Streamed Live under the aegis of 92nd Street Y
Close to 300 people from all over “gathered” online last night to watch author/educator Annette Insdorf interview Hugh Jackman from his home. Several had the opportunity to ask questions. The thoughtful, articulate actor, who evidently sat in on a number of the host’s classes before lockdown, was as casually charming as his Miami Vice stubble. He has an easy laugh and evident modesty. The guest addresses each attendee by his or her name when replying to questions.
Our host begins with Jackman’s role as Dr. Frank Tassone, the charismatic, Roslyn, Long Island School Superintendent who, with his assistant (played by Allison Janney), embezzled millions of dollars before being caught in the early 2000s. The film, Bad Education, is currently on HBO. Jackman is excellent and decidedly unglamorous. “Your performance was so juicy, I found myself sympathizing more with your character than the student who exposed him,” Insdorf begins. “It’s not a film about tar-and-feathering, but rather a cautionary tale… Frank lost his way,” Jackman responds.
“Were you sympathetic towards him?” Insdof follows up. “If you’re not sympathetic to your character, walk away. All of us have things we try to mask, roles we play. Shakespeare said, all the worlds a stage…Everything in Frank’s life became about presentation and success. It was important to understand how this could happen…I’m a public figure, so I have to watch it in myself as well. Am I authentic off camera – here and now…” The host points out that recent roles P.T. Barnum (The Greatest Showman), Gary Hart (The Front Runner), and Frank Tassone all had that real life issue.
“I had about seven hours of video to watch for mannerisms and appearance,” Jackman says referring to Bad Education. “I was never really gonna look like him…We never met. I’d just come off a movie playing Gary Hart, who’s become a friend. It’s a big decision to play someone who’s alive when the piece looks at a painful part of his life…Frank got four to twelve years and served four.”
Insdorf quotes a review that calls Jackman more movie star than character actor. “If I’m a movie star, I’m a reluctant one,” the subject muses. “Paul Newman was my acting hero. You couldn’t take your eyes off him on screen, but every role was a character part.” Referring to a scene in which Tassone dances poorly, the host asks how hard it was in light of Jackman’s skill.
“For me, physicality is important. There’s such emphasis on eyes and face in film, what’s physical often goes by the wayside. I always start by just walking around the room…” Jackman describes shedding aspects of himself as he moves, experimenting with facets of his character.
“What had the most lasting impact on you personally and professionally?” the host asks. “On stage, The Boy From Oz” (Jackman won the Best Actor Tony playing Peter Allen in the extravagant jukebox musical). “I was really reaching there. Les Miz (the film Les Miserables) is the other one. I was nervous playing such an iconic literary figure. Tackling someone like Jean Valjean makes you question priorities. Both touched why I got into acting, to understand human nature.”
“What are some of the films that inspired you to get into acting?” Insdorf inquires “You’ll laugh – Raiders of The Lost Ark. I was 11 or 12. I didn’t know that was possible! Then E.T. (the Extra-Terrestrial). It was the first time I saw my father cry and understood the power of film. As I got older, Kramer vs. Kramer, The Deer Hunter – dramatic performances. An attendee notes that both Kramer and The Deer Hunter are Meryl Streep films and asks what Jackman would do to work with her. “Anything!” he responds laughing, arms wide. “Anything!”
Attendee Question: If you were quarantined, what’s the Hugh Jackman film you’d like to have. “I generally look away…I’m gonna say, The Prestige (about competing 19th century magicians) which had so many things going on.”
Attendee question: What it was like being part of the X-Men films in the early 2000s? “There was no sense that the movies were going to be anything. People suggested I have another job lined up. In terms of the proliferation of superhero movies, I have to say, I’ve been really impressed with their quality. I’m surprised how long the genre has lasted and how popular it is.”
“The majority of questions coming in now are about The Music Man,” Insdorf notes. (Scheduled to land on Broadway in September with Jackman as Professor Harold Hill and Sutton Foster as Marian, the librarian.) “It’s gonna happen when it’s safe. I’m preparing. I take a singing lesson every day and work with my choreographer. Today I was doing hat tricks.” Jackman reaches for a straw hat. “There were 32 drafts of The Music Man. Producer Scott Rudin is looking at all of them.”
Attendee question: You obviously have a deep love of film making. Have you considered writing or directing? “I always feel like a punter on film sets. I came to it late, but do love it now… We don’t shoot in chronological order. I map out beforehand, so I know where I am emotionally. You need to know which scenes to lean in on and which to almost throw away. Filming takes only minutes at a time. That took awhile for me to get used to. I hope for a great director I trust who’ll let me fly… I have no desire to do it myself. It’s a really tough job.”
Attendee question: Do you have any advice for aspiring directors about how to work with actors? “Be honest, allow a free flow of ideas, look for an actor to be vulnerable.”
Attendee question: How are you holding up?” I have a 19 and a 14 year-old and I love being with them. This is a lot harder on them…I find it difficult to slow down. I’m always working at something…”
Insdorf asks her guest about his next project, Reminiscence. “It’s an amazing script, intelligent film noir with lots of twists set in a not too distant future where everyone lives under water. I have a machine that takes you back to literally relive a memory… I loved every second.”
Attendee question: How did your own tour compare to playing someone else? Is there a DVD? “I’m not a fan of DVD concerts. There’s a sacred contract in the theater that something might happen that never happened before…I did 90 appearances all around the world. It was an out of body experience.”
Insdorf closes: “Thank you for the intelligence, warmth, talent, and humanity you’ve been manifesting all these years.” Jackman thanks the host and those in attendance, promising to visit live when The Music Man opens.
Photos Courtesy of the 92Y.
Reel Pieces with Annette Insdorf begins the semester May 10 with classic films, watched and discussed on ZOOM. For information and sign-up: https://www.92y.org/class/reel-pieces-online.aspx
Annette Insdorf is a Columbia University film professor, and the author of books about Francois Truffaut, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Philip Kaufman, Wojciech Has, Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust and Cinematic Overtures: How to Read Opening Scene.