- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 31, 2001

LOS ANGELES The emergence of Australian filmmakers and performers has enhanced English-language movies appreciably during the past generation.

The most conspicuous examples are the Oscar winners: Mel Gibson, doubly honored in 1995 for producing and directing "Braveheart"; Geoffrey Rush, a stealthy contender for best actor a year later in "Shine"; and Russell Crowe, now the reigning best actor recipient for "Gladiator."

It may be only a matter of time before Hugh Jackman gets similar esteemed in Hollywood. Mr. Jackman is known at home for musical theater, a specialty that took him to London for an acclaimed Trevor Nunn revival of "Oklahoma." He was a potent, albeit camouflaged, asset to the science-fiction thriller "X-Men," in which he portrayed the hirsute, claw-sprouting mutant called Wolverine.

He may not save the lackluster new romantic comedy "Someone Like You," ostensibly a showcase for leading lady Ashley Judd, but his presence as her amorous consolation, an easygoing stud named Eddie, prevents the movie from seeming a complete waste of time.

Mr. Jackman, radiating nonchalant cordiality and virility at press interviews here, improves on the amusing good impressions he brings to a wobbly trifle of a movie. During the interviews, Mr. Jackman reveals that he's extremely interested in a proposal to join the repertory cast for the Kennedy Center's cycle of Stephen Sondheim revivals. Since "Oklahoma" failed to clear theatrical customs, owing to the objections of Actors' Equity about permitting a predominantly British cast to re-create their roles on Broadway, Mr. Jackman could end up introducing himself to American theatergoers as a Kennedy Center attraction.

"Someone Like You" was based in New York City last summer and fall, which gave Mr. Jackman a happy dose of the city. "It was one of the most fun times of my life," he says. "I had a newborn baby. I was in New York for longer than three days at a time. The atmosphere on set was always vibrant.

"Ashley sort of started it. She has this penchant for playing games. Charades, Pictionary, all kinds of things. Greg Kinnear and I got right into it. There was no hanging out in your trailer. It was all telling jokes, playing games, hanging out with the company. After doing Wolverine, it was a real catharsis for me to, well, speak, and not spend hours a day getting my hair done."

The film's director, Tony Goldwyn, was impressed with Mr. Jackman's performance in an Australian feature, "The Erskineville Kings." He advised producer Lynda Obst and Fox executives, already receptive because of "X-Men," that this might be their the last opportunity to secure Mr. Jackman's services at bargain rates. The actor pretty much swept Mrs. Obst off her feet, especially with a spontaneous medley from "Oklahoma" during their first meeting.

"I played the older of two brothers who get together the day before their father's funeral," Mr. Jackman says of "The Erskineville Kings." He believes the film could find an audience here. "I'm really proud of it," he says. "We had a really beautiful script, with really good insights into Australian males. The current thinking is that we haven't learned to talk. It's really the opposite. You go into a bar and there's a lot of chatter. The trick is to separate the revealing stuff from the commonplaces."

Mr. Jackman replies with a ready "Yep" when asked if American and Australian men differ significantly. "Well," he qualifies, "I think it's applicable to men and women. There are these cultural distinctions I have observed. Australians have a real zest for life. It comes from an attitude that if your work becomes more important than your life, you've got things kinda the wrong way round. Here, I generally find, work is more important than private life. That's not necessarily a bad thing. And if I were an American trying to transact business in Australia, it might be a bit frustrating. You'd hear a lot of 'Sure, mate, I'll get that for you tomorrow.' It reflects this feeling that you ought to have fun with what you're doing, because if it's not fun, it's probably not worth doing."

Mr. Jackman goes on to describe his compatriots as proud and tough. "They're tough on films and theater, among other things," he says. "We have a saying that kind of sums up a national outlook. Like, if you go and see a game of cricket, you'll hear people yelling out, 'Have a go, you mug.' Even if someone's doing well and has scored a hundred runs, they'll be on him if the effort seems to slack off a bit. If you're the person in the bungee jump line who walks back down the platform without taking a plunge, you're really not going to make it in Australia. It's better to cry and weep while you dive over the abyss. Australians will still admire you for 'having a go.'"

Mr. Jackman grew up avid to have a go at everything. "I guess I was more athletic than anything else," he says. "I was a voracious kid and went to a school where you did everything. It was sort of a headache for my parents, who had five of us. They'd constantly pick me up from guitar lessons in order to get me to the soccer field and the rugby match and then the school play. I was always at them to enroll me in this and that, take me to this and that. I was kind of a nightmare of activity. My memories of growing up are lots of activities, lots of outdoors."

Melbourne was Mr. Jackman's hometown. He now lives in Sydney. During the shooting of "Someone Like You," he was overcome with an irresistible wave of patriotic nostalgia. "I was watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics and found myself tearing up," he says. "I booked a flight back as soon as possible when I had four consecutive days off. I didn't want to miss out entirely while my town was hosting the Olympics.'

Mr. Jackman describes himself as "incredibly happily married." His wife is the actress Deborra-Lee Furness. The exploitation film "Shame," in which she portrayed a crusading lawyer who traveled by motorcycle, circulated in the United States in 1988. The Jackmans' son, Oscar Maximilian, is now 10 months old.

Has anyone warned Mr. Jackman that a stable family life might inhibit his allure? "The subject has come up," he says, "but if it does, so be it. I find it difficult to understand how people can go away on location for three months or so without their family. It would have to be a pretty amazing job for me to do that right now. My family's the most important thing in my life. I wouldn't trade it in for anything, especially not a movie."

Mr. Jackman and Miss Furness met while acting in a popular Australian television series called "Corelli." He explains that she was the star, cast as a prison psychologist. He was the jittery newcomer in an experienced troupe, cast as "Kevin Jones, armed robber." The plot obliged them to share an impassioned attraction "between the bars." By Episode 10, "We were up against the bars, kissing. Then I got transferred. End of story."

Not off the screen, off course. "I was too self-absorbed to notice anyone else at first," he says. "When my myopia started to clear, I noticed that everyone seemed to have a crush on Deborra-Lee. The producer. The whole crew. That's how I finally realized that I did, too. I used to watch this producer stare at her and think, 'How pathetic.' One day it dawned on me that I was doing the same thing."

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