid flat on corresponding thigh.

A bell rings in the distance. Jackman laughs, drops his shoulders a little. “Is that Ava ringing the bell?” he looks off to the side. “My daughter’s here,” he explains. “She’s on holidays from school… I said, ‘Come with me down to the Polly Woodside today.’ She was like, ‘Ugh.’ ” He rolls his eyes like a moody tween. “But now she’s loving it.”

The make-up team moves away, and all of a sudden we’re filming. I tell Jackman about my interview with his co-star, Uncle Jack Charles, 12 months back. “He’d just come back from filming Pan. It was a cuppa in Jack’s lounge room. Talking for a couple hours. Very different set-up.” The reply is careful: “I’ll bet.”

Jackman’s speaking voice is tenor-smooth. Calm. Amiable. His words are evenly spaced. His facial expressions are easy to read, open. It’s as if he’s pre-transformation. Blank canvas. Waiting to try on the next role.

The woman standing to the right of Jackman holds three outstretched fingers in front of her face, literally counting down the minutes. I lose my train of thought for a few seconds.

 “There’s this moment in Pan,” I pick up, “where Blackbeard leans over and says to Peter, ‘Are you the child who’s come to kill me?’ It’s a vulnerable moment… What’s going on in Blackbeard’s head?”

“Blackbeard is the top dog,” Jackman replies, decisively. “He’s the king.” He takes a breath. “He has been for a very long time.” He pauses. “He’s frightened of losing that position.” Another pause. “He’s fought really hard to get there.” The speech pattern continues. “He’s been there a long time… and he’s bored… he doesn’t want to live life like this anymore… wants to be free…” I almost ask him if we’re still talking about Blackbeard.

The woman at the side has two fingers held up now – is winding one wrist over the other in a frantic let’s get this wrapped up quickly gesture. I ask about the physicality of the pirate, what kind of a blocking process could possible produce a villain like him. “Three for three,” Jackman looks surprised. “Questions that no one else has asked. That’s a rarity… We had a long rehearsal period, improvisation, theatre games… a box in the centre of the room and it’s dress-ups… we’ll interview each other in character. You spend all day as your character in this room… Early on I had this idea that Blackbeard would never wear two of the same shoe… that it would be a waste for him to look down and see the same thing.” He chuckles. “Joe [director Joe Wright] entertained that idea for a while, and then it went…”

His delight in the process of carving out a character changes his demeanour. Genuine passion triumphs over the film make-up, the impeccably groomed fawn-with-a-hint-of-grey hair, the exquisitely tailored suit. “I liked the idea that he was a bit of a show pony… sometimes surly and moody… a bit of everything… but all the time loving the limelight, and loving people looking at him.”

I make my way to the exit, clutching the small yellow envelope containing my interview footage. Glancing back, I see the interview film crew swoop in – offering water, powdering Jackman’s face, adjusting his collar, in preparation for the next nine minutes.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 19, 2015 as "The talent". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.

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