The claws come out as the sexy superhero/mutant warrior faces new enemies in the comic-book prequel -- and the studio fights off a potentially damaging leak of the film

By Christine Spines
Updated April 28, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT
Michael Muller

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.”

NEXT PAGE: ”[The online leak] is a criminal misrepresentation of the work. 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.”