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Jackman's journey

Jackman's journey


The X-Men hunk talks about being a dad, handling gay passes, clowning for kids, and strutting his stuff as gay hit-maker Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz

Below are excerpts from the article that appeared in the September 1, 2003 issue of The Advocate followed by the article as it appeared in the printed issue. Hugh Jackman on Peter Allen's indirect impact on antigay sentiment in their shared homeland, Australia: I remember the Mardi Gras, which is a huge event in Australia, that there were so many people upset with Mardi Gras in Sydney, the fact that it was televised. You know, "What are we doing, what's happening to Australia, is it becoming far too liberal?" and all of that. Peter traversed that world. He was never the poster child for the gay community, now. And at times in New York--I know that from reading about it--he annoyed some of the gay community by not being the poster child, by not being politically active. I think in a way he thought, I can do far more for the cause of gay people by being an entertainer. This is totally my opinion; I don't know.

On moving from playing an X-Men action hero to an openly gay entertainer: Well, I mean, from my perspective, in my world, it's not something I ever thought twice about, the fact that Peter was gay. And nor do I really see that as a challenge so much. The challenge is to bring out Peter--Peter's joie de vivre--eight times a week.

On whether anyone advised him not to play an openly gay role onstage: No one in my, no, no, no. No one in my professional camp was ever...some of them questioned the amount of time I was doing it for. I'm not a 21-year-old kid, so they're not pushing me.

On his conservative father's tolerance for gay people: If one of his kids was gay, there would've been a problem, I know. And yet he could go and see La Cage aux Folles. And I think probably a lot of Middle Americans could go see La Cage aux Folles. Why, I don't know. Maybe, to some people, it's not that hard to deal with as long as it's not their kid or their friend, you know? They're OK with "those people." I mean, I know my dad--at times I've heard him say about other people, "Well, they're going through that, and let's just hope that God can get to them at some point." It's sort of like [sighs] trying to take in his view or compassionate line is that God will hopefully break through to them, so let's not ostracize them. People like Peter try to bridge that gap by making people laugh. By making people feel OK about being with them. Which is hard work. I always imagine Peter would have had some moments of exhaustion, because there's a lot of negotiating that goes on if you're going to be someone like Peter Allen. I think there must be anger in there--you want to yell at the breeders [chuckles].

On whether Peter Allen fulfilled a gay stereotype: I ran into this guy the other day who said, "When I first met Peter, he was very intimidating to me, because he was with his group of friends." So maybe in his group of friends, he was a little tougher [than he appeared when performing]. Maybe he was a bit aloof.

On beginning to act while still a journalism student at college: I did a [major] called communications, a mixture of film writing, public relations, and journalism. I had fun, but nothing really captured me until near the end, when I had to find two units to graduate. I picked drama because there were no papers, no exams--you just turned up. I sat at the back like this [he mimes infinite boredom]. But they decided to do this play, and I got cast in the lead, totally by ballot. I said, "I can't be in this, I don't have time, I'm doing journalism." And they said, "Well, unfortunately, you can't get out of it." We ended up taking it on tour, and the more I learned about acting, the more I was like, I should've studied half journalism and half acting. Because acting was kind of what I loved to do, but it was a hobby. And journalism, I thought, would be my paying job.

On when he knew he'd never be a journalist: It's bloody hard to get into journalism. I had a lecturer called Wendy Bacon, who's probably one of the most celebrated investigative journalists in Australia. And she so amazing that I realized that my heart wasn't in it. I thought, She's been doing it for 20 years; I'm about to start--surely the fire in me should be stronger than hers. But her fire was 15 times brighter than mine. And the other thing that really wiped me out studying journalism was ethics. The teacher came in and said, "All right, everyone, I'm the editor. There's been a car accident, you're manning the police radio, it's 3 a.m. I need you to go down to the house, knock at the door at 3:30, and get a photo. You can't come back here without a photo. What do you do?" That was just really hard on me, and that's where I realized why that fire has to burn brightly. Because, see, I think journalism is a very honorable profession.

On how acting can be as invasive as journalism: [It's] the same with acting [as with reporting difficult news stories]. I see it in the same way, that you have to be prepared to go through some pretty hard stuff. Sometimes you have to go places with characters and emotions within yourself you don't want to do, but you have a duty to the story and as a storyteller to do it.

On how he feels, as the parent of an adopted child, about gay parents adopting kids: Apart from when I get questions like this, I barely even remember that Oscar is adopted. And I think when people truly are open to loving and have that energy to give to a kid, that kid is blessed, and it doesn't matter if they're men or women. It really doesn't matter. I mean, let's face it--50% of the straight marriages, kids are brought up by only one parent. So why not have two?

On his teeth: I have shocking teeth.... I'm being a little facetious--I just went to the dentist the other day, and he looked at my teeth and went, "Oh, my God, you've got gray teeth." I now I have four sessions with the dentist this week. I have crowns, caps, leaking fillings, the whole thing.

The article as it appeared in the September 1, 2003 issue of The Advocate

We're in a part of downtown Los Angeles where tourists fear to tread. At mid morning the heat is already brutal. A woman outside the fence grapples with a man, trying to kick him where it hurts. "You son of a bitch!" she yells. "What's wrong with you?" he yells back. "It's too hot!"

Then a Range Rover pulls up. Hugh Jackman steps out, smiling, taller by a head than anyone on the crew for his Advocate photo shoot. Lithe and lanky rather than belligerently bulked-up like Wolverine, his grunge-a-licious character in X-Men, Jackman seems to breathe a more gracious blend of air than the rest of us.

He's here to talk about his new role as Peter Allen, the all-but-openly gay hit songwriter and master performer who was born in Australia and discovered by Judy Garland and who married Liza Minnelli, packed Radio City Music Hall, and wrote or cowrote some dozen massive hit songs before his death from AIDS complications in 1992. Allen is a hero in Australia. Portraying him in The Boy From Oz, the 1997 Allen musical biography now being restaged on Broadway, Jackman will high-kick, play piano, kiss Jerrod Emick (who portrays Allen's longtime love, lighting designer Greg Connell), and, hopefully, give Allen the all-out star recognition he never quite had time to earn here in the States.

Americans are also just getting acquainted with Jackman. He made a stir as a dashing time traveler in Kate & Leopold. But it's Wolverine, the Marvel mutant with the adamantium skeleton, fierce claws, and muttonchop do, who really got us. Jackman was a plan B replacement for Dougray Scott, who had to drop out because of scheduling conflicts. In return for the gig, Jackman invested the part with all his very considerable heart, not to mention a handsome chest of Wolverine-ish hair. His soulful reading has helped turn the X-Men films into global box-office smashes.

"He has no idea how good-looking he is," the makeup artist whispers in my ear as Jackman walks in our direction. Is this possible?

Did you ever meet Peter Allen? I never did. When did he die? '92. He probably was out of action from about '90. I knew of Peter and I watched him--he was still doing stuff on TV, and he was a big icon. I remember very clearly once when he sang "I Still Call Australia Home," which is now like a second anthem in Australia. The first time he sang it was at the launch of a 15,000-seat entertainment center. Peter had on this quite camp waistcoat with an Australian flag on it, and out came this big Australian flag behind him.

My father was [watching with] my brother and I. We looked up, and Dad was crying. Peter had that way with everyone--old, young, men, women, gay, straight--which in Australia was not that easy, you know?

Craig Zadan directed Peter in Up in One, a 1979 cabaret show that toured the world and broke Peter into the top ranks of entertainers. He says Peter would make you laugh yourself sick, and then in 30 seconds you'd be crying and not know how you got there. One of the great things about The Boy From Oz is, I think you get that feeling of being with Peter. It's incredibly entertaining and very funny but very surprisingly gets you. Peter was not a sentimental person--in public he wasn't-- but he had an honesty in his songwriting that just touches you. He had a way of capturing something incredibly simple and honest. I can think of 10 of Peter's songs that just slay me. Just absolutely slay me.

Not many people realize how much his songs defined the '70s and '80s. In this show you get to see what those songs actually meant. A song like "I Honestly Love You" became a big hit for Olivia [Newton-John], and it maybe now seems a bit of a cheesy love song. But in the context of Peter's life, when you think he lost his lover of 20 years, Greg, to AIDS--you hear that song in the show, and it's the ghost of his lover still being around him as he's writing.

[Sings] "Maybe I hang around here a little more than I should / We both know I've got somewhere else to go / But I've got something to tell you / I never thought I would / That I believe you really ought to know / I love you." It's so simple, but in the context of the show it's incredible.

Carole Bayer Sager, a close friend of Peter's with whom he wrote some huge hits, says you've really got him down. I had dinner the other night with Carole. She's fascinating, fantastic. It's funny--she said to me, "You get that tongue thing of his." [Chuckles]

What tongue thing would that be? He would unconsciously stick his tongue out when he was playing. And apparently I was doing that. I was like, "Well, there you go!" Maybe I was channeling him at some point.

Carole told me, the last time she spoke to Peter, he said, "You know what, Carole? I'm happy. I couldn't have lived life any more than I have."

Was Peter more a songwriter or a performer? Another guy told how he'd have Peter up for dinner whenever he was in New York. "Peter would charm everybody, and then--I'd never ask him--he'd get up on the piano and just start playing. In the end I would literally be kicking him out the door. Guests would be leaving and he'd still be playing." [Stockwell laughs] He said to Peter that night, "I know you love it. But you don't have to feel you always have to play." And Peter said to him, "I'm an entertainer--always got to sing for my supper."

Peter was aware that what he was born to do was to entertain. Maybe being a star is more about letting people come to you, you know? But Peter was old-fashioned.

Is that you too? Singing for your supper? Probably a little more reluctantly than Peter, because he was someone that all entertainers look up to. Anyone who really knew Peter--many great names--they all looked up to him as a showman. I'm thrilled that I didn't do this show, say, four years ago, five years ago. With everything that's occurred to me in movies, in Hollywood, I felt I was being dragged by a Great Dane down the street. It's sort of like, !hoa, I'll catch up in a second. Now I feel like I've caught up--I feel a little more comfortable in my skin. It takes a great confidence to just, wherever you are, think, People want to hear me. People want that. I suppose with me it's something that's growing. Doing the Boy From Oz workshop [in early 2003] gave me a confidence to do it. It feels like the right time to go and do a show like this and say, "Yeah, I can be Peter."

I've heard that everybody fell in love with him. [Jackman laughs] Man, woman, everybody. He was a kid who grew up in an outback town, Tenterfield. Now, I've been to Tenterfield: It's a small town that services farmers, and men are tough there. Peter tap-dancing at the age of 8 in a local pub--what did he have to endure in his upbringing? But he managed to make them like him. Even now, in that town of Tenterfield, there's a Peter Allen pub and a store.

When Peter was at Radio City, he was playing with the closet, saying things onstage like, "You've heard all these rumors about me. Well, yes, I am...Australian." "Australian." Yeah. [Chuckles]

Here he was, this national hero. How did people in Australia deal with that part of him, the gay part?They didn't care. In fact, I think a lot of people--until relatively late--didn't know. Women found him sexy and thought it was just part of his shtick. Or maybe he was just one of those flamboyant guys. I mean, he wasn't over-the-top, it wasn't so Liberace.

So how do you play him? The director said to me, the key to playing Peter is that you can't think of him as a gay man, because as a straight man it will send you off in the wrong direction. You have to think of him as a little kid. He was mischievous, and from all the reports, his sexual appetite was voracious. So he was up for it all. But certainly by the end everyone knew of him as gay. See, Peter learned how to tread the line of making fun of himself enough and still being biting enough with reporters that everyone kind of went, "Yeah, all right, we'll accept him." Which, particularly in his time, was not the case with most. It really wasn't. He made my dad, born-again Christian that he was, love Peter Allen and not care that he was gay. Do you know what I mean? Perhaps Peter knew, as an entertainer, that's what he had to do. He wasn't comfortable being politically active, but he probably single-handedly did a lot.

If he were here, I'm sure it'd be very gratifying to him that one of the world's handsomest straight men is playing him [Jackman chuckles] and that he's being celebrated on the cover of The Advocate. Yeah, there you go, exactly. You know, it's funny what you say about me playing him, because some people said, "It's brave of you to play a gay man." And I think that's very dated. Don't you?

It's terribly dated, but some Americans are holding on to it for dear life. I'm sure you've noticed. Yeah. I think Peter will be thrilled. I mean, I hope. I've been told that his greatest dream was to do a Broadway show. He did it with Legs Diamond, even though it was a flop. [With The Boy From Oz], someone told me, "Finally, Peter's going to have his Broadway hit."And it's not a puff piece. There'll be some things that Peter, if he's there watching it, will kind of go, "Oh, did they have to put that in it?" [Chuckles] "Could've left that bit out!"

You've got quite a background as a leading man in musicals. You did Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard, Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, and Curly in Trevor Nunn's London production of Oklahoma! You must have had a pang or two, to see somebody else get that part on Broadway. Well, of course I tried to do it. Two or three times we were rejected by Equity. An Aussie with a whole bunch of Brits--they didn't want to let us do Oklahoma! I understand. That's kind of like a lot of Americans doing Crocodile Dundee, you know? A bit hard to swallow for the union membership. So I was really upset at the time.

But things worked out, because along came X-Men. Yes. And I was like, There'll be a time to do something on Broadway. Then within six months this came up.

The Boy From Ozwas a big hit in Australia before coming to Broadway. Were you involved in that production at all? They had talked to me about the role in Australia, but I had just made the decision to get away from musical theater and go into film. And when I went to see the show--I saw it twice--it moved me beyond belief. Deb, my wife, turned to me and said, "You're wishing you were up there." And I said, "Yeah, I am." So the moment I got the call I jumped at it.

In America it's like an algebra equation: Musical comedy equals gay. Is it the same in Australia? Yup. [Laughs] It's the same the world over. Although I think it's probably getting a little less. Because the dancing style is becoming more...athletic? Sometimes men get in there from gymnastics. And also I think a lot of men realize it's a great way to pick up chicks. There's beautiful women there, you know. [Laughs]

So they say. Yeah, and from what I've seen, people are coming into dancing that have had more sports background. In Australia it used to be a whole progression: If you haven't started dancing classes by the time you're 5 or 6 [you're starting too late]. I am ashamed to say that when I was 10, 11, my teacher said, "You should have danced." This was at an all-boys school. Very straight all-boys school--"straight" as in conservative. I said, "Great! I want to do dancing."

What happened next? My brother mercilessly said, "Ah, you poof, you're gay, you're gay"--and I quit. Actually, my brother, very touchingly, about five years ago came up and said, "I don't know if you remember, but I'm really sorry for saying that when you were younger, because you should have been dancing." And I often thought I was a bit weak. Peter wouldn't have done that.

You must have related to the movie Billy Elliot. Yeah, very much. Just from the shows I've been in and the people I've known, it used to always be "male dancer--gay." It's far less that now.

I was trying to think if there's ever been an action hero who is a musical comedy star. I could not think of one. That's thrilling to hear you say that.

Is there anybody you looked to as your example? No. See, this is where people are surprised, but my agent said to me five years ago, "Hugh, I can see one day you...if I had to plan a goal for you, it's for you to have the kind of career that Sinatra had." You know, you can traverse between different careers. It would thrill me no end if that happened.

You've said very charmingly in the press, "I kiss my boyfriend in the show. And I know my audience for Wolverine is going to be saying, 'Don't do it, man! That's bullshit!' " [Jackman laughs] If they do come and see you, what would you want to communicate to them? Peter could get through to anybody. So I have a great vehicle to try and bring people who never go to the theater. I don't want them to think, Ah, it's one of those gay musicals, is it? Am I gonna get a whole lot of preaching about being gay and what's it like? Because it's more a celebration of the way Peter lived his life. And his sexuality was part of that.

I'm sure there are 14-year-olds and their fundamentalist parents in America who are going to object: "Here's this guy Wolverine, we look up to him, and now he's honoring a person who did immoral things." Gypsy Rose Lee. They're probably taking them to see Gypsy, about a woman who was just horrific to her kids. It'll be interesting to see how parents negotiate that. See, my dad is a Christian--and really, a full-on Christian--the first show he took me to was La Cage aux Folles.

Really? I remember watching this and I was like, Does Dad know that this was all about two gay men? And of course he did, but Dad loved it. He really loved it.

You didn't start out to become an actor, did you? At one point you were studying to be a journalist. Yes, but nothing really captured me until near the end, when I had to find two units to graduate. I picked drama because there were no exams--you just turned up. But they decided to do this play, and I got cast in the lead. We ended up taking it on tour, and the more I learned about acting, the more I was like, acting was kind of what I loved.

A lot of journalists say, "Ah, I bet you hate journalists--you studied journalism." It's the opposite. A journalist comes to me sometimes and asks me a very tabloid question, and I think, He's got to get this quote. His editor said, "We're not interested in his film; we want to know how his marriage is."

I don't want to know how your marriage is. [Jackman chuckles] But I do want to ask about adoption. You adopted your son, Oscar. There's a lot of controversy in America about gay people adopting children. In fact, I had dinner the other night with a gay couple, and I said, "Do you guys have kids?" And they were both really against it. I said, "Why?" One said, "I don't think it's right. I think a kid should have a mother and a father." So it was like, Wow--this issue is divisive wherever you go. The subject of parenting really cuts deep into what you believe in.

As a man who has adopted a child, how do you feel about it? I would say if two loving people...or one, you know--I think ideally two, just from my experience; it helps to have enough energy to be able to do it and enjoy it--but it wouldn't matter to me if they were gay, straight, however they come. For adopted kids, there's a need. There are so many unwanted children. I have no qualms about it whatsoever.

This is as tabloid as I get: Guys have hit on you a lot of times, I'm sure. Yeah.

What's your response? I assume you've never said yes. No. I had a time when I was growing up [when] I heard "Gay or straight?" I'd say "Straight" and hear "OK, have a good time." But Sydney was like that. It was never something that freaked me out. I remember going through an age, maybe when I was 21, and I was getting into acting. And I thought, I've got quite a few gay friends. I'd go to a gay dance party like I'd go to a straight club. And then I would think about it, and I thought, Maybe I should ask myself some serious questions here, you know? I felt, with my life--and I did it because of acting--I thought, I've got to be honest with myself about everything, whether I'm good, bad, gay, straight...

So you thought it over. Yeah. I thought, OK. And I don't remember thinking about it for any longer than that. I just remember giving myself the permission. I thought, If you found a man--I hadn't, really, I hadn't at all--a man that you're attracted to, would you feel comfortable? And I just gave myself the permission. And it never happened.

But I've always felt very comfortable around gay men and women. I find them, generally, refreshingly honest and straightforward. And have I been hit on? Yeah. I've never done anything, and I've never felt like I've wanted to. So it's all good.

But Sydney is very open to a gay community that is very mainstream and really has sort of crossed over. You know, a lot of our straight men quite like the gay neighborhood because the girls would go there looking for safety, and of course, there were us vultures waiting! [He makes big swooping gestures with his long arms; both laugh] Till [the girls] were drunk and thinking, Ah, God, I wish I was with a few straight men!

For Americans just getting to know you: What's the thing that they would be most surprised to learn about Hugh Jackman? Well, it's certainly no surprise to me or anyone in Australia, but I think a lot of people here would be surprised that I'm doing a musical. In a way, I couldn't have written the script better, because the bigger surprise to me is that I'm being paid to be an action hero. Because I'm a big goofball, you know. Don't tell anyone that, but I'm a big goofball. In Australia we call it a dag.

You're a dag? It's quite an affectionate term, but it means you're basically a big goofball. I just love making a fool out of myself. I made my living as a clown at kids' parties for about three years. And all that Wolverine stuff--I watch that and go, "Ah, he's kind of cool, that guy!" [Chuckles] So for me, to have done that first means that people will think I've done this herculean effort to become a singer-dancer playing Peter Allen, when in actual fact that's probably far closer to who I am.

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Anne Stockwell