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'X-Men Origins: Wolverine': Summer movie preview

Hugh Jackman stars in May’s main event

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Imagine you’re in Hugh Jackman’s bedroom at four in the morning. The alarm clock shrieks. He stumbles out of bed and heads for the kitchen to wolf down a plate of egg whites and dry toast. Yesterday at this hour, he ate a chicken. This is not a case of the midnight munchies. And the actor’s call time on the set of X-Men Origins: Wolverine isn’t for hours. But in order to turn his biceps into bowling balls and the rest of him solid as granite, Jackman has spent months following a hardcore bulk-building regimen requiring him to refuel every three hours. No exceptions. ”I wanted to look like [Robert] De Niro did when he took off his shirt in Cape Fear and everyone went, ‘Whoa.’ You realized the guy was a freak,” recalls Jackman, 40, who kept to a joyless diet of bland, low-fat food and a workout routine that had him pumping iron every day until he dropped off from exhaustion. ”There were moments when I would wake up completely sore and say to my wife, ‘I have a feeling this is like childbirth.”’

One thing’s for certain, nobody can accuse Jackman of sleepwalking through the role of Wolverine. And when Jackman shows up 15 minutes early for a breakfast interview near his home in New York City, it is clear that he’s still willing to embrace, enthusiastically, experiences most stars suffer through begrudgingly. He’s got plenty of incentive, considering it’s his first shot at producing a major summer tentpole, a film that centers on a character that made him a star and is still the only way he’s proved himself as a box office draw for U.S. audiences. Although his debut as Oscar host in February helped boost ratings by 13 percent over last year’s telecast, nobody rushed out to see him in 2008’s romantic epic Australia, or in 2007’s quickly canceled CBS musical series Viva Laughlin. Jackman knows the pressure’s on to maintain his young male fan base (as People‘s reigning Sexiest Man Alive, he’s got women of all ages sewn up) and help make Wolverine a franchise-spawning hit.

The movie, a spin-off of the three-picture X-Men series, plucks the alpha-male mutant out of the X-Men ensemble for a full-on origin story, tracing how temperamental supersoldier Logan (Jackman) is recruited into a secret government program by Colonel Stryker (Danny Huston) and receives the injection of adamantium that turns him into a cutlery-clawed killing machine. Constantly at war with his own animal nature, Wolverine faces off against his anarchic half brother, Sabretooth (Liev Schreiber), and a rogues gallery of other mutants. ”Wolverine’s fun and cool,” says Jackman, ”but I wouldn’t be down for my fourth time doing it if there wasn’t something more interesting to it than just slicing and dicing and smoking a cigar and saying a few cool lines.”

If Wolverine packs as many dramatic twists and near-death moments as the film’s backstory can claim, then the producers have nothing to worry about. The four-month Sydney-based shoot suffered a series of complications and setbacks. First there was the reported strife between the filmmaker and the studio (director Gavin Hood was allegedly marginalized so that the more experienced Richard Donner could take creative control — more on that later). Then came the shocking event on March 31, when an unfinished work print of the entire movie leaked online. It was the earliest, most comprehensive leak ever for a potential blockbuster — and every studio’s worst nightmare. ”This is a disaster,” said one high-ranking industry source the day after the news broke, taking a guess at how much Fox might lose in revenue: ”It’s tens of millions of dollars.”

As the studio went into Defcon-1 damage-control mode, Fox’s co-chairman Tom Rothman stood up to take the blame. ”Ultimately, it was this company’s responsibility to secure the postproduction pipeline, and we failed,” he says. ”What makes this different [from previous leaks] is it’s a huge movie with a rabid fan base, and that it happened way in advance. That’s the irony: It’s not even close to a finished film.” The studio notes that the pirated cut lacked most of the special effects and more than 10 minutes of crucial additional footage that was shot earlier this year. ”It’s a criminal misrepresentation of the work,” says Rothman. ”Gavin Hood is still over on the lot working on the film. It’s not the same moviegoing experience to watch a half-assed version on a computer.”

At press time, the investigation, a collaboration between the FBI and Fox, has yet to turn up a culprit. Rothman insists the print could have come only from someone involved in the postproduction process, and that they’re close to zeroing in on the source of the leak, although most industry insiders are less optimistic that an arrest will be made. ”I don’t know that they ever catch these guys,” says one producer who has had a high-profile film pirated recently. ”You never read about some guy going to jail for this for 20 years.” Even less clear is whether the leak really will cost Fox ”tens of millions” at the box office. The only comparable precedent is 2003’s The Hulk, which was illegally uploaded onto the Web two weeks before release. Universal ultimately claimed the breach cost the film $100 million (some say the studio was seeking a scapegoat for the film’s poor reviews; Universal execs had no comment). On the other hand, some insiders suggest that Wolverine may actually benefit. Industry tracking on audience anticipation for the film spiked after the leak.

Either way, both the studio and Jackman have an awful lot riding on the success of Wolverine — the latest incarnation of one of the most durable and profitable franchises in the studio’s history. X-Men was the first major Marvel superhero comic ever adapted for the screen, and it’s one of the most profitable in the genre. Each successive sequel has made more than the previous one ($157 million for X-Men, $215 million for X2: X-Men United, $234 million for X-Men: The Last Stand), a claim no other comics franchise of three or more films can make. Fox has at least a couple of other X-Men spin-offs in development, including a Magneto origin story and X-Men: First Class, which follows the mutants as teenagers. ”There is no property more sacred to us than X-Men,” says Alex Young, Fox’s co-president of production. Adds Rothman, ”We’re not going to let the bastards win.”

Wolverine has a penchant for trash-talking and random fits of rage, which lend him a confident, dangerous allure that’s helped make him the most popular mutant in the X-Men franchise and among the most beloved superheroes in the Marvel universe. After fans voiced complaints about his having gone a little soft in the X-Men sequels, the studio and producers Lauren Shuler Donner and Jackman seized the opportunity to give the character a whole movie in which he could be bigger and badder than he’d ever been before. Committing those ideas to film turned out to be immensely complicated. Young won’t divulge the new film’s budget but admits it’s the franchise’s priciest (i.e., higher than The Last Stand‘s reported $165 million). ”It’s bigger in scale and size than any of the other X-Men movies. It’s also more primal and visceral. We haven’t even come close to this pitch of intensity and fury.”

To create that kind of rawness, Jackman pushed the studio to hire Hood, an art-house veteran who was hot off his 2005 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-winning gang drama, Tsotsi — and who had shown a flair for gritty conflict and emotional intensity. But the South African filmmaker, whose next film, 2007’s Rendition, would bomb, had no experience sorting out the tangled logistics of an F/X-driven summer spectacle like this one. Furthermore, Hood, who had served in the military, saw Wolverine as the superhero version of an Army vet with post-traumatic stress disorder — someone deeply ambivalent about his ability to kick ass. That dark take on the character sparked some intense debate within the studio about whether teenage moviegoers would want to be burdened with such heavy themes. ”Part of the challenge is to keep all of those ideas in a PG-13 environment,” says Hood, 45. ”I’m not a tested big-movie director, and it has been a process coming to understand the differing positions of the people who have a major stake in the film.”

While the parties were discussing, a raft of Internet stories popped up and fanned the controversy by alleging that Fox’s Rothman ordered a set to be repainted in a less gloomy palette without Hood’s approval — and that Hood had been replaced by Lauren Shuler Donner’s husband, director Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon). ”That was exaggerated,” says Jackman of the degree of conflict, adding that Donner was brought on set to offer advice on some complex action sequences, nothing more. ”Dick was there in a kind of procedural role, just to make sure we were on the right track.” Bottom line: The kid stayed on the picture. ”Was [the shoot] easy? No,” recalls Hood. ”But if Tom and I didn’t have a healthy respect for each other, he would have fired me, or I would have walked.” For his part, Rothman insists he always backed Hood’s vision; otherwise, he wouldn’t have hired him in the first place. ”We knew what we were getting into and embraced it,” says Rothman. ”This movie is very badass, and we knew it would push the furthest limit of PG-13. But once Dark Knight came out, we saw that there wasn’t any level of intensity we couldn’t go to. We could both have what we wanted.” Translation: Studio heads all over town had been looking for the next Dark Knight, and Fox execs found themselves in the enviable position of sitting on another superhero movie with a central character who can barely live with himself.

On March 31, the day that fateful leak hit the Internet, Jackman wasn’t crying in his beer or embarking on a vigilante manhunt. Instead, he was spearheading a Web contest inviting fans to write in and lobby to host the premiere of Wolverine in their hometown (the winner will be announced April 20). By all accounts, Jackman has remained relentlessly upbeat about the film’s prospects. Some might attribute his response to spin or denial, but Jackman’s positivity seems unusually sincere. Unlike most creative types, whose best work is often fueled by angst, despair, and self-doubt, Jackman seems to be driven by sheer force of will. ”That affable nature of his hides a steely professional focus,” says director Baz Luhrmann, who worked with Jackman on Australia and an Oscars musical montage. ”Whether he’s standing on the stage at the Kodak Theatre or in the middle of the vast Australian desert…I have never seen someone as consistently pleasant in difficult or extraordinary circumstances as Hugh.”

Case in point: Thirty minutes before Jackman was due to perform his opening number at the Academy Awards on live TV, the show’s producer Bill Condon found the actor in his dressing room with the door open, casually joking with anyone who wandered in. Even now, Jackman insists he never worried that he’d preside over a career-tarnishing, Letterman-like bomb. ”It just felt very relaxed,” he says. ”The first thing I did when I went out on stage was look at my wife, and I knew that even if I completely died on my ass, she wasn’t going to go, ‘He’s just not attractive anymore.”’

Jackman applies the ”What, me worry?” philosophy to everything he does. For instance, six years ago he knew he might risk his budding action-hero career by taking the leading role in The Boy From Oz on Broadway, as gay Aussie song-and-dance man Peter Allen. ”I’ll never forget kissing a guy on stage and someone from the crowd shouting ‘Don’t do it, Wolverine!”’ recalls Jackman, who has two children, Oscar, 8, and Ava, 3, with his wife of 13 years, Australian TV actress Deborra-lee Furness. ”I don’t waste time or energy with it. I think there’s far too much importance placed on people’s sexuality anyway. I love sex, it’s great, but it’s not the measure of love or a relationship. And whether you like girls or boys, whether you like the light on or off: Who cares? I always find sexuality one of the least interesting things about a person.”

A meal with Jackman is full of the type of openhearted insights that make you feel like he’s read ahead a few chapters in the manual on how to be a better human. Then again, maybe it’s just that he loves entertaining people as much as he seems to, and that he doesn’t really resent the attention that goes along with fame. Both on screen and off, he’s more afraid of missing an opportunity than losing his foothold on the A list. ”If it was all over, I would find it a little hard, no doubt,” says Jackman, who cleared his schedule post-Wolverine to spend time with his family and has yet to line up his next gig. However, he adds with a broad chuckle, ”there will be a time when I’m on the ‘Oh, My God, Look What Happened to Him’ list, or the ‘He Was Once the Sexiest Man Alive?’ list. You can’t take yourself too seriously.” Even Wolverine might have to agree.