Hugh Jackman talks about some of the many challenges of making Real Steel and getting to work alongside a boxing legend such as Sugar Ray Leonard. He also discusses pushing his character to some dark places, playing Wolverine again and why he's so fond of that character.
I gather your son played a key role in convincing you to do Real Steel when you read him the script as a bed-time story?
Hugh Jackman: Not really but when I read it for the first time I was reading it with him. So, that's bad parenting basically! I was trying to do two things at once [laughs] but he loved it and made me read it to him every night for the next 10 nights. But I was pretty much drawn in anyway but it was a nice bonus that he liked it.
Did it require getting into shape? I mean, you're already pretty fit to play Wolverine...
Hugh Jackman: I actually said to Shawn [Levy, director]: "Man, I'm an ex-boxer, we should go realistic. I think I should come in big so that you can believe in him... but maybe give him a bit of a paunch to show how he'd let things slip." And so I came in for a fitting a month before and he goes: "Yeah, let's not go so realistic..." Obviously, I was too loose, so I had to get back in shape. But Wolverine has been a part of my life for 10 years and it's much easier to stay in shape than to get into shape and the Wolverine shape is ridiculous because it's so hard. So, even pulling back 20% feels easy.
And your dad was an ex-army boxer?
Hugh Jackman: Yeah, he was the Army champ when he was on National Service. From Army champ he went up one level, a Golden Gloves or something, but in his first fight he got knocked out and doesn't even remember where the punch came from. But he realised with that he was too slow and he opted out.
Have you spoken to him about boxing for this?
Hugh Jackman: Absolutely. And with Sugar Ray Leonard... In fact, I think that's the first time that I think he thought I'd made it. He said: "Really? Sugar Ray Leonard?" He's going to love this film. Like me, he's a big sports drama lover.
How much did you get from working with Sugar Ray? Did he tell you anything that you hadn't already thought of about the mindset of a boxer or trainer?
Hugh Jackman: Sugar Ray is like a freak of nature. I mean, he's ridiculously handsome. He looks younger than me. You can't believe he was ever hit. And he was very up-front with me. He talked to me a lot and really helped me out a lot... not only in looking like a boxer but thinking about the mentality of the corner-man, which is what I play. He was terrific. But the one thing he told me was that he used to know Angelo Dundee, a famous corner-man, and he would hire him two weeks before a fight. He said: "Angelo Dundee... he kept doing the De Niro thing...That look... without that, you feel like you're going to fall." It's not only what they say... the way they look at you from the corner is everything. And Angelo Dundee just gave you strength just by the way he looked and [Sugar Ray] kept telling me that I must have that. Before every take he'd look at me like that. So, even though it's a robot, it's important that the audience feels for those robots and supports them just like humans. And I think that's strengthened by that connection.
Another part of the appeal must have been the father-son dynamic...
Hugh Jackman: Yes. I found the emotions very close... sometimes I had to really push them down while I was filming because I have a kid pretty much the same age. So, I understand that dynamic. Hopefully, I'm doing a better job [laughs].
How long did you get to bond with your screen son Dakota Goyo before shooting began?
Hugh Jackman: Well, I auditioned with him. I auditioned with a lot of kids. So, I got to know him. And then we had a couple of weeks of rehearsal where we got to know each other. We were on-set together every day and we were really working together a lot. He was a dream to work with. It's just effortless for him. Shawn [Levy] is a brilliant director of kids. He's done a lot of films with them, plus he has four kids, so he knows exactly what to do. So, for me, I just got to really enjoy being an actor with him. He was kind of more mature and present than a lot of the actors I've worked with. The only thing he got nervous about - and I don't blame him for it - was dancing in front of 5,000 people. I mean, he's just an 11-year-old kid, so right at that age where you'd be embarrassed by that kind of thing.
Steven Spielberg produces Real Steel - did you get to meet him as well? And is there a "Spielberg effect" when you get to meet him, as so many other actors reference?
Hugh Jackman: It's interesting. My first impression - and maybe I've got used to it because he asked me to do the Oscars and so I've been involved with him for a while - is that he almost takes a kind of secondary position in the room. He's a quiet character. He doesn't demand... he doesn't take all of the air out of the room. He's very generous. Of course he's aware of who he is but he doesn't lord it or use it in any way. However, I got a phone call from him as soon as he's seen the movie and he was talking to me for half an hour while I was driving around Sydney. My wife was like: "You're going to get a ticket... you're going to get a ticket!" So, I replied: "Hang on Steven..." and turned to her and said: "I want a ticket! I want to be picked up and I want to be able to tell the officer that it's Steven Spielberg on the line. I want him to write that on the ticket so I could frame it!" [Laughs]
Did you get stopped?
Hugh Jackman: No, dammit. And we were on the phone for a long time.
Was it a challenge to keep your character likeable during some of those darker moments?
Hugh Jackman: That' the big challenge. How far do you take him without losing the audience forever? And yet I think it's important to give him the platform for redemption. So, he's doing OK and whatever... but conversely the effect of when he starts to come good it's not there. In Rocky, if you think of Stallone's character in that film, he was basically working as the debt collector, "I'm going to break your legs" kind of guy. In every way, he was struggling. But you somehow just like him. Hopefully, we've got that tone right in this movie. We weren't sure. We went to that end of it and once we screened it, it was one of our big things - will audiences take to it? And it turned out they did. And I think it's got a lot to do with the boy.
Moving on to The Wolverine, what's the state of play with that at the moment? James Mangold has now replaced Darren Aronofsky as director...
Hugh Jackman: Mangold's in, he's amazing, we had a great script and he's making it even better, so I'm really excited by his ideas. I've worked with him before on Kate & Leopold and he's a very, very smart director. I think we're going to shoot... I'm doing the movie version of Les Miserables next and then we're going to shoot after that.
How fondly do you hold Wolverine in your affections? Is he a pain in the arse to have to stay in shape for, as you've previously suggested?
Hugh Jackman: Yeah, that's getting harder and harder to stay in shape, although in a way I'm getting smarter and smarter at it. But I'm still so intrigued by the character and inspired by him and kind of in love with him in a way. As an actor, you have to be. He's just one of the most interesting comic book characters out there. Look, I'm doing another one, I won't say beyond that. There's certainly no plans beyond one.
How much fun was it doing the cameo in X-Men: First Class?
Hugh Jackman: It was great! It was so great to do that. I remember they told me the idea and they told me the line and I said: "Is anyone else swearing in the movie?" And they said "No." So, I said: "Great! I love it!" Very selfishly... but it was terrific fun and nice to do that with [director] Matthew [Vaughn] because we got very close to doing X-Men 3, so it felt like there was some closure there.
Interview: Rob Carnevale Photo: Disney