Hugh Jackman on His Closeted Con Artist in ‘Bad Education’ and Turning Down ‘Cats’
The acclaimed actor (“Logan,” “Prisoners”) opens up to Marlow Stern about his riveting turn in HBO’s “Bad Education,” ongoing flame war with Ryan Reynolds, and much more.
It feels like a lifetime ago but before the COVID-19 pandemic, the impeachment of Donald Trump, and Megxit, the hottest movie on the festival circuit was Bad Education.
A based-on-a-true-story black comedy centered on a pair of comically corrupt administrators—played by Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney—who stole more than $15 million from the Roslyn, New York, school district, the film incited a fierce bidding war following its September premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. HBO emerged as the winner, shelling out a reported $20 million for the rights, a film fest record.
As the tirelessly devoted superintendent of the school district of Roslyn, a tony enclave on Long Island, Frank Tassone (Jackman) was considered a pillar of the community. He lunched with his students and advised them on their futures—which were incredibly bright, with many going on to attend elite institutions like Harvard and Yale. Heck, he even hosted a book club for the school’s parents. Little did they know he was living a double life, embezzling $11.2 million from the district and splurging on fancy suits, homes, and lavish trips to Vegas and the Caribbean. Oh, and he wasn’t even a widower as he’d so convincingly claimed but in a domestic partnership with a man.
Directed by Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds), Jackman delivers one of the most layered performances of his career as Tassone, a man consumed by greed and social façade.
Jackman, who’s self-isolating with his family in his New York City apartment, rang me to discuss his exciting new turn in Bad Education (premiering April 25 on HBO), the “battle” many of us face over sexuality, and whether he’ll don the claws again as Wolverine.
How are you handling this strange time of self-isolation?
Well, first of all, I think some gratitude that my family are all healthy—that’s the prevailing feeling I’m trying to cultivate to people who are out there doing all the work and allowing us to be at home. Apart from that, just trying to keep things as simple as possible and be together as a family, the four of us.
I know you’re big into your body. How are you managing to stay swole during this time?
To stay what? I don’t understand!
Oh, “swole” is a slang term for ripped, jacked.
Ah, got it! [Laughs] I do some workouts. I have a trainer who’s on FaceTime, so I do that. I’m lucky to have a rowing machine. Other than that, I’m just dancing in my living room.
What are you dancing to in your living room?
I’m dancing right now in my living room to Music Man. We did a workshop right before everything shut down, so I have a few steps that I’m dancing to. So it’s for The Music Man.
There have been some embarrassing celeb moments during the pandemic—like the “Imagine” video, which I’m sure was well-intentioned but people took issue because it was all these rich famous people in front of mansions breaking into song to, I guess, help “heal” the country. What do you think celebrities’ responsibilities are during this time?
I think basically just to support the people who are doing the front-line work. I’ve certainly had a lot of calls from people in government and that kind of thing to just encourage people to stay home—so those types of messages. And I think the more those messages are received from different sources the better, just in terms of well-being. You never know how the message is going to be received, but I think messages of hope and kindness really help. I did a video about washing hands early on and left the tap running for 20 seconds while I was washing, and got all these angry comments like, “Turn the tap off!” and I thought, you know, that’s a great bit of feedback. Everything is about learning and doing our best, and if you have a platform, it’s about enforcing that sense of community and how we get through this.
I really enjoyed Bad Education and am wondering how you nailed the Strong Island accent.
[Laughs] Jess Platt, my dialect coach. I haven’t done a film without him—except for Australia, of course—for 20 years. I’m someone who can get to 80 percent of an accent sort of easily, but it’s that final 20 percent that really makes a difference. He was on set with me yelling and screaming, and he’s originally from Brooklyn, so he’s around the area and knows it well.
With The Front Runner and now Bad Education, you’ve tackled political scandal, corruption, and the media in fascinating ways. Have you been influenced to explore that by the current atmosphere—particularly concerning Trump?
No, that’s not it. Why I get attracted to roles has a lot to do with the filmmaker, the character I’m playing, and the script. Until you mentioned that, I hadn’t put them in the same basket at all. I’d heard about The Front Runner from Jason [Reitman], and he’s such a brilliant filmmaker, and I’d read the script for Bad Education and it felt like two or three genres in one, so I didn’t know how we were going to pull it off. So I watched Thoroughbreds by Cory Finley, and I was 20 or so minutes in and remember I turned to my friend who was watching it with me and said, “Oh, I’m doing the movie.” It was about the character, about doing something I hadn’t done before—I think something that audiences wouldn’t expect me to do, with some twists they hadn’t yet seen from me—and I’m fascinated by human nature. It’s an amazing true story about a high-status person in the community going completely off the cliff, and somehow, him and 26 people who went to jail all convinced themselves they were doing something that was OK. How does that happen? How does that lie build on itself? And also, how people are not exactly what they seem.
It’s strange the ways people convince themselves into thinking that what they’re doing is OK—in this case, I’m doing so much for the community so I deserve this.
All of us in different ways are guilty of pretending things are OK because it suits us—even if it’s not morally right. I think everyone in the college bribery scandal… that was a slippery slope. It all probably came out of a misguided love for their kids and wanting to give them the best they can, so you see it in many different aspects of society. We see it everywhere.
The film makes you think about how educators are compensated, and in these pandemic-stricken times, people have been paying more mind to what is considered an “essential” worker and how society compensates them.
I’ve thought about this a lot. You look at actors like me who, in certain movies, get paid ridiculous amounts of money, and the ethos is, Oh, this is due to market forces and what the market drives, and if you’re not worthy you don’t get it, but it’s astonishing what is happening, where people at the top are getting paid exorbitant amounts while people at the bottom’s wages are stagnating. And here we are in a situation where we’re truly valuing what is actually “essential.” We’re really valuing nurses, teachers, doctors, firemen and women, garbage collectors—all these people who are out there working we’re valuing, and they’re people who I think we’ve neglected for many years. This is something we’re all going to have to look at. The idea of, Well, the market dictates that and it’s not a moral issue is going to get questioned.
On a lighter note, the “eat the fuckin’ sandwich” scene with Allison Janney, where she’s shoving a pastrami sandwich in your face, is hilarious. And that very much looked like an unscripted laugh on your part.
[Laughs] Ah yeah, it was! By the way, I’m almost positive that was the first thing we’d shot. I’m a massive, massive fan. We’d done rehearsals together, but when we got out there, I mean, she is absolutely wicked… and naughty… and fun… and hysterical… and absolutely brilliant.
Were you two engaged in a mini-competition of who can go the most Long Island?
[Laughs] No, I think she wins the accent war!
An interesting facet of the character is how he’s deeply in the closet and forced to maintain this fiction of being straight, even concocting a story about being a widower, which can’t be healthy and must eat away at you.
On a bigger issue, what the movie’s about is appearances—who we are and the mask we put on. For Frank, how he was perceived and judged by people on-site was very important, and he justified that as being a part of his job, how he needed to project being upstanding to represent the school district in order for it to get to No. 1. In 2004, if you remember, Marlow, and I talked at length about this with my friend who’s a lawyer and is gay, he said, I’m telling ya—2004? I’m a partner now and it’s fine, but in 2004, in a legal firm, you weren’t out and proud. There was a feeling that you wouldn’t become partner, or make it to the top. So in that way, I can understand why he did it, but what it was signaling was Frank’s desire to appear to be something that he’s not—in all forms, in order to be successful.
And by the way, it’s a battle that most of us face in our everyday life. It starts off as a teenager when you’re trying to get a boyfriend or girlfriend or someone to like you, and you’re like, OK, I’m not going to try that part, what’s going to work for me?
As far as your ongoing online flame war with Ryan Reynolds goes, how did that start?
How did it start? It’s gone back so long now… God, this is a classic sign where your feud has gone too long, where you don’t even know why or how it started! [Laughs] I met him back on Wolverine, and I used to ream him because I was very close friends with Scarlett [Johansson], and Scarlett had just married Ryan, so when he came on set I was like, Hey, you better be on your best behavior here, pal, because I’m watching, and we started ribbing each other that way, and then it all escalated with the Deadpool thing and him calling me out, and trying to manipulate me through social media to do what he wanted. [Laughs]
And he got you on your wedding anniversary, so are you now currently in the lab planning a retaliatory strike?
I try to limit it to five hours a day, planning retribution. I’ve found in the past that it just gets unhealthy if it’s more than five hours of obsessing over how to get Ryan Reynolds. But five hours is good and healthy and keeps me strong and ready. [Laughs]
Who were you going to play?
You know, Tom rang me early on because we did Les Mis together, and there were a couple of options there based on availability and time, and I really… yeah, I just wasn’t available at the time.
Seeing what transpired, are you glad you made that move?
I’m in the theater, man, and I don’t want to be in the business of bashing people—or jumping on bandwagons. I haven’t seen it, and Tom Hooper’s one of the great filmmakers we have.
You were great as Wolverine—particularly in Logan, which was such a nice coda to the character. Now that Disney and Fox are merged, it does seem like there are a lot of possibilities for the X-Men universe to expand in ways it couldn’t before.
Totally. Honestly, Marlow, if seven years ago that had happened I’d be like, “Oh yeah!” but I knew it was the right time for me to leave the party—not just for me, but for the character. Somebody else will pick it up and run with it. It’s too good of a character not to. It’s kind of like, you’re on your way home and your friend rings you and goes, Oh, dude, a new DJ just came on and the music is awesome, are you going to come back? And you say, Sounds good but… no. They’re fine with someone else.
It’s the 20th anniversary of X-Men, too. It’s been quite a career ride since then, and just getting that role must have been tough, because you were going up against Russell Crowe, Viggo Mortensen, and Dougray Scott, who had already been cast.
You know what, it is! That’s absolutely right, this July will be the 20th year in release. That’s crazy. But I had no idea about any of that. I did a casting call that thousands of people did around the world, and believe I was put in the mix early on. Dougray Scott got the part, Russell turned it down—that’s the second role I’ve gotten that Russell’s turned down. He’s been very good to me, Russ. The other one was Australia. But I actually got the part nine months after I’d first auditioned for it. I only went back and auditioned again after Dougray got caught up on Mission: Impossible 2, so I had no idea who was going for it nor did I expect to get it. My final screen test, I remember going and my agent going, Hey, this is going to be great because the head of the studio is going to see it. That’s why I thought I was doing it! I never thought I was getting the part. I had no idea it was going to happen.