By Marshall Fine
Gannett News Service
His chestnut hair flowing to his shoulders, Hugh Jackman relaxes in his dressing room backstage at CBS' Early Show and laughs about his reaction when he was first offered the role of Wolverine in 2000's X-Men.
Then an Australian stage and film actor who was unknown in the United States, Jackman was excited when his agent reported that he'd won the role of the comic-book mutant. But he was even happier when he heard he'd been offered a three-picture deal in the part.
"Then he told me, 'But I negotiated them down to two pictures'," Jackman recalls. "I said, 'Are you nuts?' I didn't understand. All I could see was that here were three jobs. I thought, 'I can eat for a while.' I don't think I spent a lot of time thinking about being a Hollywood movie star. My agent still laughs about that."
Jackman is sitting pretty at the moment. X2: X-Men United is No. 1 at the box office this week. Last weekend, X2, the sequel to X-Men, had the biggest opening weekend of any movie this year ($85.6 million) and Jackman's Wolverine remains the obvious star of the comic-book ensemble.
Unsigned for the inevitable X3, Jackman probably will be able to name his own price to reprise the role.
Still, Jackman is amused at the notion of long-term prospects of playing Wolverine. After all, the mutant warrior has the power to spontaneously heal himself, which also means that he doesn't age.
"I'll just get a corset and plastic surgery to keep playing him," Jackman offers.
It's been a whirlwind three years for the 34-year-old actor. The success of X-Men transformed him from an unknown into a name-above-the-title property, a heartthrob who suddenly found himself starring opposite Halle Berry (Swordfish), Ashley Judd (Someone Like You) and Meg Ryan (Kate & Leopold).
"After X-Men, I wanted to do different stuff," he says. "And yet doing 'Wolverine' first was great because, often in Hollywood, it's hard for them to see beyond what they see when they meet you in person. Probably if I'd met someone before X-Men, they'd have thought that something like Kate & Leopold would be closer to me.
"Definitely, my life changed in terms of the offers I got. And there was a marked difference from before the film opened to afterward. There was no buzz about the film, and then the movie came out and, bang."
Though it is more elaborate and expensive, X2 was easier to make, Jackman says of the No. 1 film in the country, because the pressure was off.
"We had more money, more time, and more confidence from the studio," he says. "At the time, we made the first one, comic-book movies were unpopular, like musicals. It's funny how things change.
"I was very untested. It was a big risk for the studio. And when people take risks, there's always pressure. You can't underestimate how difficult it is to have 10 lead characters, to establish their world, to please the comic-book fans and to introduce that world to people who aren't fans. But Bryan (Singer, the director of both films) did a great job."
Height of power
In the comic books, Wolverine (also known as Logan) is a 5-foot-3 powerhouse, a mutant upon whom government agents have experimented, grafting a metal frame onto his skeleton (including 9-inch metal claws that shoot out of his knuckles). The 6-foot-2 Jackman used mental images of former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, another diminutive battler, as he prepared for his fight scenes.
"Early Tyson was my fighting model," he says. "He wasn't the biggest guy but everyone was scared of him. He'd just go straight at the guy, try to finish it fast. That's what I thought about Wolverine: He was a guy who wanted to use one punch, one slice, and that's it."
And the height differential? Jackman allows that, "for the first film, I spent a lot of time with my shoes off. You'll notice I'm never placed so that I'm taller than anyone. A lot of fans get a surprise when they meet me. But hey, movie magic has done more amazing things than make a guy look six inches shorter."
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