The Aussie actor is on fire

Spotlight

He's on screen as a penguin, a rat, a Wolverine and a magician

Spotlight on: Hugh Jackman

October 20, 2006|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critic

Hugh Jackman is neither a magician nor a pampered house rat. But he's playing one in the movies this year. He's also playing an emperor penguin, a mutant with razor-sharp claws and a really bad temper, a suspected upper-class British serial killer and a man obsessed with discovering the fabled fountain of youth.

That's a pretty busy schedule for one actor, but Jackman chuckles when asked if he's vying to win the title of Busiest Man in Hollywood. He finished filming Darren Aronof- sky's The Fountain 18 months ago, and has been working on a pair of animated movies - Flushed Away (opening Nov. 3), in which he voices the rat, and Happy Feet (opening Nov. 17), where he gets to be a fretful penguin - off and on for two or three years.

"I think I appear busier than I am," he offers over the telephone from Los Angeles, where he's in the midst of a press tour for Flushed Away.

Still, add those three films to May's X-Men: The Last Stand, where he got to reprise the role of Wolverine; July's Scoop, where he played an aristocrat trying to convince reporter Scarlett Johansson that he's not a serial killer; and today's The Prestige, which casts him opposite Christian Bale as turn-of-the-century magicians whose obsessive rivalry turns deadly ... hey, is there any 2006 movie that doesn't star Hugh Jackman?

"OK," the 38-year-old actor says, reluctantly acknowledging the obvious. "I at least want a nomination for that Busiest Man award."

Jackson's omnipresence isn't testimony to a lack of imagination on the part of Hollywood casting directors, however. Rather, it's testimony to the impact this native Australian has had on American film since almost literally exploding onto movie screens with his adrenalized star turn as Wolverine in 2000's X-Men. Handsome and energetic, he quickly became an audience favorite - and just as quickly proved his versatility, playing a reluctant hero in 2001's Swordfish and a time-traveling prince in the 2001 romantic comedy Kate & Leopold.

He even hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live and won a 2004 Tony for Broadway's The Boy From Oz, in which he played Australian singer-songwriter Peter Allen (for good measure, he also served as host for the Tony Awards ceremony at which his win was announced). And yet, he says he had to chase after his role in The Prestige, in which he plays the more charismatic, but perhaps less skilled, of the rival magicians. Turns out he wasn't the only actor in Hollywood anxious to work with director Christopher Nolan, hot off his successes with 2000's Memento and 2005's Batman Begins.

"This thing was one of those hot scripts, everybody was talking about it," Jackman says. "I was pretty much ready to jump onboard right then, as soon as I heard Chris [Nolan] was involved."

Of course, Jackman was working at the time, filming X-Men: The Last Stand in Vancouver. But with X-Men director Brett Ratner's blessing, he took the day off, flew down to Los Angeles and met with Nolan.

"I think it's safe to say I chased the role," he says. "I was open, I said, `I'll play whatever role, either role, I don't care. I just want to be a part of it.'"

Playing Robert Angier, a proud magician whose drive is fueled by both an ambition to be the best and a determination to avenge the death of his wife, the victim of a magic trick gone horribly wrong, offered the chance to try out some new acting muscles, Jackman says.

"The fuel for his fire is really his ambition, his desire to be No. 1, to be the best," he says. "In part, that's his raison d'etre. You mix vengeance with all that, you mix anger ... you mix all that together, it's a fairly dangerous cocktail."

Working on Flushed Away proved a far less weighty affair, Jackman says, but no less enjoyable. He especially relished the chance to work for Britain's Aardman Animations, a much-beloved production company most famous for the series of Wallace & Gromit films (the latest of which, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, won last year's Oscar for feature-length animation).

"I remember watching one of their earlier films, the Wrong Trousers, and I was just an instant fan," he says. "It used to be my favorite gift to people. I felt like I had discovered these guys. Little did I know they'd been winning Oscars already."

Providing the voice for Roddy, a pampered pet rat whose adventures begin when he's flushed down a high-class toilet and is forced to live among all the riff-raff rats he's spent his life avoiding, opened yet another sub-heading in Jackman's acting resume.

He's not about to complain about how hard the work was; after all, the filmmakers could set up shop wherever Jackman happened to be any given day, be it London, Melbourne or New York, and simply record away for a couple hours. Still, voice-acting presented its own set of challenges.

"On one level, it's terrifically free and easy," he says. "You walk into a room, no hair, no makeup, you switch a button and you're recording everything for four hours. But you get used to using your facial expressions and so much more on film. Just to be using your voice is a different skill."

Next up on Jackman's dance card is The Tourist, a mystery drama where he'll be starring alongside Ewan McGregor and Michelle Williams. And then, if the stars align just right, there may be a Wolverine movie.

"I would definitely say it's in the probable category," Jackman says. "We actually have a final draft, and now we're looking for a director. Then we've got to talk to the star of the movie about finding the time."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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