“Australia,” the audacious epic from visionary director Baz Luhrmann, is being hailed as the Pacific “Gone With the Wind.”
The movie’s scintillating star, Hugh Jackman, endorses that comparison, but he also sees a number of other intentional echoes in “Australia.”
Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Brandoln Walters, David Gulpilil, David Ngoombujarra, David Wenham, Bryan Brown
(Fox; US theatrical: 26 Nov 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 26 Nov 2008 (General release); 2008)
“I can see shades of ‘Out of Africa,’” the 40-year-old actor says on the phone. “Some of ‘From Here to Eternity,’ some from ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ It’s a swashbuckling adventure with romance at the center of it, and Baz draws on all those sources but still manages to do something unique with it.”
Set in the days leading up to World War II, it’s the story of a stiff English noblewoman (Nicole Kidman) who travels to Australia to save her dusty Australian cattle station, recruiting a rugged and reluctant stockman (Jackman) to help.
When we first meet this trail boss, glaring from under the rim of his cowboy hat, it’s impossible not to think of Clint Eastwood in his Spaghetti Western phase.
“Baz was overt in referencing that,” Jackman says. “It’s classic Sergio Leone, with nods and winks all over the place.”
Another early scene, in which Jackman’s Drover gives himself a shirtless camp shower in front of a flustered Kidman, is such a blatant swipe from the Bogart-Hepburn scene in “The African Queen” that a concerned Jackman sought out the director.
“It’s so obviously patterned on that style, I said to Baz, ‘I’m worried people are going to be laughing in the wrong way,’” the actor recalls. “He said, ‘If we’re bold, really bold, trust me, they’re going to get it.’”
Maybe. Maybe not. With Jackman’s jacked-up physique on display it’s doubtful anyone in the audience will be pondering cinematic precedents.
For the ladies, it’s the money shot that more than confirms the Aussie’s designation last week as People’s Sexiest Man Alive.
You don’t get a build like that just walking the dog. Jackman hits the gym for an hour each morning before reporting to work, and maintains a dietary regimen of eating every three hours from early in the day.
“It keeps your metabolism going, and that really helped during this production,” he says. “We had really long days, physical days, really hot days.”
Shooting “Australia” took eight months, but the hard work began long before the cameras started rolling.
“We did a full month of rehearsals and prestaging,” Jackman says. “We workshopped for three months before that. The horse riding and other elements I spent a full 10 months on before that.”
There was one detail he was disappointed didn’t make it into the film. “In the script, Drover drives a car while rolling a cigarette with one hand. I said, ‘That’s a really cool thing. I’ve never seen that before.’
“So for months, I was practicing hand-rolling cigarettes all day long, even when I was watching TV, until I got it down,” he says. “It got cut eventually.”
Jackman has known his costar Kidman “for 15 years, ever since I met my wife,” actress Deborra-Lee Furness. “My wife and Nicole shared a house in Hollywood when Nicole first came over (to the United States) until she moved in with Tom (Cruise). They were good mates.
“I knew her more as my wife’s friend,” he says. “It wasn’t until this movie that we forged an independent relationship.”
As always for Jackman, going on location in Queensland was a family affair. “My wife and I, when we got married, we decided not to be apart for more than two weeks,” he says.
For their son Oscar, living in the Outback was an 8-year-old’s fantasy camp. He’d wake up in the morning and head right out to the animal pens. After being tutored with the cast’s aborigine children, he’d spend the afternoon exploring the region’s spectacular terrain.
“He cried his eyes out when we had to go back to the city,” his father says.
Jackman, a Sydney native, has shown remarkable versatility in his career, from action (“Swordfish”) to romance (“Kate & Leopold”) to superhero fare (“X-Men”).
But his first love is the stage. He won a Tony Award in 2004 for his tour de force portrait of Peter Allen in the Broadway musical “The Boy From Oz.”
“If you asked me my top 10 moments as an actor,” he says, “probably all of them would be on stage. The immediacy of it, the high-wire nature of it. As an actor, there’s more of an element of you driving the ship. You kind of control the show. All of those things make stage acting incredibly vital to me.”
Jackman can talk about his craft all day, but he really comes alive when the topic turns to his children, Oscar and Ava, 3.
“Every night we have what we call Make Time,” he says. “Neither of my kids likes getting in the bath. They can sense the end (of the day) is coming. So we invented this concept about two years ago. ‘All right, now we’re going to have the most fun time of the day.’
“We throw pillows. I swing them around. We play hide and seek for a half hour,” he explains. “By the time we’re finished, they’re totally exhausted and crawl into the bath. If you came over to our house at about 6:30 in the evening, you’d hear me say (shouting like a boxing-ring announcer): ‘Are you ready for Make Time’?”
The sexiest man alive? Most days you can find him in the romper room.