"Killed.’’ Hugh Jackman remembers it vividly. “We got killed in the reviews. Scathing! Like, ‘This is the worst show...ever.’” There are few experiences more soul-sapping for an actor than having your Broadway debut collectively announced dead on arrival by the mainstream media. That is, apparently, unless your name is Hugh Jackman—because as the actor sits before me recounting the critical response to the 2003 stage production of The Boy from Oz (or, as the New York Times dubbed it, “an indisputably bogus show”) and his performance therein (which, according to New York magazine, lacked “spark, vivacity, or joy”), an infectious smile is spreading across the Australian’s face like a California wildfire. One thing’s for sure: He’s not lacking any joy right now.

We’re sitting across from each other at a long dining room table in the middle of a spacious Manhattan apartment. We’ve just come back downstairs from the rooftop, where Jackman has spent the past two hours bobbing and weaving beneath a cloudless blue sky for his Men’s Fitness photo shoot. Jackman, with the day’s work behind him, is ripping into a platter of grilled chicken and avocado slices that his publicist has just set down in front of him. He offers me some, but I politely decline, knowing better. The day prior, the same publicist sent our photo director an e-mail asking, “Regarding Hugh’s food for tomorrow, can you please order DOUBLE of everything?” This, shortly after another e-mail informing our stylist that “We NEED size 36 pants with stretch tomorrow” as “Hugh’s thighs have gotten much bigger in the last weeks of training.” With filming for X-Men: Days of Future Past just a week away, Jackman is determined to maintain the muscle he packed on for this year’s The Wolverine, and I’m not about to see what happens if I get between a wolverine and his food.

This year Jackman started following an intermittent-fasting plan, The 8-Hour Diet, a recent best-seller by author (and Men’s Fitness consulting editorial director) David Zinczenko. “I feel so much better on it,” he says. The diet, which allows for an eight-hour window in which to eat followed by a 16-hour, fat-burning fast, is especially useful for the actor, who’s constantly having to bulk and cut for roles. “I haven’t put on nearly the amount of fat I normally would,” he says. “And the great thing about this diet is, I sleep so much better.” While Jackman says he’s considering sticking to the diet forever, that doesn’t mean he’s fallen short in the past. To build his body for The Wolverine, he followed a brutal, no-nonsense nutrition plan prescribed to him personally by none other than Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson. “He told me that if in a six-month period you want to put on 25 pounds of lean muscle and not fat, eat natural and eat 6,000 calories a day,” Jackman says. “There were times when I would literally eat with the mind set of working out. ‘One more mouthful, one more, come on, come on, you’ve got to finish this meal.’” It’s a sacrifice for sure, but he’s used to that; for him, it’s just “part of the gig.”

“It always happens in degrees in life, doesn’t it?” Jackman says, chewing on a piece of chicken. “I’ve had experiences where I’ve done something against my instinct but people had convinced me it was the right career move, and when those things didn’t work and I saw them, I found it almost impossible to live with. Like, I felt ashamed, you know, that my instinct was saying no, but I’d said yes because, strategically, it was ‘the right move.’”

He’s referring to past publicists and agents who tried too hard to control the actor’s image.“I can look back at a couple of photo shoots and say, ‘Oh, my God, it’s so not me,’ where the stylists had brought clothes they wanted me to wear, and I said all right, which is a bit pathetic; but I was way more worried about hurting their feelings.” But after 18 years in the movie business, Jackman, 44, says he now realizes that being honest and direct is the best way to keep things moving. Today he’s surrounded by a team that seems to understand that their client’s actual personality is far more likeable than any media-friendly façade they could ever plaster over it. (Ironically, Jackman is routinely referred to as the Nicest Guy in Hollywood.) “I try to be myself as much as I can when I’m not acting, for better or worse, but I’ve had publicists who’ve told me it’s a bad idea: ‘You move your hands too much, you did this too many times, you should do this, you shouldn’t talk about that,’” he says, ticking off the myriad instructions he—Hugh friggin’ Jackman—has been given over the years to improve his outward appearance.

It was that kind of early guidance that led him to turn down the lead role of Peter Allen in the original run of The Boy from Oz, which opened in Sydney back in 1998. When the curtain lifted, Jackman was in the audience. “I realized it was one of the best parts I had ever seen, and I felt sick to my stomach,” he recalls. “All the strategizing, and I missed it.”

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A second chance presented itself in 2003, when it was announced that the show would be coming to Broadway. Jackman had already clawed his way into Hollywood as the X-Men character Wolverine, and X2, the second film in the franchise, had just begun its steady box-office climb to almost $215 million. “Many people were like, ‘This is a really bad idea, this is 18 months of your life; by the time it’s over, you could be back auditioning with everybody else,’” he tells me. “They were like, ‘Really, Hugh? This is not your image, this is not good.’” Peter Allen, if you aren’t familiar, was more or less an Australian version of what you’d get if you put Elton John and Freddy Mercury in a Jimmy Buffett Margaritaville blender—a flamboyantly gay, colorful-shirt-wearing entertainer, and the antithesis of the role upon which the entire weight of Jackman’s fast-growing career—and thighs—were now hinging. Regardless, Jackman pounced.

“Now that’s the way to have a failure!” Jackman announces enthusiastically with a mouthful of almonds. (A bowl had been brought over a moment before to supplement the fast-disappearing chicken.) “I believed in it so much, and no matter what anybody said—no matter what the supposed cost or what the supposed fallout would be—it didn’t matter, and I didn’t regret it.”

And if he didn’t regret it then, he certainly doesn’t regret it today. After a few tweaks to the show following a slew of early negative reviews, The Boy from Oz went on to become one of Broadway’s hottest tickets, and Jackman was front and center. Over its one-year run, the production raked in $42 million, and by the time award season rolled around, The Boy from Oz had been nominated for five Tonys, including best musical. Despite all odds, Jackman picked up the award for best leading actor in a musical.

Hugh Jackman had arrived. And he’d proven he could do more than just blockbuster action movies. “Scoop for Woody Allen. Real Steel for Spielberg. They asked me to host the Oscars, and Darren Aronofsky, who saw the show, asked me to do The Fountain. I got all these films off of that, which you wouldn’t expect to happen, but it’s just the by-product of doing something you love,” he says, omitting his most recent nod, a leading-man Oscar nomination for 2012’s Les Misérables. “But that wasn’t the turning point,” he insists. “The turning point was, when it got smashed and I was onstage the next night, I still was like, this was the right thing to do—it might close next week, but I feel like I’m on the right path. From that moment on, I’ve thought, ‘I’m not going to sacrifice that feeling of knowing you’ve done it for the right reason, whether it succeeds or fails.’”

It’s that jarring realness that’s made Jackman into something of an industry legend—the true north of Hollywood’s moral compass. Liev Schreiber of Showtime’s Ray Donovan, who met Jackman on the set of the 2001 romantic comedy Kate & Leopold (Jackman played a man transported from 1870 to modern-day New York), says he sensed something different about Jackman right away. “Something about [the role] fit Hugh very well,” Schreiber tells me. “He had values—he has values—as a man and as a person that seem dated sometimes in a world that doesn’t value those things as much anymore.”

The two have since become close friends, with Jackman personally enlisting Schreiber for the role of Sabretooth in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Through it all, Schreiber says, Jackman hasn’t changed one bit. “I think he really, authentically believes in the notion that we should be good to each other, that we should be kind to each other. I think that’s something that drives his actions, his work, his day-to-day interactions with people. It’s something I really admire; and every time I feel myself coming off the rails or going out of line, I think about how Hugh would handle the situation.”

“Every single person who knew of him or had worked with him in some capacity said, ‘This is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever get a chance to work with.’ And he is that guy,” says Will Yun Lee, who plays the Silver Samurai in The Wolverine. “I swear, that’s one of the rarities in this business—to meet someone like that who actually engages with you when he talks to you.”

“He’s just always prepared, and always kind to everybody,” adds Famke Janssen, who’s worked with Jackman on four X-Men films in her role as Jean Gray (the third person in this story—if you’re keeping count—who, ironically, has tried to kill Jackman onscreen). “It’s a little gesture, but it goes such a long way. It’s a really good thing to remember, I think, for all of us who work in this business, that it doesn’t take much, but it means an incredible amount.”

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Of course, eye contact and small talk are nothing without the muttonchops to back it up. And if any part of you is thinking that the actor has made it this far on natural charm and ability, this is a good time to introduce you to Ana.

“I worked in a gym for three years,” Jackman tells me. “I weighed 170 pounds, I was 6'2", and I was just skin and bones. The guys in the locker room used to go, ‘Hey Skinny! Hey Ana!’—they used to call me Ana, for anorexic—and I’d go, ‘You tell me a practical application of a 350-pound press and I’ll do it!’” (Said the man who’d later leg-press 1,000 pounds.)

As Jackman tells me this, I reflexively burst out laughing, which leaves me all the less prepared for where he goes next. “I got in a fight once,” he begins. “I was 23, and I got a new pair of Rollerblades. We were in a beach town in Australia, and a bunch of locals started calling me ‘wanker.’ Not asshole—‘wanker!’ Wanker is way worse than asshole. So I’m on my Rollerblades—and learning, by the way—and these guys pull up, like, ‘Come here, you wanker!’ I’m still the skinny guy. One guy came over to me and I went to punch him, but I fell, and my arms, like [Jackman makes a lurching, hugging gesture], and I literally grabbed him, and he’s yelling, ‘Get off me, wanker!’” The image of a lanky Hugh Jackman awkwardly flailing about on Rollerblades and losing his balance only to end up hugging the man who’s trying to beat him up is too much to handle. Nobody can say this guy skated through life on good genetics.

Meanwhile, this story only makes Jackman’s current physique all the more impressive, especially when you consider that in past interviews, he’s openly said he doesn’t enjoy working out—to him, it’s just part of the job. “It’s really remarkable,” Schreiber says. “I think it’s just that he’s prioritized his life. He’s very disciplined about it.”

There’s no better illustration of Jackman’s mettle than the five-month period last year when he went from preparing for his role in Les Misérables to arriving on the set of The Wolverine. For his first Les Mis scene, as the malnourished prisoner Jean Valjean, Jackman had lost almost 20 pounds in six weeks by avoiding carbs and working out every day with trainer David Kingsbury. “We were told to have him lean, but also to maintain as much muscle as possible, which is hard to achieve,” Kingsbury says.

“For someone who’s trying to maintain muscle, it’s important, even though you’re trying to lose body fat, that you continue to lift heavy weights. If the body knows it’s got to be lifting heavy weights on a regular basis, it’ll maintain more muscle mass. Whereas, if you go at it with just cardio, it’ll lose everything—muscle and fat.”

In Jackman’s next Les Mis scene, his character, now a wealthy factory owner, doesn’t appear to have missed a meal in his life. You’d never guess it was shot just 10 days later, let alone just three months before The Wolverine. “[Les Mis director Tom Hooper] just wanted weight gain, but the way we saw it was to have the weight gain all be positive—mostly muscle as opposed to just fat,” Kingsbury explains. “So we focused on eating very clean and very healthy, but large volumes to increase muscle mass over that period.” Jackman also began doing the workout that would get him in the best shape of his career, and implemented the Rock’s nutrition plan, using what Kingsbury calls a “carb-cycling” diet: “On weight-training days we’d do carbs, and on non-weight training days we’d have very low carbs and add more fats, like avocado, nuts, and seeds, so Hugh was still getting the calories in, but without as many carbs.” The rotation allows him to be well fueled for training, but also to have time where his insulin is low so his body can burn more fat.

Jackman’s demeanor and dedication to his craft, it seems, are those of a man who’s literally built himself up. In closing, I ask the apparently self-made man for his best advice. “Whatever your dream is, whatever your goal is, it’s a fraction of what it takes to succeed,” Jackman tells me. “Everybody has a dream, and you may think you want it more than everyone else, but you don’t. Everybody wants what they want badly. The difference is, who’s prepared to put in the work to get it. That’s why it has to be the thing you want to do.”

And as for the whole Mr. Nice Guy thing... “As an actor, I’ve always believed that any label is your enemy,” Jackman says. “Look, I was brought up in a way where you treat people with respect. So it’s certainly easier for me to be polite and respectful to people than to be an asshole. Like, if I’m walking down the street with my family and the 29th person says, ‘Hey man, can I get a photo?’ for me to say, ‘No photos, get fucked’—for the next hour I’ll be thinking I shouldn’t have said that. Whereas, if I say either, ‘Yeah, no problem,’ or, ‘Listen, I’m with my family now, but it’s nice to meet you,’ then I move on, in a way it’s easier."

"It’s a mixture of that and also not being a wanker.”