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Thunder From Down Under

X2 actor builds on sudden stardom

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Let Bryan Singer make it perfectly clear. "I know you hear a lot of bullshit at these press junkets, right? You know, about how everybody you've worked with on your new movie was an absolute joy to be around. I swear it's true, though, that Hugh Jackman is one of the kindest and most genuine people I've ever met," the director submits during a recent interview in Los Angeles.

Singer reteams with Jackman -- and the rest of his original superhero ensemble -- in X2 (opening this Friday), the inevitable follow-up to their 2000 box office blockbuster X-Men. But Singer recounts how the Aussie actor's nice-guy image initially caught him off-guard when it came to Jackman's ability to project the ferocious intensity of Wolverine, a brooding mutant with claws of steel.

"I'll never forget the very first scene Hugh and I ever shot for the first movie," he recalls with a laugh. "The scene called for something really mean and angry, and I remember thinking to myself, "How is such a sweet guy going to pull this off convincingly?' I was looking at Hugh Jackman, but what I really thought I needed was a bit of Russell Crowe."

So what's the big deal that ultimately Jackman was able to deliver? As the actor puts it with a shrug during a separate interview, "It's called acting, isn't it?" Still, it makes the 34-year-old Jackman grin. "OK, I admit it. I'm fairly outgoing and relatively happy-go-lucky. I'm not particularly moody. I think the key to everything is just being true to who you are, so what you see is what I am, because I don't have the energy to do anything else."

He pauses and smiles again. "When I first went to college in Sydney, I thought I was going to suck at acting, because everybody else was wearing leather jackets and smoking, and every time you turned around there was another tough, cynical, bad-boy attitude coming at you. I thought, "Should I go into therapy just to try uncovering some negative things to dredge up?' No way. That's bullshit. Like I said, it's called acting."

Needless to say, Jackman didn't suck at acting. He's part of a new breed of Down Under upstarts (figure-headed by Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman) whose cumulative potential rivals the Australian renaissance of the 1980s, when Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford, Fred Schepisi and Gillian Armstrong were all making films there. Jackman says he counts those formative years in Sydney as "invaluable."

"By the time people in the States see Naomi Watts or Heath Ledger or Toni Collette, they've generally trained for three or four years, making a lot of their mistakes behind closed doors, as it were, rather than in the glare of the Hollywood limelight," he explains. "By the time anybody started recognizing me over here, I was 30-something, you know? I'd been kicking around a while, working out some of the kinks, making my own mistakes, but hopefully learning from them and growing from them."

Jackman rose to prominence on the Australian stage, where he triumphed as a musical-theater star in acclaimed productions of Beauty and the Beast and Sunset Boulevard. As unlikely as it may seem, it was during the run of a London revival of Oklahoma! that Singer spotted his once and future Wolverine, crooning pretty Rodgers and Hammerstein standards.

With only a couple of little-seen Aussie indies to his credit, Jackman was poised to make a very big splash in his first studio movie. "Yeah, but the question was whether I'd sink or swim," he quips.

"I was pretty damn terrified going into X-Men," continues the actor, an eleventh-hour replacement for Dougray Scott (who had scheduling problems with Mission: Impossible 2). "I was the last one cast -- everybody else had been shooting for a week before I ever got to the set -- and there was a lot of pressure, because we all knew we were talking about a major Hollywood franchise here."

Three years later -- with subsequent roles opposite fellow X mate Halle Berry in Swordfish, Ashley Judd in Someone Like You and Meg Ryan in Kate & Leopold (for which he earned a Best Actor Golden Globe nomination) under his belt -- Jackman acknowledges he could "relax and have a little more fun" with Wolverine the second time around, notwithstanding all the arduous physical requirements of the movie's many action sequences.

After a pause, he notes, "All of us were surprised by the success of the first movie, so I suppose my only fear coming into the sequel was that we'd be somewhat complacent, like a football team that won 50-to-nothing the week before and felt like they couldn't be beat."

While it's probably true X2 can't be beat (at least not until The Matrix Reloaded opens two weeks later), it wouldn't be like the humble Jackman to get full of himself that way. Certainly, no one can accuse him of forgetting where he came from or forsaking his own musical-theater roots. He's following X2 with another effects-driven event movie (next summer's Dracula drama Van Helsing, which he's currently shooting in Prague), but then he's off to Broadway later this year to play flamboyant singer/songwriter Peter Allen in an original musical titled, appropriately enough for its star, The Boy From Oz.

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