This is a story about grief in New York. Hugh Jackman’s father died while he was making “The Son.” But instead of taking time off, Jackman kept playing Peter, a workaholic struggling to take care of his family: a new baby, a partner and a teenage son, Nicholas, suffering from a frightening depression. Jackman, 54, related to Peter as both a father of two kids and as a son. Jackman’s dad raised him after his mother abandoned their family in Australia when Jackman was 8. Jackman visited his father, who’d been living with Alzheimer’s for 12 years, right before shooting his first scene as Peter.
“He was nearing the end,” Jackman says over a recent lunch in downtown Manhattan, where he lives with his wife, Deborra-Lee Furness. “So he was ostensibly gone, mentally. He would still smile a bit. I didn’t know he was going to physically pass away, but I knew it was kind of a goodbye.” Jackman’s eyes flicker, momentarily losing that joyful glint they usually possess.
Filming “The Son” in a COVID-19 bubble in September 2021, Jackman pulled director Florian Zeller aside one morning to tell him about his dad’s death. “My father never missed a day of work,” Jackman says, explaining why he resisted taking time off to grieve. “I could feel him. I knew if he could talk to me, he’d be like, ‘You got to go to work! What are you talking about?’ I felt his presence on the set.”
In the early 2000s, after he’d gained worldwide fame in “The X-Men,” Jackman would invite his father to his movie sets, where the old man — an accountant named Christopher John — would quietly perch behind the monitors, working on crossword puzzles. It’s this portrait of his father that stays with him. “I literally could see him in the corner of the room,” Jackman says about the scenes he shot on “The Son” after his father’s passing. “I had an image of him on set, standing behind the action. My father worked incredibly hard — looking after five kids, the weight of the world on his shoulders. I had the feeling of him being completely free. That really helped me.”
The A-list star who played Wolverine in nine movies (and is coming back for at least one more) has charted a career for himself that’s spanned musicals (“Les Misérables” and “The Greatest Showman”), crime dramas (“Prisoners” and “Bad Education”) and Broadway (he’s currently starring in a revival of “The Music Man”). He’s toured the globe as the star of the 2019 concert, “The Man. The Music. The Show.,” belting out some of his favorite hits — from “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to “Gaston” — to sold-out stadiums. He’s hosted the Tony Awards four times, and his stint as the emcee of the 2009 Oscars was the closest we’ve come to seeing a genial song-and-danceman successor to Billy Crystal. “The Son” fundamentally changed Jackman as an actor and as a man. And when the independently financed movie from Sony Pictures Classics opens in theaters on Nov. 25, “The Son” will probably change how you see Jackman.
Most of Jackman’s roles have only reaffirmed his reputation as the kindest movie star in Hollywood. “He’s the nicest man ever,” says Laura Dern, who plays Nicholas’ mother in “The Son.” Michael Barker, the co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, offers: “He’s one of the most quality human beings I’ve ever met.” Jackman’s pal Ryan Reynolds who first worked with him on 2009’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” remembers being jet-lagged when he arrived on set, and how warmly Jackman greeted him, calling out his name as if they were already best friends. “The thing about Hugh is that he’s always been consistently himself,” Reynolds says.
Jackman’s ease and amiability are reinforced both in person (he shakes hands with every crew member at our photo shoot, which helps ease his nervousness at being the center of attention) and on Instagram, where he posts off-the-cuff videos — walking his dogs, drinking a glass of wine, commemorating the retirement of a 10-year-old pair of dance shoes — to his 31 million followers. He even knows the name of one of his fans (Annette), who has seen “The Music Man” 115 times, casually bringing her up in conversation as if she’s a member of his inner circle.
Jackman is so congenial that it’s funny when he tells a story about how he didn’t get cast as the hunk in “Miss Congeniality.” (More on that later.) But “The Son” subverts that image, which is precisely why he wanted to play the role. The family drama is a difficult watch about a father trying, and failing, to erase the crippling pain of his son’s depression. (It’s based on a 2018 stage play by Zeller that’s part of a trilogy, following “The Father,” which was adapted into a film that won Anthony Hopkins the lead acting Oscar in 2021.) Jackman suffered from sleepless nights while making the film. As his father’s health deteriorated, he entered therapy for the first time and kept up his journal — pouring out his emotions before going to set.
“I don’t think I’m a great sleeper,” Jackman says, noting that he has restless legs syndrome. “But I have always been able to go to sleep quickly and sleep as long as I wanted. But not on this one. I look back now and I’m like, ‘Of course I wasn’t sleeping.’ There’s some history of mental illness in my family, and there was a lot of stuff coming up for me.”
“The Son” will likely earn Jackman an invitation back to the Oscars as a best actor contender (he was nominated in 2013 for “Les Miz”). The film’s release arrives at a busy time for him. In January, he’ll close his run as the tap-dancing con man, Harold Hill, in “The Music Man,” after a full year of carrying the biggest Broadway production during the pandemic. Despite mixed reviews, the show has been a smash success, raking in as much as $3 million a week.
Then he’ll suit up as Wolverine again. He’s coming out of retirement to play the clawed hero in the third “Deadpool” movie with Reynolds, which the two friends announced in September in a video that’s amassed more than 10 million views. Jackman has already started to bulk up, even as he’s losing 1,500 calories a night (per a heartrate monitor) from shimmying and belting out “Seventy-Six Trombones” to raucous applause. “Apologies to the entire cast of ‘The Music Man,’ and in particular my dresser and my wife — all the protein shakes are starting to kick in fast,” Jackman says.
He reveals that his stage costumes have already been let out twice. “The other night, I could hear the Velcro go creaking and actually popped open,” Jackman says. “I’ve split two pairs of pants.” Backstage one night, there was a race against the clock to get him a new pair: “It was an 18-inch tear,” he says. “I had about two minutes. I said to the stage manager, ‘New pair of pants!’ I had my pants around my ankles. I thought, if my dresser doesn’t get here in time, it’s better to go on in split pants than no pants. Then I saw him running from stage right to stage left, top speed. We made it just in time.”
This is a story about leaving New York. For weeks before meeting Jackman at our photo shoot, I’d been telling strangers — people in line at the pharmacy and the barber shop, cab drivers, a cashier at Home Depot — that I was abandoning the city that had been my home for 18 years, for Los Angeles. So it doesn’t seem that weird (to me anyway) that it’s the first thing I blurt out to Jackman upon seeing him on a beautiful fall day. He quizzes me about it, not approving of the move like every other New Yorker I’ve talked to.
We see each other again a few days later for lunch in SoHo, and they show us to a table by the window. I ask for something less conspicuous, but an employee tells me nothing is available, issuing the rejection without even looking at Jackman, the towering movie star in a fitted T-shirt standing next to me. As we settle into our seats, Jackman jokes that he isn’t as famous as he thought. “When I first did a movie with Meg Ryan”— it was the 2001 romantic comedy “Kate & Leopold” — “she said, ‘Oh, New York’s the best!’ I said, ‘Don’t you get bothered here?’ She goes, ‘Everyone’s moving. You can get everywhere. L.A.’s a nightmare.’”
That’s what I’ve been afraid of. Unlike most interviews with actors, this one begins with Jackman interrogating me. Have I found a place yet in L.A.? How is the packing going? Do I read a lot of books? I tell him I’ve taped up 25 boxes. “That’s not much,” he says. “Well, I did hear this when I was touring: Katy Perry has 26 semitrailers to move around for her show.”
Jackman tells funny tales about his 20s that underline his slapstick sense of humor. One of his first jobs was at a Sydney fitness center called the Physical Factory. “I was the guy opening the gym, and in my first three weeks, I slept in twice,” Jackman says. “If you want to see angry people, it’s alpha people who want to be at the gym when it opens.” He set four alarms so he was never late again, and that’s how he became a morning person.
Back then, Jackman says, he was “super skinny.” “All the guys used to make fun of me,” he says. “They nicknamed me ‘Anna.’” (He has to explain to me that this was an inappropriate joke about anorexia.) “I used to think they were idiots. I was like, ‘You spend all your day looking in a mirror. What a waste of time.’”
When he was cast in the first “X-Men” movie, replacing the Scottish actor Dougray Scott as Wolverine, he wasn’t as ripped as he needed to be for the character. The production had to push back his first scene, where he’s shirtless in a cage fight, so he could get in better shape. “I’m just a bit flabby,” Jackman says. “It took me a while to work that out.”
Before all that, though, he was taking classes at a Sydney drama school while signing up locals for gym memberships. Based on Jackman’s charisma, one customer predicted he’d be a massive movie star: It was Annie Semler, the wife of “Dances With Wolves” cinematographer Dean Semler. “She goes, ‘I know you don’t believe me, but I’m a white witch, and I see this very clearly,’” he says, telling the story as he bites into a piece of fish. She invited Jackman to her house in the Sydney suburb of Mosman so her husband could take his first headshot — still in his Physical Factory uniform — and then connected him with an agent.
Out of that came an audition for the Australian soap “Neighbours,” but Jackman turned down the part to attend a three-year drama conservatory in Perth. “I said, ‘I don’t trust that once I get started, I’m going to go back and study.’”
Eventually, his training led to TV and stage work, most notably as the star of a 1998 West End revival of “Oklahoma!” — the role that got him noticed for Wolverine. Jackman wants to make the point that he’s never been consistently good at auditions. Early in his career, his agent sent him out for the part of the love interest in “Miss Congeniality,” the romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock. Jackman didn’t want the gig, but his agent was trying to negotiate against another movie he’d been offered — “Someone Like You” with Ashley Judd.
“No one knew ‘X-Men’ yet,” Jackman says. “I was a nobody.” As he read lines opposite Bullock, he remembers thinking: “‘Holy shit! She’s amazing! And so quick and fast. I’m not even vaguely up to speed here.’ I was pedaling as fast as I could, but I didn’t know the script well enough.”
Benjamin Bratt got the part. “That’s humiliating, when your agent says, ‘I don’t want you to get this job, but just go get it.’ And then you don’t get it.”
This is the story of finding your own tribe. Before “The Son,” there was another Peter who changed Jackman’s life. He played Peter Allen in Broadway’s “The Boy From Oz.” You’ve probably seen clips of the show on social media, but I was there. When I moved to New York to be a Newsweek intern in 2004, “The Boy From Oz” was the first Broadway show I saw. I knew no one in the city, and I’d never lived anywhere with access to theater. The show, and Jackman’s performance, became a source of familiarity and comfort to me. I went back over and over again (five times in all), scoring nosebleed student rush tickets, and moving up to a box seat in the balcony that the theater never sold because it was too close to the speakers. Yes, I might have been damaging my hearing, but I was hovering over the stage — so close, it felt like the actors could see me during the ovations. Even now, all I have to do is listen to the soundtrack on YouTube, and I’m 21 again.
When Jackman arrived on Broadway in “The Boy From Oz,” he was known only as Wolverine. Critics dissed the show, but Jackman proved to be critic-proof. His mostly female groupies, who’d nicknamed themselves “the Ozalots,” started buying out every seat in the house and camped out at the stage door at intermission on nights they couldn’t score tickets. The performance won Jackman a Tony Award. Playing a loving, gay musical icon shattered the public’s perceptions about him and launched his career to a different plane; “Oz” established Jackman as a performer who could act, sing, dance and make people laugh — the very opposite of his gruff “X-Men” persona.
“The most fun I ever had was playing Peter Allen,” says Jackman, who’d drag audience members onstage and roast them during the second act. “There was, I don’t know, roughly 10 to 12 minutes of every show that was ad-libbed. Once I was 50 or 60 shows in, I felt completely free to do whatever the hell I wanted. I was an asshole at times. I brought up Barbara Walters and Matt Damon, and made Matt Damon give Barbara Walters a lap dance, which turned into me giving Matt Damon a lap dance. And he didn’t punch me.”
During a performance as Peter Allen at the 2004 Tonys at Radio City Music Hall, he surprised Sarah Jessica Parker by calling her onstage and forcing her to dance in a tight ballerina top that almost caused a wardrobe malfunction. “I really felt for her that night,” Jackman says. “As soon as she got up onstage, I could tell those boobs were about to come out.”
And so, an Oscars host was born. Would he do the job again? “Yeah,” he says. “My only rule is I don’t want to be working while I’m doing it.” Would he play Peter Allen again? “It did cross my mind a couple of times,” Jackman says. “I’m 54. Peter died at 48. So you could find a way to make it work.”
Jackman never missed a show for “The Boy From Oz,” performing through sickness and health. “I limped across the line,” he says. “I had stress fractures in my feet.” His work ethic on “The Music Man” has been just as intense, though getting COVID twice meant he was forced to cancel shows. “It was maddening, because we were in previews, and we were finding things, and I felt like we were just getting a rhythm,” Jackman says. When he got COVID the second time, in June, an understudy filled in for him. “That time, I thought I was going to go crazy,” he says. “Honestly, I would have gone on if it wasn’t COVID. I guess the show goes on without you. I was like, ‘I need to be there. What’s going on up there?’ I hated it.”
This is the story of making the movie that scares you. Knowing all this — Jackman’s love of the theater, his constant curiosity for reinvention — it makes sense why he wanted to star in “The Son.” But his connection to the script started with “The Father” — specifically, how it reflected his experience with Christopher John. When Jackman first watched that film, he was floored by Hopkins’ depiction of a man living with dementia. “He so beautifully put you inside the head of the person suffering with the disease and disorientation,” Jackman says. “Not that it mimics my father. It didn’t look like my father’s experience on the outside.” But the movie made him feel like he could understand what his dad was going through.
A little while later, his agent suggested he read the script for “The Son.” “It was like a lightning bolt,” Jackman says. “I had to play this part. As a son, as a father, I found it to be devastating, truthful. It felt like a compulsion that I long for as an actor.” He lists the ways he relates to the character of Peter: “My own fears as a parent. Am I doing the right thing? Big things, little things. Deb and I sometimes agree, sometimes disagree on how to handle things. Just the vulnerability of being a parent: that love might not be enough; that you make mistakes that really impact them negatively; that my upbringing, which was hard and had traumas, may be informing me.”
Jackman cried after he finished reading the screenplay, “a very rare thing.” He wrote Zeller an impassioned email, explaining why he wanted to play the role, but adding that if he’d already cast the part, “I’m not going to cut in on someone else’s dance.” Since Zeller hadn’t found a Peter yet, the two met over Zoom. “I wasn’t planning to make any decision,” Zeller says. “After eight minutes of that conversation, though, I stopped and offered him the role. I felt strongly he would be extraordinary.”
The script’s location moved from Paris to New York to accommodate Jackman. In the mornings, he’d find himself up before the sun rose. “I was waking up at 4 a.m., knowing I hadn’t had enough sleep,” Jackman says. “Thank God I was playing a part where I was meant to look like shit, because I was feeling pretty bad. I was worried. I would try meditating, which I’ve done for 25 years. I asked myself to be as open as I could. I had to be very kind to myself through the process.” The film’s most wrenching scenes depict Nicholas (played by Zen McGrath) on the verge of harming others or himself. “The subject matter was really hard,” Jackman says. “Many days, crew members would say, ‘I need help.’ Some of them would leave for a few hours.” They employed psychiatrists on the set in case anyone needed to talk about the upsetting material.
Zeller had one strict rule for the cast: no rehearsals allowed. Zeller wanted the actors to come to set each day and let their emotions guide them. “One of the first scenes we shot, I don’t know why, I just started weeping,” Jackman says. “I know there’s no way that’s going to be in the movie or should be in the movie. I was shocked that it happened.”
Vanessa Kirby, who plays his partner, hugged him, and they tried the scene again. “It took me a while to get my shit together, actually,” Jackman says. “And then I said, ‘OK, let’s go again.’ And we went somewhere completely different.”
In keeping with Zeller’s mandate, Jackman tried to live every scene in the moment. “I said to Florian the other day, ‘My memory of acting in this was all over the shop and a bit of a hot mess, and I’m sure you and your editor must have gone, ‘Whoa!’ He said to me, ‘I think you’re a better actor than you think you are,’ which is a nice thing to hear.”
At the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September, “The Son” was met with a 10-minute standing ovation, launching Oscar buzz for Jackman. He’d seen it for the first time just before that, with Furness and their kids — Oscar, 22, and Ava, 17 — in a private screening room. “They came and watched it with me, which made it even more emotional for me,” Jackman says. “The movie itself did change me as a parent. I’m more vulnerable in front of my kids emotionally. I’m more verbal about stuff I’m going through, even if it’s stuff to do with them.”
He hopes that “The Son” helps people talk about the underlying signs of depression. “We’re in an epidemic,” he says. “We don’t have the skills about how to have these conversations.”
This is the story of how you can go home again. Over lunch, the news about Jackman returning to Wolverine hasn’t come out yet. He’s coy about whether or not he’d play him again; the character died in James Mangold’s 2017 film “Logan,” arguably the best “X-Men” movie in the franchise’s history. Yet Jackman says he’s asked that question every day by fans, who even yell out the windows of moving cars, “Give it to me one more time, Wolverine!”
“A little part of me now thinks I’d be better at it,” Jackman says. “Is that arrogance of age or something? Wolverine’s a tortured character — more tortured than me. But I always get the feeling of him being comfortable in his own skin. And I feel more comfortable in my own skin now, even though it’s messier.”
While many beloved comic book stars have been played by multiple actors, there’s really only been one Wolverine in the movies. “Well, I was greedy,” Jackman says. “I held on to it for 20 years. And then, of course, since I left, it’s been bought by Disney. I’m sure the plans are afoot.”
A few weeks later, I talk to Jackman on the phone, and those plans are clear. “I straight-up lied,” he says. “But you’re not the only one I lied to, let me tell you.”
He really meant it when he said he was retiring as Wolverine. But then in 2016, “I went to a screening of ‘Deadpool.’ I was 20 minutes in, and I was like, ‘Ah, damn it!’ All I kept seeing in my head was ‘48 Hours’ with Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy. So it’s been brewing for a long time. It just took me longer to get here.”
At the end of August, during a road trip to the beach with his family, he finally made the decision. He called Reynolds, who’d been pleading “on the daily” for a Wolverine-Deadpool movie. “I think, actually, he’d given up,” Jackman says. “I think it was a big shock to him. There was a massive pause, and then he said, ‘I can’t believe the timing of this.’”
Reynolds was about to meet with Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige about “Deadpool 3.” With Jackman in, the rest is comic book movie history.
“Oh my God, I’m thrilled,” Reynolds tells me. “It’s like old home week. To get to be on set with one of my closest friends each and every day is a dream come true. But to do it with these two iconic characters side by side, that’s beyond our wildest dreams.” Reynolds adds that the first time he talked to Feige — three and a half years ago after Disney bought Fox — he’d pushed for bringing in Wolverine. “It wasn’t possible then,” Reynolds says. “For this to be happening now is pretty damn exciting.”
It’s not clear what the new movie will be about. It’s not even necessarily going to be named “Deadpool 3.”
“Well, not in my heart,” Jackman says. “I’m pretty sure Wolverine wouldn’t like that title.”
When Jackman calls me, I’ve just moved to L.A. I don’t have a car yet, and I’m still trying to walk everywhere. “Aw, you poor thing,” he says. “I could sort of feel the pain when I was meeting with you, knowing what was coming.”
He talks about how on a recent Sunday night, after a performance of “The Music Man,” he drove to the Hamptons for a screening of “The Son” and a Q&A after. He didn’t make it in time to sit through the whole film, just the last 30 minutes. “I must admit I was a little open and vulnerable,” he says. “I was very moved by the questions.” I can picture him there, after a long week in the city, in a theater I’d been to — the rhythm, the magic, the life of New York, all on the other end of the line.
Over our three conversations, we talked about a lot of things. But I never shared with him how he floated into my life as I arrived and then finally left New York — and what that really meant. In our culture, we spend a lot of time analyzing why we love movie stars, but at the most basic level, we’re drawn to them because they comfort us. Jackman was doing that again for me — but this time, it wasn’t from a stage or a screen. It was more personal, from the human being who exists behind the curtain.
On the day before our lunch, as I was packing, I found a “Boy From Oz” poster at the bottom of a crate of photos. I’d forgotten it existed. Eighteen years ago, alone in New York, I waited by the stage door for two hours in a sea of Ozalots to get Jackman’s autograph, extending my arm over a barricade — almost getting crushed by other screaming fans. I could still make out the signature in blue ink, but it was now smudged like an old memory.