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.”