On the dark side


On the dark side

Wolverine seems ageless, but Hugh Jackman is definitely aging. Jackman, who turned 46 last month, gets tired more easily than he used to — or so he said after giving a fuzzy answer during a recent interview. He’s coming off his third treatment for skin cancer in the past year.

He finds himself looking at role models like Paul Newman and Richard Burton and wanting more for his career, and soon. He is attached to the next installment in the hugely popular X-Men series yet sounds almost sheepish about it, saying he wouldn’t mind if his role as Logan/Wolverine were smaller.

Defying age

“In a way, I still think of myself as young, and there’s plenty of time to go, but then you realise that you’re 45, 46, and the idea kicks in about taking big challenges in your life: If not now, when?” Jackman said. He is answering that question for himself with little steps and big ones, like quitting a long-gestating musical project, Houdini, and opting for an eerie new drama called The River, now in preview performances, as his next Broadway show.

On the surface, The River seems like classic Jackman: His character is a rugged, romantic guy — appropriately called the Man — who whisks his new girlfriend away to a cabin to fish and frolic. But looks can be deceiving, for Jackman, as well as the play.

His age is written on his face (after a long day of work, he appears as haggard as the rest of us), and he is less physically imposing when he’s not in Wolverine workout mode: His sparkling smile catches the eye, not a brawny chest or biceps. And the play turns out to have a mysterious, even sinister quality at times. It’s not an action-hero romp.

The River also offered Jackman a chance to stretch by working for the first time with a major dramatist, Jez Butterworth, whose talent for exploring the dark and destructive sides of men earned him a Tony Award nomination for the 2011 Broadway drama Jerusalem.

Butterworth has written a role that may unnerve some Jackman fans, given the secrets that spill forth from the Man, but it’s a character Jackman called “the most exciting thing I’ve ever done.”

“It was something I’d never had a chance to do, a great piece of writing that has a mythical and timeless feel, and a character dangerously close to myself in some ways,” Jackman said. “Whatever I’m trying to achieve in my life: If not now, when? And I think the Man is asking the same thing after trying to connect with a woman many, many times. He’s asking: Is he capable of it?”

The River is also a change for Butterworth, and his most personal work yet, awash in fears about a man’s ability to form and sustain intimate relationships. He began writing the play during the Broadway run of Jerusalem, a three-hour, 16-character epic deconstructing modern England through the travails of a lovable rogue (played by Mark Rylance). Inclined to go in a new direction, he imagined The River as a much shorter, three-character piece. (The play runs about 80 minutes.)

He wrote the first half quickly, up to a scene where the Man is confronted with a symbolic keepsake. But after that, Butterworth found himself sharing Jackman’s thoughts of late: pondering his next moves and wondering if they were good enough, worthy enough, to pursue.

Butterworth’s longtime collaborator, director Ian Rickson, fed him provocations from other artistes: quotations written out on index cards, like one from Ted Hughes about how all poetry “is a revealing of something that the writer doesn’t actually want to say but desperately needs to communicate, to be delivered of.” Rickson also organised informal readings of the play with actors, but Butterworth kept showing up with the same pages.
It wasn’t until a year later that he sat down and, in a single night, wrote the second half of the play.
“It was two weeks before my sister died of cancer,” he said of Joanna Butterworth, who was an administrator at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. “She was at our farm in the last stages of her life.” He dedicated The River to her.

“Suddenly, I felt I could take the risk that the play seemed to be asking of me,” he added. “It felt like trying to catch your own self in the mirror not looking at yourself — that you could beat yourself to it. I wanted to create goose-bump moments like that. It’s the hardest play I’ve ever written.”

The play act

Performing in a work by a leading playwright had particular appeal as Jackman was coming to grips with the travails of Houdini, which had gone through multiple composers and scriptwriters. “When a new play works, and the word gets around town, there’s nothing quite like it,” he explained. “That’s gold dust. I love feeling like I’m in that first audience that went to the Globe to see The Merchant of Venice.”

“I also thought of Newman and Burton, how they kept going back to new plays to stay sharp,” he continued. “Burton even went into the original Equus on Broadway as a replacement actor, which is really rare for a star to do.”

Jackman clearly feels a yen for ever darker roles. He said that he happily submitted to an hours-long audition for Jean Valjean in the film musical Les Misérables and that if he could play any other X-Men character, it would be the arch-villain Magneto (Ian McKellen in the movies).

He’s also intrigued that The River is in the smallest theatre that he’s played since drama school in Australia, the 650-seat Circle in the Square. The production, which is doing strong business at the box office, is selling “riverbank” seats that encircle the narrow in-the-round stage, so some audience members will be only a few yards away from Jackman.

“Being so close really requires you to be incredibly honest, because the audience can tell if you’re ‘acting,’” Jackman said. “But it goes both ways. The first play I ever saw on Broadway was Hughie starring Al Pacino,” in 1996 at Circle in the Square. “I got up at 5 am to get tickets. And Deb fell asleep 20 minutes into the play. Al had this long monologue where he was drunk, and I swear to God he was staring straight at Deb as he performed. He looked really pissed off.”

In case anyone does nod off at The River, the smell of real trout being gutted and cooked may be a wake-up call. Jackman does the honours during an extended scene. He is not big on fishing: He and his son recently went on a trip to Montana to help prepare for The River, and only young Oscar caught a fish. “I had four fish delivered recently, and they turned out really good,” Jackman said. “It had been such a long time since I had cooked on my own in the kitchen. But at 46, it feels good to be trying new things, even if it’s gutting trout.”

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