Hugh Jackman (‘Bad Education’) on Wolverine vs. the Hulk at the Emmys [Complete Interview Transcript]

Hugh Jackman notched Emmy nomination number five this year for his performance as Frank Tassone in the HBO TV movie “Bad Education.” He previously won an Emmy for hosting the 2004 Tony Awards.

Jackman recently spoke with Gold Derby managing editor Chris Beachum about getting an Emmy nomination for acting for the first time, how he is nominated against fellow superhero actor Mark Ruffalo and his memories of hosting the Oscars in 2009. Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: Hugh, tell us about Emmy nomination morning and what that means to you to get yet another one.

Hugh Jackman: This means a lot to me, particularly getting it in that category with those other actors. I’m an actor first. I was very, very surprised and thrilled to get an Emmy Award back, I can’t remember what year it was, but it was for hosting the Tony Awards. I didn’t know there was a category. So I got a big surprise. It was a lovely surprise. But this, of course, is my main love, acting, and to get that kind of support or endorsement, I guess, from my colleagues, particularly when I look at those great actors alongside me, it means a lot. And Chris, I’ve been around long enough to know that they don’t come all that often. So I make the most of it. I was actually emailing Paul Mescal, who I think is brilliant. I’ve never met him, but I emailed him after I saw him in “Normal People” and congratulated him when he got the Emmy and I said, “Man, listen, you’re 23. I’m 51, and I’m sure this is one of your first jobs,” I said, “Make the most of it.” I hope they do. But they don’t come around all that often.

GD: Yeah, somebody starting out like that. We have done an interview with him and I believe it was his very first TV acting job. He’d done a lot of stage work. Can you imagine that being your first thing out?

HJ: No. I think he’s astonishing in it. I always remember that Billy Wilder quote of why he chose William Holden for “Sunset Boulevard” and he said, “Because he had the courage not to act.” And when I saw Paul’s performance, I was like, “At 23, you seem to me to have the courage not to act.” He just was so brave and layered and he took time with it. It was incredible. I think he’s going to have a long, long, long career and do many, many exciting things. By the way, I hear he’s a brilliant singer. Lenny Abrahamson said he would have the guitar on set and everyone was like, “Whoa.” So there’s a lot of interesting things to come from him.

GD: One interesting thing about your category we noticed is it’s Wolverine vs. the Hulk. If it wasn’t the Emmys, who would take that battle, Wolverine vs. the Hulk?

HJ: Of course, I’m partial to Wolverine, but there’s no doubt he would look something like Rocky did after being in the ring with Mr. T. It wouldn’t be pretty. It’s funny. I don’t know if all your audience knows this, but that’s where Wolverine first appeared, in a Hulk comic, the last frame of one of the Hulk comics. So yeah, I’m just going to say, Wolverine. I don’t know why.

GD: It was almost razor-thin, we think, Chris Evans and Captain America might have been in that category, too.

HJ: Yeah, all the superheroes, all the moonlighting superheroes. Those guys, I guess, are still in the middle of their run. I’m done with mine now and I’m so grateful for it. I remember after “X-Men 1,” someone saying to me, “Make sure you get another movie before this comes out because no one likes comic book movies and this thing will probably die. So make sure you have at least got one more movie before it comes out.” And who would have thought 20 years later that I would have played the role nine times, that it would dominate. It’s really dominant.

GD: Well, I know you get sick of talking about that, even though it is a huge part of your life and a huge part of your career. So let’s talk “Bad Education.” When you take on a role that is a real-life person, and you’ve done that several times in your career, is that different for you preparing as opposed to just a straight-up fictional person?

HJ: Yeah, in my head, I approach them all the same way as if they’re real, as if I’m fully inhabiting them and I have to find a way into their way of thinking and who they are and kind of love that character. So without a doubt, there’s more pressure. I mean, I do a lot of research. When you have someone who was as public as Frank, there’s an immense amount of research. There was video of him. This is pre-scandal. Of course, when the scandal happened there was a lot. But he was a very public figure. He was a very public superintendent. He was the highest-paid superintendent in the country and he was writing in the newspaper every two weeks. There was a lot of stuff on him. So I got to research him a lot. I mean, a lot. I worked with a researcher to make sure I really had everything I need. Obviously, our story veers in certain areas just to make it a movie. But we wanted to know where we were veering, know what the real story was. And I listened to a podcast with the real Frank before and after the movie and I found that I was very nervous listening to that because it’s a great responsibility. You’re playing a part and telling a story of a real person’s life, the worst week of their life. I felt a similar thing when I played Gary Hart in “The Front Runner.” I think what’s essential and what I really wanted to know before I got into it was why we were making the film, why the director wanted to make the film, why the writer wanted to write it. And I felt a lot better when I realized it wasn’t about just tar and feathering a man who got tarred and feathered in the daily tabloids for weeks on end. It’s a cautionary tale, an understanding of human nature and how good people can convince themselves that they’re doing the right thing just because it suits them. I think it was more how that lie or culture of lying and stealing came to be in what was a world filled with people dedicating their life to serving kids and serving the public. I found that fascinating.

GD: The reason you were perfect to play this part is his charm, really. Probably his whole life from being a kid all the way up through this job allowed him… people would not question him because they liked him so much, because he was so charming.

HJ: You know, I met several people who knew him and a couple said to me, “After the scandal, a lot of people said, ‘We could always tell there was something going on.’ No one could tell. Like, nobody.” Everybody loved Frank. He really did know the name of every person, staff, their spouses, their kids, their families. He followed up after they left school. Even just last week someone came to me and their kid was autistic and she said to me, “Frank saved our life. We went to the school and he just constantly made it great for my son and made it an incredible school experience.” So he was very well-liked, very successful, which makes the story, in a way, all the more shocking and fascinating to me.

GD: I wanted to ask about two scenes in particular. They seem like they would’ve been fun for you and they were very integral to the whole movie. One is the scene where you and the board are crowding into that little room with Allison Janney to confront her and let her know that her job is over and you have to play this two ways. You have to play it getting onto her, reprimanding her in front of everybody but you’re looking into her eyes knowing that she knows the real story. So that’s a fun scene to play.

HJ: It was so much fun, and to sit literally my head next to the camera watching Allison Janney for the better part of an hour doing her thing, I probably could’ve traded in four years of drama school just for that hour. I learned so much from her. She’s incredible because how do you play that scene, such a huge, pivotal moment for that character and still get a really big laugh out of it? She’s extraordinary. But there were so many things like that. It’s what I really love and as an actor, you’re always looking for where the exterior doesn’t match the interior, where Frank, who always seems to be in control, in charge, charming, liked, underneath, he’s fighting for his life and working it out on the fly. And of course, as the movie goes, it just builds and builds and builds. Yeah, it was a lot of fun playing that scene. We did it a number of different ways, dialing up on what level we show the audience what’s going on and how we keep them in the dark, because at this point the audience doesn’t know. So we always try to play that thing of, “Oh, I want them to go back and watch it.”

GD: Well, that builds into another scene just a little bit later, after everything breaks or the news breaks and the office knows, and you walk into your office and the mother and the child is there who’s rehearsed his little speech for you and you just about to lose it.

HJ: (Laughs.) It’s like he’s been sitting on it for so long and of all the places to lose it, with a nine-year-old boy and the mother played by Steph Kurtzuba, who’s your kind of quintessential helicopter mom, shall we say? I love that scene, really. You get to see what really frustrates Frank, how hard he’s tried to work for and on behalf of the students, how under-appreciated he feels and I’m pretty sure I’ve run into a bunch of teachers who said, “I hope I never lose it like that but I’ve been tempted over the years.” And I think a lot of teachers feel under-appreciated. But I remember reading the script going, “Wow, that’s a big scene to pull off. I wonder if, is it too much?” And we really played with it on the day, and Cory Finley is just a phenomenal director. We really had a good time playing around with it. Every take was very different. We really tried to tread that fine line between going over the top with it as well as really allowing finally Frank’s real self to come through, and humanity. There’s humanity in that, too. Thanks for picking up on that. I was proud of that scene. I was nervous about it and I was proud of it.

GD: Well, I’ve been interviewing for so long and see so many movies and TV shows. I look for moments where I think, “Oh, that actor or that actress is probably really enjoying this. They were looking forward to this particular day because it means so much. It was a fun thing to play.”

HJ: And by the way, it was the last day of filming and Steph Kurtzuba, who plays the mother of the boy was in “The Boy from Oz” with me back in 2003. So it was this lovely sort of reunion after 17 years of someone who’d been on Broadway for many years and everything about it just felt great. Last days of filming are really weird in general, and it’s very rare that you have such a pivotal scene on the last day. People are always saying, “Not with a bang, but with a whimper is how you finish these movies.” Often it’s mopping up stuff you haven’t done or little bits or inserts, even. So to do such a big scene for me, it was great. I loved it.

GD: When you’re starting a project on the first day, the first scene, do you prefer that to be something difficult that you’ve really had to practice or do you prefer to ease into something a little easier?

HJ: Ease in. I prefer to ease in. I remember talking to Tom Hooper about that because we started off with the soliloquy song, that really big song. We started with that on “Les Mis.” It’s a big moment and he said, “Look, I know actors prefer to ease in.” But he said on “The King’s Speech,” that big scene with Colin Firth was a ten-page scene of him stuttering when he first meets Geoffrey Rush‘s character. He said, “I did it on the first day.” And he goes, “No one wants to jump into that cold water, but if you just jump in straight away, then everything goes fine.” In the end, I’ll trust a director on that. I will totally trust a director but no, I’m like anyone, most people on sets, I’ve learned. But I usually get nervous, takes a couple of days, two or three days, including the crew. It takes a little while to get your rhythm. But if I had my choice, It would be something very inconsequential.

GD: We’re an awards website. So I want to talk a little bit about awards. You’ve won at the Emmys, you’ve won at the Grammys, you’ve won at the Tonys. You just need that elusive Oscar to get into the EGOT club. We just had number 16 on the EGOTs just a couple of weeks ago. Alan Menken, the composer, won at the Daytime Emmys and that’s all he needed to be number 16.

HJ: Fantastic.

GD: If that ever happens for you, and you’ve been close, you had the nomination at the Oscars, what would that mean to you to join such a small club like that?

HJ: Oh, it would mean a lot. There’s no doubt. I grew up in Sydney, Australia watching the Oscars. I’ve been an actor now for 25, 30 years. Awards, I don’t try to live my life by them because I feel like that’s probably a road that’s not gonna bring much joy or necessarily good work either. But I’d be lying if I said it wouldn’t mean a lot to me. It would kind of surprise me. If you’d said to me 30 years ago, would that happen, I would have laughed.

GD: What was the first big award show you attended?

HJ: The Logies. The Logies in Australia is the Emmy Awards of Australia and I went as my wife’s date. I was in a TV show, but the show hadn’t come out. It was my first job. And I remember going to that. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of fun going to a show where no one knows you, but they all assume you’re there for a reason. People will talk to you but there was no pressure. I walk down the red carpet like I was walking in the woods. That was the first one and then in America, it was the Tony Awards and I was hosting. It was the first time I went and I said to them, “I can’t host.” I say, “Guys, I’ve not been in a Broadway show.” There’s already that feeling of, “Why do we give movie stars the chance on Broadway?” So to have someone host your show who’s never been on Broadway, they said to me, “Trust me, you’ll feel the community,” and the moment I walked out, I did. It still shocks me that someone who at that point hadn’t been on Broadway and I felt at home. There was something really celebratory about it. Yeah, I’m very lucky to have been able to host there four times.

GD: Speaking of hosting, I’m not old enough to have seen them all in person, but I’ve seen about 50 Oscar ceremonies either live or somehow getting my hands on them, let’s say. Your ceremony that you hosted is my single favorite ceremony that they’ve ever done.

HJ: Wow. Wow.

GD: I was just blown away. Not just you, and when I think about a ceremony, any ceremony, I kind of put them in two camps, the camp of what the producers and the host wanted to put together and then the camp of the winners and losers, which they can’t predict or account for on the planning stages. When you were getting ready for that night, I loved the whole thing with the five actors from previous generations coming out over and over and when you were all planning it and you were getting close to the day of, did you know it was special and was there a particular moment or a section that you thought, “Boy, I can’t wait for people to see this?”

HJ: Yeah, well, thank you so much for saying that Bill Condon, Larry Mark, David Rockwell did that set. Everything about it felt fresh as well as honoring what the Oscars used to feel like. So even in the set, you’ll notice it was just that semicircular stage.

GD: I love it. It made everybody feel like I like a little theater in the round, Michael Giacchino with the band is right behind you. I loved all that.

HJ: It felt old school in that way and I thought what David did with bringing it and making it a little more cabaret-like, make you feel like there’s a community. Sometimes the Oscars can feel, I think, deliberately at times, quite austere, almost very regal and distanced. And that one as a host, it meant a lot to me that I could literally look in people’s eyes. I remember looking at Meryl Streep‘s eyes when I went out there. She was looking me like, “What the hell? Why did you say yes? I mean, good for you, but what are you doing?” She was the best audience, as was Brad Pitt. I remember he was so encouraging and I chatted to people during the commercial breaks. It felt very inclusive. But I think that idea of having five actors introduce the nominees, I loved that. I remember the following year, I thought, I understand producers want to put their own mark on it, but I think it’d be wise for producers to look back and go, “You know what? That really worked.” Not everything works, obviously, but I certainly felt… two weeks before we were on, I was pretty nervous up to then. Then I had to pitch my opening to them and what the show was. We had to pitch to the Board of Governors and the powers that be. After that, I could see in their faces that like, “Oh, this is going to be different. This is going to be good,” and then I felt good about it.

GD: Have they ever — I think they have — why have you not returned to host?

HJ: The next two years, I was asked and I would’ve loved to go back and do it. I remember both times I was shooting a movie at the same time and to this day I think of Alec Baldwin, who was shooting five days a week and then went to do the Oscars. I don’t know how he did it, because your show is predicated after the nominations. You can have a few bits, but most of it is around that. So you have this intense six-week period where you’re kind of writing a three-hour show, four-hour. So I just always said I’d only do it if I was off. And it was just one of those years where I was off. So that’s why.

GD: Well, last question. Speaking of off, many of my New York friends were disappointed “Music Man” couldn’t come this year. When Broadway comes back, will you be able to fit that into your schedule, say, next year or the year after?

HJ: Yeah, because that was a year, and it’s really almost a year-and-a-half time commitment, I had nothing planned after. So I was meant to start July 1. So I was one of those rare actors in the business who, I had nothing planned but that. So I’m just hoping to go whenever they go. I think it’s at the moment we’re February rehearsal, May opening, which feels very possible. Things are changing for the better really rapidly here in New York and it’s starting to feel like that’s going to actually happen, which I’m super excited about. It’s devastating what has happened to so many people, so many of my friends I’m in touch with all the time and I’m really happy that as we rebuild that community and rebuild the trust of theatergoers, that I’ll be in the center of it. It makes me happy.

GD: You and Sutton Foster and one of the great, great musicals of all time, I’ve only seen it on film but Robert Preston, that’s a tough act to follow.

HJ: Very tough. I remember doing “Oklahoma!” 1998 in the National Theater. I was like, “That’s a tough act to follow,” and it’s weird because “The Music Man” was the first musical I ever did in high school. And I think it’s done at so many high schools and colleges all around the world. And everyone says, “I know ‘The Music Man.'” I’m really excited to be able to see it in this iteration, produced by Scott Rudin and the attention to detail, the size of it, it is going to be one of the great musicals of all time, all bells out, all guns blazing and so I’m super excited for people to sort of rediscover it. I remember that with “Oklahoma!” People were like, “I thought I knew Oklahoma!” They sort of rediscovered it and I feel a bit the same here. But I’m not trying to compare myself to Robert Preston (laughs).

GD: (Laughs.) But if New York and Broadway ever needed just a fun, take your mind off of life kind of a project, that’s the one they’re going to need in 2021.

HJ: That’s one of the things, Chris, because “Music Man” I remembered it as that, too. It’s just a really fun musical, con man comes to town and gets his foot caught in the door and as I was looking at it now, maybe it’s in the lens of what we’re going through, it’s really about belief. And if ever we need that, not just in the theater community, but in the community as a whole, it’s that belief and hope for the future that we can actually connect. And I think that’s what musicals are about.

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