Levi Miller and Hugh Jackman in a scene from the movie Pan.
Levi Miller and Hugh Jackman in a scene from the movie Pan. Laurie Sparham

Pan: Jackman’s good as a bad guy

HUGH Jackman has accomplished something quite rare in Hollywood.

Our beloved acting export has managed to enjoy a long, successful career without a bad word being said about him.

Generally accepted as one of the film industry's true nice guys, the 46-year-old has wide appeal for his versatility, ranging from the animalistic brooding of a reluctant mutant superhero to the flamboyance of The Boy From Oz.

Thanks to his busy filming schedule and charity work with his wife Deborra-Lee Furness, Jackman is never far from the spotlight.

Just recently, satirical current affairs show host John Oliver referred to him as the best thing to ever come out of Australia.

That might be a bit of a stretch, but there's no denying his enduring popularity.

But after two decades on screen and stage, 15 of those as Logan/Wolverine in the X-Men films, Jackman can admit, jokingly, that he's been doing it wrong all these years.

"It has taken me a long time to work out the villain has it a lot easier," he tells Weekend.

"You only lose one fight as a villain. The hero gets beaten up the entire movie."

The Oscar nominee makes a dramatic transformation in his latest role as the pirate Blackbeard in Pan, an origin story of sorts for the fictional boy who never grows up, Peter Pan.

Jackman famously shaved his head for the role after hosting the Tony Awards last year.

He makes a memorable entrance as Blackbeard in the film, chanting the lyrics to Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit as hundreds of orphans-turned-workers obediently sing along as a chorus below his floating ship.

"The second week of rehearsals Joe (Wright, director) handed out the lyrics to (Smells Like) Teen Spirit and he said 'I think this should be the entrance'. I said, 'Oh yes, that is so cool'," he says.

"I remember looking at the studio executives who came in a couple of days later to see how things were going. All of a sudden we're singing that whole beginning and I remember looking at their faces as they were thinking, 'I didn't think this was a musical we green-lit'.

"Joe's point is Neverland is the child's imagination where anything is possible. So if anything is possible, why not have Teen Spirit? Why not have that kind of fun?"

Blackbeard is a pantomime sort of bad guy - the perfect fit for Wright's colourful, over-the-top version of Neverland, a floating island world where fairies exist as tiny balls of light, giant crocodiles and mermaids patrol the waterways, big-eyed birds wander the forest floor and pirate ships defy gravity.

"I knew it was going to be just eccentric enough," Jackman says. "If you tackle Neverland, it has to be eccentric, and no one does that like the Brits."

Pan was filmed in Cardington, north of London, and Wright, a London native, is known for directing classic British romances Atonement and Pride and Prejudice.

Jackman is nearly unrecognisable as Blackbeard, sporting a black wig, moustache, angular goatee and dark circles under his eyes.

The notorious pirate is part theatrical slave driver, part swashbuckling madman.

"When I first met Joe, he showed me a picture. It had my face, the wig of Marie Antoinette and the clothing of Louis XIV superimposed on top," he says.

"We discussed how he loves being a show pony, how he loves dressing up.

"The other thing Joe said was, 'I want you to be frightening'. I think the most frightening thing for me (as a child) were adults who I just couldn't predict. That turning on a dime thing was what frightened me - when you never know if someone's going to hug you one minute and slap you the next."

When the audience, and Peter, first meet Blackbeard, he is teetering on the edge of control over his workforce of orphaned boys, spirited away from their beds over years of night raids on London's orphanages.

Blackbeard fears Peter may be the boy prophesied to finally free Neverland's indigenous people, and the Lost Boys, from his rule.

"He loves that power, but he's been the top dog for a long time," he says. "He's a little bit bored, sad, lonely and frightened. I was thrilled Joe wanted to dive into that side. He wasn't afraid to make it a little more three-dimensional."

Pan puts two Aussie talents on show.

Jackman's experience is contrasted with the fresh young face of Brisbane's Levi Miller (pictured above) as Peter in his first leading movie role.

Jackman is full of praise for his young co-star, who portrays Peter's transformation from cheeky orphan to the leader of a full-scale rebellion against Blackbeard.

"Acting is natural for him. He could do whatever Joe wanted him to do," he says.

"He was just having the time of his life. That situation, for a lot of people, can be overwhelming, but for him it was 'to the manor born'. He carries the film and does it pretty effortlessly - that part you can't teach."

The father of two was certainly still a guiding hand for Miller on set, even if they had to play foes once the cameras started rolling.

"I found him grabbing some lollies at the craft service table and I said, 'Mate, leave it until the end of the day or you're going to crash'," Jackman says with a hint of fatherly authority.

"I probably got more from him than he got from me. I wanted to remind him that no matter what's going on to just keep having fun. The secret power you have is having fun. You can find all the energy you need and you'll be able to get through any fearful moment if you know 'this is the thing I love to do'. It doesn't have to be easy, but would the challenge be fun? I think audiences always respond to that."

In Pan, scriptwriter Jason Fuchs creates an original story for literary foes Peter Pan and Captain Hook based on a small mention in JM Barrie's original book of Hook learning his trade "as a boatswain to Blackbeard".

It was all the inspiration he needed for the fantasy adventure, set before Hook loses his hand and Peter learns he can fly.

They start as friends, when James (Hook) agrees to help Peter escape Blackbeard's mine.

It's a reluctant partnership at first, which blossoms into a friendship after they meet the captivating Princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara).

"This is very much a coming-of-age story," Jackman says.

"To Levi it was a real challenge because Peter becomes quite cocky and self-assured. He has the cockiness and the courage as well as that fear."

Jackman is happy to be the scary villain and his performance will leave cinema-goers hoping it's not the last time he plays the bad guy.

Pan opens nationally on Thursday.

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