The man who has it all and can do it all, Hugh Jackman, has turned to robots. We've seen him in Broadway musicals, bearing his teeth as Wolverine in the X-Men franchises, working his magic in The Prestige, and hosting the Academy Awards. Now he promotes boxing robots in Disney's new action sci-fi drama, Real Steel, also starring Lost's Evangeline Lilly. He sat down with Buzzine to talk about acquiring a boxer's physique for this movie, his future in the X-Men and Wolverine franchises, and returning to musicals with Russell Crowe.
Emmanuel Itier: How important was it for this movie to have the action balancing out the emotional side of the story -- the son's side?
Hugh Jackman: Completely. That's what I call a movie. That's a film. We all love action. The action is fantastic, but on its own...I'm not going to see a movie if it's just crazy (action). I mean, I think my son probably would, who's 11, but for me, that's not going to happen, so this is a movie that's intended to play as it did when I first saw it with my mother-in-law, my wife, and my kids, and they all loved it. My mother-in-law is not going to see a boxing robot film if it's just that. So it's vital, I think, and also because you have robots, how do you feel for robots? How do you actually get emotionally invested in it? I think you do that through the people involved around them.
EI: How hard is it to find those movies -- when the studios want these big specatcles and put the money there, asking people like you to be in these movies?
HJ: Movies like this are very hard to find because it's one of the most difficult things to pull off. A movie that genuinely plays to my mother-in-law and my six-year-old and 11-year-old kids -- that's very difficult to pull off. I mean, Pixar seems to be doing it well. DreamWorks animation seems to be doing a good job, but there are not a lot of movies that do that. I think that's why it's difficult and rare, and for me, I just connected to the story. It reminded me of Rocky when I was growing up -- a sports story. It makes you feel good in the end. It's fun and it's entertaining, and dare I say might even bring a tear to the eye.
EI: Charlie is such an a**hole in the beginning of this movie. He's a terrible father...
EI: So it's really a story about...?
EI: Redemption, yes. Isn't it?
HJ: It is a total redemption tale. Rocky is a guy who breaks your knees if you owe money. He's not like the high school teacher who gets a shot at the title. Charlie is a bit like a guy who's lost belief in himself. He thinks the world has passed him over. He doesn't feel anything anymore because it's easier to live that way. When life is disappointing to you and you get hurt so much, you end up just switching off. I think that's something we can all relate to on some level. I fully expected us to be re-shooting the movie after the studio saw it. Look, I agree with the script. I loved it. But you never know until you see it fully together if you've gone too far. I really applaud DreamWorks and Disney, who are distributing the movie as well, that they went for it.
EI: Shawn Levy applauded you because he said you were worried that Charlie was such a horrible father, tough with his 11-year-old kid, and doesn't even know how old he is. This is the kind of thing that could alienate an audience. He said if it wasn't you doing this, it would be a big issue here. What do you think?
HJ: I never worried about that. I kind of have no sense what people think or how that translates into a character, but regardless of me playing it, I think it's important to see that there's something to be redeemed from. It's a redemption tale. You have to see that he's made mistakes, and it has to be real, to a certain degree. Plus, there are a couple of things here -- that relationship with Evangeline Lilly. You have to feel the history, and is this going to feel tried or stereotypical with the boy, and how is that going to play out over a movie, and how are we going to see them turn it around without it feeling too saccharine or sweet or fake? That's the biggest challenge of the movie.
EI: Was it ever uncomfortable for you to yell at Dakota Goyo, who plays your son, and be as mean as you were to him in the film?
HJ: Yeah, and Shawn kept pushing me to go further, funnily enough. Dakota is a very polite and well-brought-up kid as well, so Dakota was getting prodded as well, and several times, I saw Dakota, after, cut a look over to his mum, like, "No, they told me to say that." Truth be told, I kind of enjoyed it. First of all, I really like him a lot. I genuinely love Dakota. He's a great kid, a great actor. I love being with him. I have kids. I have an 11-year-old. Literally there are times that you want to say things, and you just shove it back down inside. I've walked out of rooms so frustrated and in fear of what I'm going to say in that moment. For three months, it all just came out.
EI: Has your son seen this?
HJ: Absolutely, and he loved it. He doesn't talk about the father and son. He did say to me, "Can I drink sodas for breakfast now?" But genuinely, he didn't talk about it. He just got wrapped up in the story of Adam. He loved that robot and the idea of the robot. He saw the magic in that robot just like Dakota's character does.
EI: Charlie also has some redemption as a fighter in the end, right?
HJ: Yeah, and I thought that was a stroke of genius. It was so inventive -- the way you see him coming to life again. I'll never forget, as we were filming Dakota and the camera was coming around the ring, and he's watching, getting into Adam and coming back and fighting, and then he catches his father out of the corner of his eye and you can see it all go to Charlie. There was not a dry eye, let me tell you. That, to me, is one of the single most powerful moments of this film because it's saying so many things about how we need our father, how we need our fathers to be at their best too... We need to see them fully alive, and in this moment, you see him doing the thing that no one else has allowed him to do. The world has said, "We don't care about boxing. You're gone." That's another bit. Anthony Mackie's character and Kevin Durand's character and my character, all boxers, and now they're desperately trying to eke out a living, and they're being discarded.
EI: Can you talk about working with Sugar Ray Leonard and if he was brutally honest with you...? What was that like?
HJ: He comes from the boxing world. No one pulls punches to them the whole way. They're told exactly the way it is, and that's the way he is too. He's very sweet-natured. He's ridiculously handsome. You can't believe that guy was ever hit. I'm like, "What is wrong with you, man?" It's unbelievable, and he's got it together -- sweet and nice and happy. I'm like, "You fought (Roberto) Duran?" We talked a lot. I'd been doing some training when I saw him, and he was like, "You've got a little more work to do, pal." So he was honest with me about that.
EI: But you're in great shape...
HJ: But I needed to look like a professional boxer. It was vital, not just from me wanting boxers saying, "Hey, it looks like he knows what he's doing," but that's when he comes alive -- that moment. You need to see him and believe that moment.
IH: In his face?
HJ: As he boxes. It's like his whole being comes alive again, fully. (Sugar Ray) also talked to me a lot about the corner man. He'd be behind the monitor, and I'd be right by the ring. We're doing cameras on me and we're doing scenes. He's like, "Man, no, no, no. The strength through your eyes, the emotion through eyes to that robot, to the human boxer, is everything." I said, "That's going to allow the audience to live in the robots. It's going to sell." Your strength is how strong your robot is.
EI: How does the training from previous films come into play on this, or is it a whole new skill set you have to learn?
HJ: This is different because it's traditional boxing. The other films, like, Wolverine, you don't always have to have your fists up guarding your face and your chin to your chest. Wolverine has got claws and takes your head off. I had to be a little more specific about it.
EI: Is this different for you, since you've been doing mostly action movies lately?
HJ: I haven't really done any movies for two years, so it's been nice.
EI: But this isn't The Prestige or something, right?
HJ: Yeah, it's nice to be in an action movie, I suppose, where I'm not doing any of the action.
EI: Why do boxing movies work time after time, generation after generation?
HJ: They don't all work, but I think, dramatically, it's such a perfect scenario. You have two simple casts. You have a very confined space. You have clear delineations of victor and vanquished. You have probably the greatest test there is for a human, in terms of a mixture of courage, heart, mental acuity, relaxation, strength, and brawn. That's why it's always been around in some form. Football is just sanctioned boxing really. It's all those things that we see nakedly. You've got these guys who wear shorts -- they're not even wearing clothes. It's like they're all stripped down. So you see everything that's going on and somehow the pressure of a fight we can all relate to, or probably all of us can feel our hearts beating and imagine what it would be like stepping into the ring.
EI: Who are the boxers that you really remember having an affect on you?
HJ: Probably the first I really connected to was (Mike) Tyson. I was never allowed to watch boxing growing up. My father was a champion boxer, and I never knew about it until his brother told me when I was about 16. My brother and I used to beat the hell out of each other, so my dad probably rightly assumed, "I'm never going to talk about boxing. I'm never going to show them boxing. I'm never going to show wrestling." Of course my mates at school and I would do it, but my dad never talked about it. So I was not watching fights when Sugar Ray was boxing. (Muhammad) Ali... I knew about it, but I discovered him later. It was Tyson that really first got my attention.
EI: What about boxing movies?
HJ: My favorite boxing movie is When We Were Kings, which is a documentary. I think that's one of the greatest movies of all time -- very inspiring. Rocky. Raging Bull. I liked Hurricane. There are a lot of great movies.
EI: Shawn mentioned The Champ as being an influence on this film. There's obviously the father and son story. Did you go back and look at that?
HJ: I didn't go back and look at it. I'd seen it before. Mainly I didn't go back because I didn't have the strength to cry my eyes out. I remember crying because it's so brutal, that film. It rips your heart out. You can't make a boxing movie without being fully aware of the mountain of history there is in that genre. Some people have to said to me that there are things reminiscent of Rocky, and I'm like, "You bet there is, and why not?" I feel like this is Rocky for a new generation, and I said, "Plus, the other thing is that there are only two choices; there are only two outcomes at the end of any boxing movie." I love The Fighter, by the way. It was great. As Sugar Ray says, no champ ever came from Beverly Hills. So we instinctively know that boxing stories are going to be people who have had it tough. We all -- at some point in our lives, no matter where we come from -- feel like we've got it tough, and we relate to that feeling of rising above the circumstances that we've been born into.
EI: What are the things that you've done with your kids to have a special bond -- the things that the characters in the film end up sharing?
HJ: I'm a huge sports fan. I thought, "This is going to be awesome." My son hates sports. I said, "Man, okay. Well, at least we'll kick a soccer ball." Hates it. Throw a baseball. Hates it. I was like, "This is unbelievable." Then it tweaked to me that actually, what the gift of having children is that they come in with these things maybe different from what you're into, but because you love them so much and you want to be with them so much and connect them, I found myself at more museums looking through geological books. My son knows the name of every tree you would ever see. The Botanical Man is his real name. We dig through the dirt. Insects. I can tell you things about histories and cultures and tribal history that I never thought I would've known. So really it's about listening to your kid and connecting with them, rather than forcing them to like the things that you like.
EI: You're coming back to Broadway, doing this orchestra thing with just you, and that's preparation for you to go off and do Les Miserables. That sounds crazy because musicals are such a hard thing, and Les Miserables has been around for 25 or 30 years...
HJ: I just did a movie about robot boxing that's supposed to make my mother-in-law happy. I know what's a tough task. But movie musicals, if you're going to do one, it does help that it's one of the most beloved musicals of all time. That's probably the second most successful movie musical of all time, playing Jean Valjean. That's a great part. Tom Hooper is directing it.
EI: And King's Speech...
HJ: Russell Crowe is playing Javert. It feels special to me. We're going to give it the good old college try.
EI: Do you know if it's going to be theatrical rather than realistic?
HJ: No. If you look at Tom's work, I think he's realism-based. There will be a lot of research. It will feel real. They're singing, so you are asking for a leap... Did you see how many props were in that thing? Real cutlery. It's a musical onstage, and there are like 600 people on "The Master of the House," and they've all got vintage forks and spoons and plates, and the prop master is like, "Are you kidding me?" ... But this is such an emotional piece that I feel it plays better than most.
EI: We know you've got some pipes, but how does Russell sing?
HJ: He's got 'em too, man. He was in musicals early on in Australia.
EI: And he has a band...
HJ: Prior to having a band, he was in The Blues Brothers in Australia. You've got to understand -- the thing about Australia is that there's probably ten movies made a year, so no one thinks they're going to be a movie star. You're like, "Wow, you're going to be living in a trailer park." You can be the most successful movie star there is, and no one is making a living. So you have to do everything.
EI: Wolverine the musical...?
EI: Wolverine is coming back?
HJ: Absolutely. If it wasn't for Les Mis, we're ready now, now that Jim (Mangold) is on board, ready to go, but for Wolverine or for Les Mis to work, we would have had to start basically yesterday. So we couldn't quite make that. We needed to press the button. We weren't quite ready, so it'll happen straight after.
EI: Mark Bomback was doing some rewrites on Wolverine. What was he addressing on that script?
HJ: When a director takes over any script, they see it and they need to make it their movie. So Jim hired Mark to help him make the movie his own. Darren (Aronofsky) had worked on the script himself and taken it in a certain direction that was right for Darren, and that would've been a great version of the movie. I've seen Jim's version of it now, and Jim saw things that weren't working for him that were working for Darren. I have to hand it to Fox and to Jim. It's easy when you start with, by far, the best script that you've had. Chris McQuarrie, which was why Darren signed on. So once you have that, that's 80-85% of your movie, and the director needs to make it their own.
EI: This is Darren Aronofsky?
HJ: It was going to be Darren, and Darren's personal life precluded him from making the movie, so I asked him to do X-Men 3 and I asked him to do Wolverine 1, and he was like, "That's not so much for me." Then he read this and he was like, "This is the best comic book movie script that I've ever read." He's been dying to do one for a long time.
EI: So is it going to be a horror movie in a way?
HJ: No, it's going to be a little darker and, I think, a little more true to the character.
EI: Did it derive from the Chris Charemont and Frank Miller mini-series of the '80s?
HJ: Yes, of the Japanese saga, absolutely. If you read a lot of that, there's a lot of it, and it is a little disparate, and some of it has the X-Men in it. There's a wedding and all of that, and some of it doesn't. So we take license.
EI: Why do you think the X-Men movies and the Wolverine movies have done so well? Because most comic book movies, let's be serious, have not been very successful.
EI: Commercially and critically. Some have done all right, but look at Green Hornet -- that was horrible.
HJ: Yeah, okay, but Spider-Man, Iron Man, Dark Knight...
EI: This year has not been the best for comic book movies.
HJ: I understand. When X-Men came out, it was, trust me, cold as ice. There was not one comic book movie out there. I had several people telling me to make sure I'd booked my next movie before that came out. "Book it because you're going to be right back to the end of the line, pal, after this." Bryan Singer reinvented it because they'd become cartoonish. The later Batmans and the old version became very cartoonish, and like, "Oh, I don't care about this." Bryan reinvented it and made you care about the characters beyond the special FX, and made you relate to these characters. Then came a little movie called Spider-Man, and I think there was that thing of like, "This can't really last," so now, six or seven years later, (Chris) Nolan comes out with Batman, and lo and behold, these movies have not only been commercially very successful, some of the best reviewed movies of all time, and they're saying, "All right." So then you get what always happens when finally when Hollywood goes, "Oh my God, this is a no-brainer. Every movie is going to win. Let's dig up everything that we've got." And maybe some of the source material was ill advised, maybe great for a comic book and not with a movie. The same thing happens with musicals. Baz Lurhmann came out with Moulin Rogue, and then a whole lot of people made musicals -- some worked. Chicago worked, but many didn't. It's got to have a reason to be a movie.
EI: Are they coming around to an X-Men 4 eventually?
HJ: Many directors wanted to do this film, I'm happy to say, because of the strength of this script. I know Jim. When he came in, he just had such a clear vision of where this movie should go. He had the best take. He's done many, many genres, and I know he's done many things, but I look at 3:10 To Yuma, and when he started talking about The Outlaw Josie Wales, I was like, "Okay, now I think we're on the right track," and then he had a couple of things, even with Darren's version of the script, that I think hadn't been solved that he just knew he had the key. He had the key to the script. It's very hard to explain, but with this movie, (Steven) Spielberg said, "Shawn has made many, many successful movies." I don't know if you know, but he's one of the top-ten grossing directors of all time, but he said, "He's made many, many successful movies, but this is his first film." When Shawn rang me up, he said, "None of the movies I've done are going to make you think I can do this film," and then he proceeded to go into his vision, and all I can tell you is that his directorial terms were like Kobe Bryant. He just had that thing, like, "Give me the ball. There's two seconds to go with two points behind. Give me the ball." I just felt that immediately, and Jim has that too.
EI: One of the miracles of the movie is that you weren't upstaged by these huge robots. Can you talk about that?
HJ: In all seriousness, there's great restraint from Shawn. He never lost sight of the fact that we need to make people feel for these robots. This is not a showcase. This is not a special FX extravaganza. This is not, "Oh wow. Cool." The only goal is, at the end, to have people cheering and feeling for that robot. Now that's not an easy thing to achieve. There's great restraint. All the special FX which I've done -- and I can tell you, not easy and latest generation -- there was only one goal, which was to draw the audience in and believe in this world.
EI: The great cameo that you had in X-Men: First Class -- talk about how that came about, and also why you hold that character close to your heart.
HJ: They asked me to do that a year before I did it, and I said, "Pitch me the concept." I thought, "Okay, yeah, I like that." I said, "Is anyone else swearing in the movie?" and they said, "We don't think so." I said, "Promise me no one else swears in the movie, and I'm in."
EI: It's the first F-word in the history of the X-Men franchise.
HJ: You got it. It was perfect. This is great. Fifty percent of Wolverine's dialogue should be "f*ck." It feels right for me, and actually, that particular take was a little ad-lib that I did at the end. It was the last take we did. But they asked me to shoot down in Savannah while we were there, and then they said no, and then they said, "We're going to shoot in L.A.," and then they said, "Oh, we don't need it." Then they came around to re-shoots and they said, "Actually, we think we have more film than we can cope with. We probably don't need the cameo." They rang me a week later and said, "Oh look, it's such a good idea. Lets just shoot it. We probably won't use it in the movie. Can we just shoot it?" I said, "Fine." There was more secrecy to that than I've ever known. I actually checked into a hotel...
EI: Under an assumed name?
HJ: I didn't realize it. I said, "Jackman," and they said, "There's no reservation for you." I was like, "I'm pretty sure there is." Then finally, I was under some comic book name. I can't even remember what it was. Even the hotel had to be booked under some weird name.
EI: Why do you still want to be Wolverine?
HJ: I love that character. It was the first film I did in America, and somehow I lucked upon the greatest of all the superhero roles because he feels very human, has dilemmas and demons, and battles feel more like they're human. I don't feel like a guy with claws and ridiculous hair. I feel like a guy battling against life.
EI: Are you coming around to an X-Men 4, or do you think, at this point, it's just going to be Wolverine on his own?
HJ: I don't see it. I can only see one movie ahead, and I'm pretty sure I'm well into the second half of this match. I don't know exactly when the end is, but I only go one at a time. If this is the last one, fingers crossed we're finally going to get that hole-in-one.
EI: Can you see yourself popping up in a First Class Part 2?
HJ: If they come up with as good an idea as last time, I'd say yeah.
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures' 'Real Steel' is released on October 7, 2011.