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Taking No Prisoners

Multitalented actor Hugh Jackman takes a dramatic turn in his darkest role yet.

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Hugh Jackman, the beyond-charming Australian-born actor, has come a long way from his first—and worst—job “inside a koala suit in the summer, in Sydney, for 12 bucks an hour, running around promoting the national park and wildlife foundation,” as he describes it.

Jackman received an Oscar nod last year for his rendition of the courageous protagonist, Jean Valjean, of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, about which he says, “Getting that recognition from your peers is very, very satisfying.”

But, of course, Jackman isn’t just a thespian. His range is far-reaching. He’s an incredible dancer and singer—talents that earned him a Best Actor Tony Award for The Boy From Oz, his favorite role to date. “It was about the excitement of being able to ad-lib every night,” he says. “Plus, I could be way kinkier and naughtier as Peter Allen.”

For all the accolades, Jackman is humble as humble gets—in fact, he’s known as the nicest guy in Hollywood. But being nice comes naturally for him. Simply put, his father brought him up to be respectful. He also loves his craft. What Jackman appreciates most about his career is not the recognition that’s been coming in droves these days, but the people with whom he gets to perform. “On this last film [the forthcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past], I was working with three Academy Award actresses and Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult, Jennifer Lawrence—that turns me on more than anything.” His secret to staying on a path: “Know thyself. I meditate twice a day.”

Jackman’s also a physical specimen, having had no choice but to maintain a hardcore fitness regimen in order to master superhuman parts, such as the title role in this summer’s blockbuster The Wolverine and the character’s turn in the upcoming installment of the X-Men series due out in 2014. “Water dehydration got me that ripped look, but I’m so low on energy I’m literally sleeping all the time because I’m on a zero-carbs, limited-calories diet. It’s pretty brutal,” the muscleman confesses. It’s his “persistence and hard work” that’s his real formula for success. As a result of all the exhaustion, Jackman says, “I’m the busiest sleeper on the planet. My wife says about every 15 seconds I kick, run, turn around, like I’m running a marathon. If you’re on a plane next to me, you wonder what’s going on with that guy.”

The spiritually centered actor is also busy being husband to actress Deborra-Lee Furness and dad to Oscar, 13, and Ava, 8, who make Tribeca their home. It’s not child-rearing that Jackman finds tough, though, it’s the extra attention celebrity kids garner. “It’s difficult, because in our line of work, it’s not just attention—they’re sometimes treated differently than other kids. Like being given gifts, which is slightly warped. Navigating that is probably one of the most difficult things to do as a parent.”

The lessons he’s learned as a parent come in handy in the actor’s on-screen life, too. Jackman says he likes to “mix it up” when it comes to choosing roles, no matter what dark places they may take him. His latest star turn is in a dramatic thriller titled Prisoners, opposite Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard and Melissa Leo, with Oscar-nominated director Denis Villeneuve at the helm. “I thought it was a very suspenseful thriller, but also a great drama—something I hadn’t played before, that kind of intensity, that certain father-child relationship.”

The film’s plot embodies every parent’s worst nightmare: A father’s 6-year-old daughter is kidnapped on Thanksgiving. In this case, in a part-vigilante, part-heroic but always gut-wrenching fashion, the dad decides to take the law into his own hands by kidnapping and torturing the suspected kidnapper.

“Keller Dover is ready to sell his soul to find his daughter,” says Villeneuve of Jackman’s character. “By doing so, he will also hurt himself in a very profound way.” It’s a moral dilemma with which no parent should ever be faced.

“You actually don’t know how you’re going to react in that kind of a situation,” says Jackman. “Number one priority as a parent is to protect your child. Being out of control and not being able to do that, and feeling helpless, is really devastating; and as a parent, even if you disagree, you understand. Obviously, it’s seen very differently in the eyes of the law, but the thing I’m most interested in exploring is how people respond in dramatic situations they’re not prepared for.”

The biggest challenge of this particular dramatic role was the angst and intensity of emotion Jackman’s character endures—not to mention the reaction the actor felt as a real-life father. “We’ve all been parented, so you understand that relationship is one of the most important we’ll ever have, along with being a partner, or being married. It’s something we all intrinsically know, and it’s impossible to separate yourself from it. At the mere mention of a situation like this, I feel a kind of rage or emotion that’s frightening, actually.”

Jackman’s ability to plumb such darkness surprised, and impressed, those on set. “I will always remember how Hugh was totally engaged and committed. I felt from the start he trusted me and was ready to jump in total darkness with me,” says Villenueve. “This really touched me. I was deeply impressed by his sensibility and how precise and powerful an artist he is.”

For Jackman, the physical training for any role is more difficult than the mental. “The physical preparation gets harder and the emotional preparation gets easier,” he explains. “For an action movie like Wolverine, the director, James Mangold, rode me hard—he wanted me to have a deeper version of the character. But having played action characters about 16 times, that comes easier to me now.”

Luckily, he relishes his silver-screen exploits. “For many years, stage was my favorite, and if you were to ask me my highlights as an actor, most of them would be onstage,” he says. “But in the last two or three years—maybe it’s the opportunities I’ve had, or just where I’m at in my life—I’ve been enjoying film just as much. I was brought up in the theater, so I felt very at home on the stage, but it takes a little while to feel that same level of comfort on a sound stage.”

But Broadway, of course, continues to call. Jackman—along with assorted talent from the smash show Wicked—is deep in rehearsals for a workshop of a musical based on the life of Harry Houdini, slated to premiere next year. And he still sings his favorite show tunes to his kids, like “Soliloquy” from Carousel. “It’s one of the greatest songs ever written,” he says. “It’s like Hamlet—it’s the ‘to be or not to be’ of musical theater.”

Not surprisingly, Jackman’s kids are as comfortable in a Broadway theater as they are at home. “During one of the last shows, my daughter, Ava, put her hand up like she was in class and said, ‘Do you mind if I go to the toilet, Dad?’” he recalls. “So she and her friend came down the aisle, walked up on the stage, and went through the wings to my dressing room. I think they’ve been around the theater too much!”

They’re also not shy about taking the stage with him. “My son’s performed with me about a dozen times,” he says. “In my one-man show I had some indigenous players come up and play some didgeridoo with me, and my son is a really good didgeridoo player!”

This month, Jackman’s one-man show, One Night Only, runs at the Dolby Theatre on Oct. 12, to benefit the Motion Picture & Television Fund. “I’ve been doing events for them for years,” says Jackman. “When Jim Gianopulos and Jeffrey Katzenberg saw my show in New York, they asked if I could do a benefit for them, and I’m thrilled. I’m going to have a lot of gifts. I tell stories about my life; I have a great time.”

Clearly Jackman is an altruist who likes to give as much as perform.