Superstar’s scary potential

USA Today

New York:

You already know him as a steel-clawed tower of raging testosterone called Wolverine, a stalker of comic-book mutants gone bad in the popular ‘X-Men’ film series. Now the 35-year-old rising star is pumped and primed to break out of the ensemble pack and make his debut as a bona fide headliner. As the titular 19th-century slayer of such classic Universal monsters as Dracula and the Wolf Man, Jackman holds his own against a snarling onslaught of digital effects in ‘Van Helsing’, the high-priced fantasy adventure that kicked off the summer movie season.

Says ‘Van Helsing’ director Stephen Sommers (‘The Mummy’ and ‘The Mummy Returns’) of his leading man, who just made ‘People’ magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People list for a fourth straight time: “There are a lot of younger boy actors. There’s the Mel Gibsons, the Harrison Fords — the older guys. But there’s not many in between who are good-looking and great actors. That’s why we went after Hugh.” After only six Hollywood features, Jackman is poised to vault into the multi-franchise stratosphere of a Ford or a Stallone. The thought of leap-frogging from blockbuster to blockbuster did worry him, at least initially. “I was just on my way to do ‘X-Men 2’ when I met with Steve,” he says. “That’s two years and the only films I will have done will be this kind of movie. I told Steve I was nervous. There was a pause on the phone and he said, ‘You’re going to be the only actor in Hollywood who is frightened of being in two big franchise movies’.”

In ‘Van Helsing’, he flies with the greatest of Errol Flynn-esque ease, clinging to wires with a fetching Kate Beckinsale in tow. His vanquisher of evil even manages to keep a straight face while encountering werewolves with abs so taut you could use them to grate Parmesan. And there is no lack of gothic cheese to shred in the monster marathon. Since September, theatre patrons have gladly endured each creaky clichi and maudlin ballad of the sequin-spangled soap opera that is Allen’s life for the privilege of watching a jacked-up Jackman madly shake his maracas, along with his well-toned buns, to the Latin rhythms of “I Go to Rio.” Swinging between venues is second nature to Jackman, who first found fame (and fell for co-star Deborra-Lee Furness, his wife of eight years, with whom he has an adopted son, Oscar, nearly four) in the Australian TV crime drama ‘Corelli’ in 1995. He credits his drama school training for his versatility. “You do Shakespeare. You do circus skills. You do everything” — including being a clown at children’s parties for pocket money.

But such a melding of milieus can lead to an identity crisis. Then there are the gay rumours, no doubt spurred by his dead-on depiction of Allen. “It’s the cheapest rumour to start because kind of anybody could be. From the moment people believed Rock Hudson was gay, anyone could be.” Fat chance, mate. British beauty Beckinsale, whose gypsy princess

assists Van Helsing as he pursues his supernatural prey, gave it a shot: “We all checked him out. There must be a fatal flaw.” Nope, says Shuler Hensley, the Georgia native who lumbers about in ‘Van Helsing’ as Frankenstein’s monster and shared the stage with Jackman as sullen Jud to his charismatic Curly in the acclaimed 1998 revival of ‘Oklahoma!’ in London’s West End.

“Yeah, he’s so tiring. He’s so high maintenance.” Not. “There’s nothing bad to say about him. He literally is what you would always hope all stars would be like. I’ve never heard him say anything bad about anyone. And that’s impossible.” He’s also considerate to fans: He makes sure to doff his shirt and expose his healthy thatch of chest hair in just about every movie.

“Ah, this is going to be the end of my career,” says Jackman, feigning despair after hearing about such accolades. In a tabloid-glutted age when scandal and sin are the prized tickets to celebrity status, he could have a point. During a recent TV interview, his wife opened up — only to reveal one of her husband’s few weaknesses. He is utterly unhandy when it comes to home repair. Still, he has proved remarkably adept in at least one room: the kitchen. He even knows how to use food as a tool of seduction.

“It was our first date, which was a dinner party, and I invited 10 people,” he recalls. “And I made crepes suzette, which was my father’s specialty, so he taught me how to make it. To this day I can’t remember if they turned out all right.” Since the flambied dessert took about 45 minutes to make, he recruited a cooking assistant from among his guests — namely, his future spouse. “She came in and we were drinking wine, and that’s when we first kissed.”

That’s not just handy. It’s smart. In November, he’ll start work on a project with a little more intellectual heft, ‘The Fountain’, with cult director Darren Aronofsky (‘Requiem for a Dream’). “It’s to do with the search for the Fountain of Youth and takes place in three time frames, the 1500s, the present and the future. And I play three different characters.”

Of course, a movie musical would be perfect. But not just any movie musical. Jackman turned down Richard Gere’s lawyer role in ‘Chicago’ (“I wish I could have seen myself in the part but I didn’t — I’m too young”)

and was otherwise engaged when asked to star in the upcoming ‘Phantom of the Opera’. But Jackman does reveal that “I’ve been talking to Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber about ‘Sunset Boulevard’. With the right people, that could really work.” Is there anything he would refuse outright? “I won’t do any more porn,” he says, a glint of deviltry in his eye. “It’s just too degrading. The catering sucks. It’s terrible. And the money just isn’t that good.”