“It was kind of a miracle that I got into musical theater,” the actor Hugh Jackman said the other day, recalling the start of his career in 1995. “I’d just graduated, and my agent said they couldn’t find anyone to play Gaston in [the Australian production of] ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ so I went in and gave it a go. I got the part, but it was in my contract to get singing lessons once a week. I’ve very much felt like an outsider from the beginning.”
Now in the running for his third Tony Award, for his portrayal of the all-American con man Harold Hill in a revival of “The Music Man,” the Australian native recounted what it’s been like to return to the stage for his first Broadway musical since 2003. (Though he hasn’t been a total stranger; he starred in “A Steady Rain” in 2009 and “The River” in 2014.) Throughout an afternoon hour at a Midtown hotel, Jackman came across as a curious performer who leads with the affirmative; his is a disarming charm sculpted out of consideration and confidence.
Despite his long list of credits and accolades, Jackman, 53, seems as eager to please as he is to jump into the next adventure. He has an inquisitive mind, which I experienced firsthand when he audited a graduate film history course at Columbia University that I also attended in the spring 2020 semester. His friend Annette Insdorf taught the course, and when the pandemic shut down in-person classes, Jackman continued attending the four-hour seminars through Zoom.
“I have a layman’s understanding of film. I would ask directors for five films I should see before I die, and almost all of them I’d never seen,” he said. “I asked Annette for help, and she told me to just join her course.”
At the time, he was promoting the HBO film “Bad Education,” in which he played a real-life former school superintendent who pleaded guilty to stealing $2 million from his district, and beginning early “Music Man” rehearsals with his future co-star Sutton Foster.
These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
You play larger-than-life scammers in both “The Music Man” and “Bad Education.” Did one role inform the other?
I’m very fascinated by the collective fascination with con men and scam artists, and there’s some crossover there with P.T. Barnum [whom he portrayed in the film “The Greatest Showman”]. I’m still not 100 percent sure where it comes from, but I think it’s deeply rooted in a very American individualist philosophy of not doing what the man tells you to do.
You’ve lived in the United States for about 20 years. Do you consider yourself an American?
I’m Australian. I think America’s an extraordinary place, though — there are very few places as generous of spirit.
Do you think that generosity is what draws Americans to scammers?
It goes back to this sense of individualism, and the ultimate expression of that is the con man, who goes against everything and flips the rules of hierarchy. Australia has got a little bit of that, but we saw during the pandemic that Australians follow the rules. There’s a collective, “We should really be doing this,” and people fall in line. And as we saw here, there’s no falling in line.
So is your draw to these characters pure escapism?
What I love about acting is exploring the sides of people who choose to live in a way opposite to how we were brought up, and can’t believe everyone around them is still following the rules. So it’s not escapism; it’s just fun to play something I wouldn’t allow or want myself to do in life. I’m glad everyone is not Harold Hill, but it’s great fun to play as arrogant as you possibly can for two and a half hours. Self-deprecating kind of gets boring after a while.
How does the role feel six months into the show’s run?
For me, this big show with a cast of 47 keeps growing. I’m in a lead role, but it doesn’t feel as exhausting as I’ve experienced [in other shows] in the past. I think it’s the way they built these old shows. I’m onstage a lot, and driving a lot of it, but it’s different: I go on at the beginning, sing the first number, and go off to have a costume change. I’m not a smoker, but it feels like a cigarette break, which I’m pretty sure is what a lot of them were doing back then.
There are some days when I go in tired, but by the third scene: “Wow. I’m back.” There’s something about this show that buoys me up with an energy that I didn’t think I had. And when you’re working with Sutton —
Has she taught you about stamina? She’s a star who puts in the work of a swing.
She’s a marvel. I certainly have to bring my triple-A game. Asking me to tap dance alongside Sutton Foster is like asking me to play Novak Djokovic on the court. Rehearsals with her were fun, but it was kind of dispiriting to spend a year and a half working on that and then watch these kids come in and learn it in three hours.
You’d never worked with this many children onstage, let alone in a show with 21 Broadway debuts. Do you find yourself parenting them?
It has become a little bit like that, particularly with the youngsters. I guess some of them see me as Wolverine [the superhero character he plays in the “X-Men” film series], so it feels a little paternal. I think, particularly for the kids in their first show, I want them to still be kids and not lose that joy. I’m protective of them.
Did you feel a danger of losing your own joy during your rise?
There were times when I was doing the first “X-Men,” my first big American movie, when I found it quite lonely. I was mainly from the theater, and you could feel that sense of, “Mmm, it’s a bad smell.” I don’t know exactly when things turned, but when the studio said they liked what I was doing, I could feel everyone coming to me. It made me sad. I realized film was more individual, less of an ensemble. The theater thrives on, and has to have, a feeling of ensemble, or it dies. There’s just no way to get through rehearsals, or eight shows a week, unless you have each other’s backs.
So ever since that first movie, I’ve been pretty proactive in trying to create an atmosphere that is supportive and open. I want to make sure that even under the pressure of a professional situation these kids are still kids.
Have you seen any other shows this season?
No, but I really want to see the Scottish play.
Even outside the theater, you won’t say its name?
I’m a more fearful person than most people would think. I forced myself through a lot of those fears and, though I wish I’d been less harsh with myself, I’m glad I pushed through because I think fear is not specific to the thing you think you’re scared of. Before you know it, it becomes cancerous and grows until your life becomes smaller without you even realizing it. I have a constant wish to be free of that, and to just say yes to things.
Going between film and theater, though — it’s one thing to say yes to a film that flops, and then you move on, whereas a show is a long commitment.
Well, if the show really sucks and everyone hates it, you’re going to close pretty quick. The way I live with that sort of thing is by being clear about why I’m doing something. If I really believe in the choice, I’ve done it for the right reason. I don’t ever read reviews, and with “The Boy From Oz,” I thought we’d been doing great until producers told us they weren’t sure we were going to make it. By the end we were going gangbusters, and they asked me to stay on for three more months. You have to hold on to the feeling you have in front of an audience, and be honest with yourself about where you can improve.
You’ve said you were hesitant to do “The Music Man” because you wanted to wait for an original piece. What changed?
Whenever I went to the theater in school, I wanted to see something new. I wasn’t a musical theater guy desperate to see this version of that, I just wanted to see something great that moved me, and most of the time, that would be new work.
When I then found myself in a position where people asked me what I wanted to do, I wanted to use that capital on something new. I tried to get a few things going that didn’t happen — a “Houdini” musical, some workshops for “Big Fish,” and I learned how hard it all was. Then “Showman” took eight years to get made, and that’s when I realized: OK, “The Music Man” is a great show. It’s beautifully written, beautifully structured, and I just knew I had to do it. I would still love to do something original onstage.
What about a ground-up revision? A gender-swapped “Hello, Dolly!” perhaps?
I think it’d be fun, I’m totally up for that. Sutton and I actually joked about doing an April Fools’ joke and swapping roles. I certainly know her songs; I listen to them every night. But my soprano is not so great.
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