Hugh Jackman shows a different side in 'Les Miserables.'
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Hugh Jackman is a major star in Australia and in the United States, on Broadway and in the movies alike. The dashing, 44-year-old Aussie can act, sing, and dance with the best of them, and right now is high on many people’s list to earn an Oscar nomination as Best Actor for his performance as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. Some pundits have only Daniel Day-Lewis standing between Jackman and his first golden statuette.
Nonetheless, Jackman was no sure thing even to land the role in Tom Hooper’s big-screen version of the beloved Broadway musical, itself based on the classic Victor Hugo novel. After apologetically clearing away a mess left behind by his kids in a suite at a Manhattan hotel, the actor details his bumpy road to playing Valjean, the fugitive ex-convict whose quest for redemption drives Hugo’s epic saga of 1830s Paris.
“I was very aggressive,” Jackman says, settling into a chair. “The first I heard about it was from my agent, who said, ‘I hear they’re doing this musical. Let’s go for it.’ I asked Tom for a meeting. I’d met him a couple of months before, at the  Oscars. He’d just won his Oscar [for The King’s Speech].
“I had a good chat with him. I said, ‘So, I really want to play Jean Valjean. I want to audition for you.’ Tom said, ‘Hang on, fella. I don’t know what you’ve heard, but I haven’t signed on for this yet. I’m thinking about it as one of a few things.’
“We had our chat and I thought, ‘Ahh, maybe I’m being a bit too aggressive.’
“A month later he was on it and I auditioned,” Jackman recalls, shaking his head bemusedly. “It started with an hour with the musical director, just to go over the songs, and then it was three hours with Tom.”
Even then, he adds, he was the one who broke up the audition.
“I remember saying to him, ‘Mate, it’s 8 o’clock. I’ve really got to put my kids to bed,’” Jackman says with a smile. “I don’t think I’d ever asked to leave an audition before.”
Jackman got the part ... and ran head-on into a monument. Every hour of every day, somewhere in the world, somebody is reading Hugo’s book or seeing the Boublil/Schonberg musical on stage. The show opened in Paris in 1980, in London in 1985 and on Broadway in 1987, where it ran for 16 years and more than 6,000 performances. Bringing so classic a story to the screen — never mind the seven previous versions of the book — conjures almost insuperable expectations for the film, which will open nationwide on Christmas.
“The book is obviously a classic, and classics endure because something about them is timeless,” Jackman says. “I think Hugo’s portrait of the human condition is as true and accurate a one as I’ve ever read. Seemingly what he was talking about then, which was very pointed for the period, is just as relevant today. The themes still relate. The characters are phenomenal and fantastic, and always will be phenomenal and fantastic.
“Beyond that, there’s the music,” he continues. “How these guys managed to match music to the story, it’s amazing. The music, too, is as fantastic and timeless today as it was when the show was first done. All of those elements are why I think people love it.
“And it moves people,” Jackman adds. “It just moves people.”
Hooper shot the film’s musical numbers live. When Jackman crooned “Who Am I?” or Anne Hathaway, playing the doomed Fantine, sang “I Dreamed a Dream,” they did so in real time, singing and acting all at once, with no cutaways and no lip-syncing.
“You can tell it’s live,” Jackman says, “so you have the best of the theatrical and moviegoing experiences. Not only were the scenes live, but, to be clear, the accompaniment was live. They were effectively watching us on monitor and were playing piano off in the next room, and we were leading that too.
“The problem with that was that sometimes we’d change the rhythm,” he adds. “We just went with whatever we felt, which made cutting difficult. What Tom did was shoot entire songs with two or three cameras. This way, if he wanted to cut, he could use the same take, because it might’ve been slightly off otherwise.
“So there were a lot of vocal challenges,” Jackman continues. “I’ve done shows with vocal challenges, but on this we were sometimes in difficult locations to do things vocally, like the tops of mountains or in below-freezing conditions, or we were singing for 12 hours a day. Thank God no one got sick. But the gain was infinitely greater than the challenges.”
There’s a great deal of Oscar buzz around “Les Miserables,” which pleases Jackman because it may help the film attract an audience during the busy holiday season.
“I’ve wanted to do a movie musical for a long time,” he says. “They don’t come along very often, because they, probably rightly, are considered a big risk ... It’s not like the golden era of the 1950s, when people just turned up to movie musicals. Now they need to hear that it’s good, because there’s nothing worse than a bad movie musical. So I think all that buzz helps.”
Jackman exploded in the United States with the release of “X-Men” (2000), the first of four films to date in which he’s played the Marvel Comics favorite Wolverine. Stardom hit him hard, he says, but didn’t throw him off his game.
“Compared to most, I was probably a lot more ready,” Jackman says. “You can never be fully prepared, but I was 30. I know we all like to think that we can change who we are, but in reality, by the time you’re 30, you’re pretty much set. I’d been around long enough. I was already very happily married, I had a kid.
“So it was a great thing that happened in my life, it gave me opportunities I never thought possible,” he continues. “Yet, deep down, I could see it for what it was, I suppose. If it had happened when I was 20, it might have been a very different story.”
Jackman’s subsequent films have included “Someone Like You” (2001), “Swordfish” (2001), “Kate & Leopold” (2001), “Van Helsing” (2004), “Scoop” (2006), “The Fountain” (2006), “Australia” (2008), “Real Steel” (2011) and several animated films, including the current “Rise of the Guardians.” ‘’Movie 43” and “The Wolverine” are already wrapped and due in 2013.
Beyond the big screen, he produced and appeared in the short-lived television series “Viva Laughlin” (2007) and acted in several Broadway productions, including “The Boy from Oz” (2003-2004), “A Steady Rain” (2009) and “Back on Broadway” (2011-2012). He also has hosted the Tony Awards ceremony three times and the Oscars once.
Not all of them were hits, but the actor is pleased with the overall scope of his career.
“It’s one thing to look back on everything,” Jackman says, “but you have to remember that you don’t always have the myriad of choices people assume you have. I didn’t at times. I took choices early on in my career to try not to be above title. I was still learning.
“’X-Men’ was one of my first films,” he continues, “and I knew I had a lot to learn. I tried to do different genres. After ‘X-Men’ I did ‘Someone Like You’ and ‘Kate & Leopold.’ I worked with different actors and didn’t put myself in a position where, if the movie failed, my career was over. I took a few risks.
“I have made some mistakes,” Jackman admits. “I will not tell you exactly which ones, because I don’t want to hurt the people involved, but I learned, about 10 years ago, that doing things because it seems like a good idea for your career or the right kind of stepping stone, it’s a very hard thing to live with if it doesn’t work out.”
The turning point, for him, wasn’t a film at all, but rather “The Boy from Oz,” the stage musical in which he portrayed Peter Allen, the flamboyant Australian song-and-dance man who died of AIDS in 1992.
“Since then the things I’ve chosen to do are things I’ve believed in,” the actor says. “Everyone but my agent said, ‘You shouldn’t do this.’ The reviewers were like, ‘You shouldn’t have done it.’ The reviews were terrible. But all along I thought, ‘No, this connects with audiences.’ Even when I’ve had bad reviews, I didn’t feel bad within myself. I felt it was the right thing to have done.
“As it turns out, Woody Allen saw (“The Boy from Oz”),” Jackman says. “Darren Aronofsky saw it. Spielberg saw it. I worked with all of them, and I never would have had those jobs without ‘The Boy from Oz.’
“So it turned out to be a great thing for me and really cemented that idea of, ‘Yes, you can make mistakes, but, if you do something for the right reason, then you never feel bad about a failure.’”