We’ve seen him play superheroes, saviours and showmen, but we’ve never seen Hugh Jackman embrace his dark side like this before.
With his charismatic screen presence, box office bankability and reputation as The Nicest Man In Hollywood™, Jackman is a natural leading man. We’re used to seeing him in a heroic light, largely because he’s strapped on the claws to play Wolverine an unprecedented seven times (and he’s about to go for an eighth).
Even on the odd occasion when he’s played characters standing on dubious moral ground – the ambitious magician in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige; the desperate father in Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners – the audience has always stood firmly on his side.
But in his latest film, he’s throwing all that out the window.
Jackman plays the villainous pirate Blackbeard in Pan, director Joe Wright’s big and bold Peter Pan origin story. He’s virtually unrecognisable in the role, which required him to shave his head, grow a goatee, and don rotting false teeth.
“I loved it,” he beams. “This ‘nice guy’ thing is exhausting. This is the real me. Finally!”
The reality, of course, is that the deranged Blackbeard is about a million miles away from the ‘real’ Hugh Jackman – and that’s just one of the reasons he enjoyed playing the part.
“Not only is playing a villain more fun, but it’s just easier,” he laughs. “It’s taken me all this time to work this out. When you play the hero, you basically get beaten up for the entire movie, and then you finally come through and you win the last fight. But when you play the villain, you’re on top the whole way and you only have to lose that last fight, so that’s pretty great.
“You don’t have to carry every scene, because you’re only in about 40 per cent of the movie, and you usually have better dialogue than the hero. And I’m a big ham from way back, so Blackbeard’s costumes, the wigs, the big speeches… it was all right up my alley.
“Joe said he wanted me to be theatrical, and he wanted me to go big, but he also wanted to see the darkness and the loneliness and the slightly haunted side to the character.”
Jackman is not the film’s leading man — that honour belongs to Brisbane child actor Levi Miller, making his big screen debut as the titular character — but he’s certainly the top-billed star. Pan is an over-the-top film, to say the least, and Blackbeard is its most over-the-top role.
When we first meet him, he’s on a pirate ship high above Neverland, leading an army of child slaves through a choral rendition of Nirvana’s Smell Like Teen Spirit. It’s a hell of a first impression.
“That wasn’t even in the script,” Jackman remembers. “Joe Wright came up with that idea about three weeks into rehearsal. I’ll never forget that day, mate. I thought he was just doing it as a vocal exercise or something, but no, it turned out he really wanted that to be Blackbeard’s entrance. I thought it was so cool, because it sets the tone for Neverland.
“This is a kid’s imagination, anything is possible, and all the adults have to be equal parts frightening and ridiculous.”
It’s a potent mix that harkens back to the first film that captured Jackman’s imagination as a child.
“I always remember watching The Wizard of Oz when I was a kid, and I think it’s important that you have a little bit of menace, even in a kids’ film. Admittedly, I was only five, but The Wicked Witch of the West scared the hell out of me when I was a kid. I remember those monkeys of hers, and I remember being absolutely terrified and hiding behind my seat at Terrigal Cinema.”
Jackman will get back to his musical roots later this year, when he brings his Broadway To Oz tour to venues around Australia (including the Brisbane Entertainment Centre). The production showcases numbers from The Boy From Oz and Les Miserables, and even a tune dedicated to his role as Wolverine.
On the set of Pan, however, Jackman was inspired by a very different type of music. To help ensure the actor was in a menacing frame of mind, Joe Wright would flood the set with the sounds of nihilistic South African rap group Die Antwoord. “He’s a little twisted,” Jackman laughs, “and he likes to play music to set the tone.”
No matter how deep into character he got, though, Jackman insists Blackbeard never followed him home.
“I can switch off. I work really hard at figuring out how to get into character, but I’m pretty good at leaving it behind in the evening. At this point in the game, you know, I have to be. I don’t think anyone in my family wants Blackbeard walking through the door.
“It certainly wouldn’t get very far with my wife! I’m in no doubt about who’s in charge of the pirate ship at my house, mate.”
The crew of the pirate ship at Jackman’s house, of course, includes his two adopted children, Oscar and Ava. Given that Pan opens with our titular hero being given up for adoption by his mother, this must have affected Jackman’s approach to the material.
“Absolutely,” he confirms. “You know, when I read the script, I was obviously very sensitive to the message of the movie and the language of the movie as it related to adoption. I really watched it very, very closely. There were a couple of things I rang Joe about, actually, and I said, ‘I’m uncomfortable with this, because at some point, I’ll have to sit down with my kids and watch the movie’. So he actually changed a couple of things for me, which was nice.
“But it’s such an enduring story. It’s not really about adoption – it’s a fantasy and a metaphor for kids finding out who they are, finding themselves, and finding their tribe.”
Pan is in cinemas Thursday 24 September. Hugh Jackman’s live show, Broadway To Oz, will play at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre from 5-6 December.