It was late at night, and Hugh Jackman was spent. He had spent the last several hours shooting what’s surely the most grueling scene in his new film, Prisoners — and since this is a punishing dramatic thriller about two kidnapped little girls, that’s really saying something — and he felt he’d given everything he had to give on the take he’d just finished. As Jackman panted, recovering from his character’s emotional breakdown, director Denis Villeneuve walked towards him from behind the camera.
"Maybe this is my arrogance, but I thought he was going to come up and say, 'Thank you,'" recalls Jackman. "And he says, 'I need you to go there, man.' I was like, 'That wasn't there?'"
The next take — where Jackman was pushed even beyond the breaking point he'd previously reached, moved to obliterate the set around him with a hammer (and very nearly pounding it into his costar Paul Dano’s face) — is the one that made it into the film. "I didn't know what else to do, but him pushing me actually taught me a lesson about letting go, to have no idea what's going to happen," he says. "And thank goodness there wasn't another take after that, because I ruined the set right there!"
It’s hard to imagine that Jackman has much left to give after his last few films, an exhausting trifecta that started with his vein-popping turn as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, found him more jacked than ever before in this past summer's The Wolverine, and now drags him through hell — and further — in Prisoners, where Jackman plays a father devastated by his daughter’s disappearance and driven to increasingly dark places to get her back. The actor claims he’s able to easily shrug those roles off after filming, but as he sits across from me in a Toronto hotel room, he suffers a sneezing attack. "Excuse me," he says, taking a moment to return to normal. The 44-year-old may look like he has the constitution of an ox, but those back-to-back-to-back films can still take a toll when Jackman puts so much of himself into them.
"When I finish a film, my wife will often say, 'I've got my husband back,'" he admits. "When you're filming, there's always ten or twenty percent of you that's constantly thinking, 'What's tomorrow? What's the mountain I have to climb?'"
For the intense Prisoners, that mountain is one that Jackman had to keep climbing and descending. "I remember thinking it would be a nightmare, because we started filming in mid-January, the day after the Golden Globes, and Les Miz had blown up," Jackman explains. "I was going to awards shows every weekend and flying here and there and doing this thing and that, and I thought, 'How am I going to go from this film to all that?' But in the end, I think it helped, because I needed to release the pressure from the set."
Jackman hasn’t had much time off since; in addition to the all-consuming awards season gauntlet, he’s been busy this year promoting The Wolverine and reprising his iconic character for next summer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, which ties together nearly every X character in an ambitious time travel storyline that brought the house down this summer at Comic-Con, where over a dozen of the film’s famous actors showed up to a surprise panel. "I wanted to say to James McAvoy and Nick Hoult and all these young guys in the cast that it's not normally like this!" laughs Jackman. “There was this guy up in front who made me laugh so hard, just swearing as everyone came out: 'You've got to be fucking kidding! Fuck me, man! This is motherfucking amazing!'"
"I had been on the set for a long time," continues Jackman, "but it wasn't until we were at that panel that it struck me: It wasn't just the X-Men up there — it was Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Patrick Stewart from Star Trek, Anna Paquin from True Blood, Jennifer Lawrence from The Hunger Games, Peter Dinklage from Game of Thrones. It was overwhelming for people. It was almost too much."
And it may be enough for Jackman, at least when it comes to his most iconic role. The actor admits that his first X-Men spinoff, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, failed to live up to fan expectations and may have depressed the box office for its superior sequel The Wolverine this past summer. "I can tell you this, and I can say this now: I wasn't sure that I would do another Wolverine movie after the first one," he admits. "I just felt that I hadn't done the character justice, and that was a bit of a hole inside of me." Now that The Wolverine has rectified that for Jackman, and with Days of Future Past on the way, he says of his time with the character, "It's nearing the end. I do feel that. If there are any more movies, there would have to be a really good reason for it."
Besides, Jackman’s eager to play some new roles, even if they’re as exhausting as the recent ones he’s seemed to favor. "I feel way more comfortable in front of the camera than I did ten years ago, or even five years ago," he says. "I want to have a real run in the paddock and go for it and take on new challenges that I might not have taken on before as successfully. I have that same feeling in front of the camera now that I used to have on the stage, and that's great for me — although my wife thinks it's a semi-sickness. She's like, 'What's with you and the mountains? Even when you're off, you have to create a mountain!'"