Fifty years ago it was said that every boy wished to grow up to be an engine driver. Times may have moved on but it’s safe to assume that all actors – males, at least – wish to play a pirate.
Hugh Jackman agrees. And in donning the garb of über-villain Blackbeard in Pan, Joe Wright’s freestyle prequel to JM Barrie’s classic tale of good versus evil, he regressed to the days before stardom. “During my three years at drama school we had to do compulsory fencing classes. It was a traditional school,” says the 47-year-old, who reveals he grew up watching Scaramouche. “Some of the actors complained... I genuinely loved it. Being a pirate? Come on! It’s a great, great, great joy. To be in a Joe Wright film playing a pirate is a dream come true.”
When Joe Wright – director of Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, and Anna Karenina – considered his casting options for Blackbeard, Jackman’s name was at the top of the list. Then word came back from his agent: “Hugh has always wanted to play a pirate.”
But Jackman’s vision for the character didn’t chime with Wright’s. Actor looked at the traditional picture of Blackbeard aka Edward Teach, the tall, broad-shouldered buccaneer with the long, jet-black beard who was the scourge of the West Indies. Director had something else in mind… Instead Wright presented his vision: a picture of Jackman’s face coated in white, cracked make-up “like an Old Master painting”, a wig of Marie Antoinette and a costume resembling Louis XIV. Said Jackman: “That’s a much better idea.”
“I had a couple of ideas but in truth 90 to 95 per cent [of the creation of Blackbeard] was Joe, the hair and make-up department and the costume department. Their set of ideas was so much better than mine. Each day I thanked Joe for doing 80 per cent of my work as an actor because you walk on set in the costume, everyone goes ‘Wow!’ and you’re just standing there.”
One assumes that having played a pirate Jackman has now scratched that particular itch. A box has been ticked. Yet Jackman is only too aware of the vagaries of the actor’s life, and how stardom is often in the lap of the gods – or casting directors.
“Of course there are moments for all of us in life, for good and bad, and as an actor all you can control is working hard, having a lot of fun and if you do get a chance to do something make the most of it.”
Asked who were his inspirations when playing Blackbeard, Jackman mentions Hannibal Lecter, “Alan Rickman in Die Hard” and, perhaps surprisingly, The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.
“I remember being terrified and enthralled by that character. That’s a big character, one of the great performances,” he explains.
“When we talked Joe said, ‘Neverland is a child’s imagination and the adults, which is basically the pirates, have to be as he sees adults, which is frightening and ridiculous.’ So once you’re operating on that level, from a child’s imagination, it’s not dissimilar to The Wizard of Oz, actually.
“From my wife’s perspective she said, ‘This is one of the sexiest characters you’ve played.’ So it was a good summer last year. People talk about the summer of 1976. I talk about the summer of 2014!”
Pan (PG) is on saturation release.