Hugh Jackman Unleashed: The Actor on ‘Prisoners,’ the Oscars, and More

The Aussie delivers one of the best performances of his career in the riveting thriller Prisoners. He sat down with Marlow Stern to discuss the film, the dangers of parenting, post-9/11 torture, and the disaster that was Movie 43.

Wilson Webb/Alcon Entertainment

When Prisoners, a studio thriller starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, was announced as one of the hotly anticipated “sneak previews” at the Telluride Film Festival, critics were nonplussed. On paper, the film looks like your standard thriller, with some ludicrous character names to boot—Jackman, a blue-collar dad, is named Keller Dover, while Gyllenhaal plays the hotheaded Detective Loki.

Boy, were we wrong.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve, whose 2010 drama Incendies was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, Prisoners is not only one of fall’s biggest surprises at the cinema, but also one of the best thrillers in years.

Jackman's character is a carpenter, husband to Grace (Maria Bello), and father of two. One day, the Dover clan pays a visit to their neighborhood pals Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis) for Thanksgiving dinner. When the two couple’s daughters go missing, Keller is convinced they’ve been abducted by Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a loner whose RV was parked near the Birches’ home. The police assign Loki to the case, and he’s forced to let Jones walk due to lack of evidence. So, Keller takes the law into his own hands by capturing Jones and torturing him in a desperate attempt to locate the girls. Prisoners is a lurid, mesmerizing thriller in the vein of Se7en boasting a labyrinthine screenplay, expert lensing by the legendary Roger Deakins, and a pair of awardworthy turns by Jackman and Gyllenhaal.

This is probably the most American character you’ve ever played—a real blue-collar guy.

Very. It took a little massaging because I didn’t want it to feel generic, or too obvious. In the original script, there was a little too much religion for me. Not that I’d be against playing someone who’s very religious, but the last thing I wanted was for the audience to write him off as just a religious nut. As an Aussie, we are amazed at some of the stuff which happens with religion, and churches, and stuff in America. We’re just way more moderate with it. So, the last thing I wanted was for people to go, “Oh, well I’m nothing like him and I would never do that, because I’m not religious like that.” I think it’s a good way to understand his sense of control and how he makes sense of the world and has that faith, and it’s also interesting to see how his faith is tested.

You follow Hinduism, right? I remember reading about how you and your wife had a message in Sanskrit inside your wedding bands.

I’m certainly in line with a lot of that, with some Buddhist stuff, with some Christian stuff. My feeling is if you had Jesus and Buddha and Krishna all at a table, they wouldn’t be arguing, mate. I think they’re pretty much all saying the same thing in different forms.

What was it like filming those scenes where you’re torturing Paul?

His cane he’s got had nothing to do with the filming! I don’t know if you’ve seen him, but he’s hobbling around in a cane right now because he just had an operation. I was like, “Come on man, everyone’s going to think I did it.” He’s amazing, man. There’s that scene where I smash the hammer very close to his head, and he doesn’t even flinch. By the way, none of that was rehearsed or planned. Even I didn’t know that was going to happen.

What’s the most freaked out you’ve ever gotten when it comes to your kids? My mom lost me in a mall once.

I’ve done 45 minutes in a mall. I did 20 minutes when my son was 2, and we were in Prague and had just landed, and we were on our way to the apartment and were stocking up on supplies. I was reading the label and then I turned my head and gone. That’s when I realized that I was basically in the Walmart of Prague, and within 30 seconds, the pit of my stomach. The funniest time was at a beach in Sydney and I was panicked, and I knew there were paparazzi there following and I thought, “This whole thing is being documented and it’s a nightmare.” I could feel this guy running behind me and then he started yelling my name and I thought, “Oh no, he wants a photo of me looking all panicked,” and he goes, “Hugh! He’s up there in the tree!” It’s the only time I’ve been really grateful for paparazzi.

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What do you think this film says about torture? The torture that your character inflicts really chips away at his soul.

Violence begets violence, and violence is destructive, and uncomfortable, and horrible, and he unravels. As one character says later, it’s like bringing out the demon in someone. To be honest, the most interesting portrait of the whole torture thing is Viola Davis’s character. She thinks about it and in the end she says, “We’re not going to stop him, but we don’t know anything about it, and we’re not going to have anything to do with it.” And isn’t that what a lot of the world, and a lot of people in this country, did after 9/11? People knew that things were going on, it was written about, but because people were terrified and frightened, they were just like, “Let people do whatever they want to do at Guantánamo Bay.” It’s fascinating what happens when people are pushed to a frightening place. They’ll let things happen that they normally wouldn’t.

Have you ever been to a dark place like your character where you just lost it?

It used to happen in rugby all the time! [Laughs]

Just seeing red?

Oh, fully. And then five minutes later, you’re like, “What happened?” And you just look around to make sure there aren’t any dead bodies. I’m fairly moderate and even-tempered, but I’m certainly not one of those people you want to make mad, because then the proverbial lid on the pot, boom.

The claws come out.

The claws come out! I’m a little like that. I always hate when I get like that, but it does happen occasionally.

Is this P.T. Barnum film with you and Anne Hathaway happening?

I don’t know about Anne. It is pretty crazy-awesome, and it’s really hotted up in the last month. It’s been in development for three or four years and it’s a musical, and the music is really phenomenal. It’s not like the Barnum that’s onstage, but it’s about that character. But, yeah, that could happen. It might happen next year.

I gotta ask you about Movie 43, and the balls on the chin.

Go for it, man. I think I’ve ruined my son’s life. He’s 13. He hasn’t seen it yet, but I know as soon as he and his friends do, he’s going to be like, “Really, Dad? This is destroying me in the playground!” But I still have the balls lying around. I always laugh. One of the producers, I won’t say who, came up to me after and said, “I have two things to say about the movie: sorry and sorry.”

But you were nominated for an Oscar for Les Misérables 10 days after it opened, so that must have softened the blow. What was it like to finally be nominated after, what, 14 years of acting in films?

First of all, being asked to host it five years ago was ridiculous. I’m a kid from the northern suburbs of Sydney and my father was an accountant at Pricewaterhouse, so we always used to get so excited when the accountants would go onstage, like, “Yeah! That’s it!” That’s about as close as we thought we’d come—that maybe my dad, one day, would appear with a briefcase looking really dorky onstage. But it was amazing and something I’ll never forget, and the chance to perform together onstage was really great. The first day of filming for Prisoners was the [Oscar] nominations, and I actually found out I got nominated on the way to set.

So, did you have to film a really intense scene and the director’s all, “Hugh, stop grinning!”

“Why are you wearing a tux underneath your costume, man?” [Laughs] Luckily, it was the hunting scene and as I walked on set, I was on cloud nine. I said hello to Roger Deakins, who had just gotten nominated for his 10th Oscar, and I went up to him and said, “Between you and me, Rog, that’s eleven nominations right there!” So it was very humbling.

Hosting the Oscars is really the most thankless job. Nobody is ever happy with the host.

Totally. There’s no winning. I remember Baz Luhrmann coming up to me two days after the Oscars and he said, “I don’t care what the L.A. Times says, I thought you were great!” and I hadn’t read any of the reviews, so I was like, “Wait … what did they say?” It was an amazing experience, but everyone said to me, “Whatever you do, don’t do the Rob Lowe/Snow White thing.” I hadn’t seen it, so I Googled it. It is atrocious and you’re just watching it going, “Who signed off on this?” But the most terrifying thing is that it got a standing ovation from the crowd. So literally, when I was up there and I got a standing ovation I was like, “Oh shit, Snow White.” [Laughs]

I’m a fan of the X-Men movies. X2 is probably my favorite. But what is the deal with the new film and combining the two casts? I’m confused.

I’m happy that you feel that way, because I think some people are saying, “Ah, this just sounds like an excuse to get all these actors together and make an Avengers-style movie,” but the truth is that it’s a great script and Bryan is very ambitious to make the best movie of them all. He’s got the biggest cast, the biggest budget, and he started it all, so it’s his legacy. He’s a fan of time-travel movies, and the detail that’s gone into it is incredible. I’m quietly confident that it will be the biggest and the best of them all. When I sat there on that panel at Comic Con, and looked down at all the actors, you think, “This might be one of the best ensembles ever assembled”… Apart from Movie 43. [Laughs]

Are we going to see you and Fassbender throw down? You’d have my $15 right there.

It’s fair to say we don’t get on that well. I get sent back to the past and he has no idea who I am, but you can imagine Wolverine has a bit of fun with that.