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Real Steel – Hugh Jackman on the phenomenal robots

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Real Steel - Hugh Jackman
Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) prepares Ambush for a fight © 2011 DreamWorks II

Hugh Jackman made his first major film appearance as Wolverine in the X-Men franchise, spinning off into the prequel X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Other popular films he’s starred in include The Prestige, Van Helsing and Australia and he won a Tony Award for his performance as Peter Allen in Broadway’s The Boy from Oz. He’s about to return to the Great White Way with his one man show, but took time off to speak with us about his new movie Real Steel which opens this week.

Set in the not-too-distant future, and directed by Shawn Levy, Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a washed-up boxer whose livelihood has been taken over by 8-feet steel robots, forcing him to make his money as a small-time robot fight promoter. Just when things can’t become any worse, his estranged son Max (Dakota Goyo) suddenly and unwillingly comes back into his life.

Together they rebuild and train a scrap-heap robot that Max calls Atom, and they turn him into a boxing contender.

Can you talk about working with Dakota?

Real Steel - Hugh Jackman and Dakota Goyo
Down-on-his-luck fight promoter Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman, right) and his son, Max (Dakota Goyo, left) introduce their star robot boxer Noisy Boy to the cheering crowd at the Crash Palace © 2011 DreamWorks II

Without that relationship working, without that boy being that good, we don’t have a movie. The movie exists on the strength of that relationship and the relationship with that discarded robot, Atom.

There’s a scene where I’m boxing and Max is watching Atom and then he catches me out of the corner of his eye, and a tear just drops down, Shawn called cut, and I looked over and there were twenty people in floods of tears. So I said, ‘I want to see that.’ They played it for me in slow motion and I thought, ‘This kid is phenomenal.’

He’s funny, he’s full of life, he’s a brilliant actor, and the nicest kid imaginable. I’ve no doubt that he’s going to become a huge star, and I’ll be in the old person’s home, saying, ‘You know, I was in his first movie.’

When did you find out that Sugar Ray Leonard was going to be training you?

Real Steel - Hugh Jackman
Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) © 2011 DreamWorks II

I remember being asked about it. They said, ‘Listen, we’re thinking about hiring Sugar Ray to work with the robots and do the choreography, and also to help you out with the boxing. Are you cool with that?’ I was like, ‘Can I just get this straight? Are you asking me if I’m okay to have one of the greatest boxers of all time as my personal trainer? Yeah!’

I was definitely star-struck when I met him. I’ve been lucky enough to have met a lot of very big movie stars, but deep down if I was any better at it I would be a sportsman. So meeting someone like Sugar Ray I turn into a little kid.

At that emotional climax of the fight, I was struck by how graceful your moves were. You’ve not a stranger to fight scenes, but there was a difference in this. Is that some of the grace that you have on stage that came into play?

Real Steel - Anthony Mackie and Hugh Jackman
Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman, right) approaches Finn (Anthony Mackie, left) with an offer to enter his robot boxer Noisy Boy in a fight to the death at the Crash Palace © 2011 DreamWorks II

I really loved that scene. First of all, I had to work really hard because Sugar Ray was pushing me like a madman. He was like, ‘My name is on this movie. I’m not going to have you make me look bad like some actor.’ He was always on to me about my left hook. He said I pulled it short.

But secondly, it is the climax of the movie because you see someone coming fully to life, doing what they love to do, what they’re really good at that they’re not allowed to do anymore. It’s like the world has said, we don’t care about that anymore. Beyond just boxing you needed to see a rebirth more than anything. That was my intentions in the scene, anything else you’re probably reading into it.

Can you talk about working with the robots on the set?

Real Steel - Hugh Jackman
Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) © 2011 DreamWorks II

I shouldn’t build it up to you, because you might not be quite so overwhelmed, but picture of Dakota and me seeing them for the first time and both of us look like 10-year-olds. Those robots are phenomenal and they’re pretty expensive too.

It’s amazing, in this world where I’m used to a green screen and a stick with a tennis ball on it, that Steven Spielberg (the movie’s producer) said to Shawn, ‘You should have real elements whenever you can.’ So in the movie I don’t think you can tell which is real and which is not, because it’s done so well. Basically, if they’re not walking or fighting, that’s a real robot.

Can you talk about your one man show on Broadway, is it old hat to you now?

There’s nothing old hat about Broadway. Whenever you step on the Great White Way it’s one of those great moments. I never take it for granted. The show is called Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway and I had a chance to do the show earlier in San Francisco, then worked on it for another couple of months, took it to Toronto, I didn’t think I’d be doing it now.

I was sure I was shooting Wolverine, that’s been the story of my year. But we couldn’t quite fit it in before Les Miserables, the movie, so there was a theatre available. I’ve got to be honest, when I created this show my only rule with myself was that I would be desperate to do it, no matter when.

Of course, doing the show on Broadway does add another level of expectation I suppose and pressure, but I’m genuinely excited about it.

Will you be doing Wolverine?

Yes, I’m shooting Wolverine after Les Mis, so we’ll shoot that in the summer.

When do you start shooting Les Mis?

I go next week to do some rehearsals. I auditioned about two or three months ago. It’s January/February rehearsals and we [start shooting it in] March.

You auditioned for it?

Yeah, I had about a three hour audition. In fact, I demanded Tom Hooper [the movie’s director] audition me before he even signed his [contract]. I wanted to do this so bad; I didn’t want to leave anything up to his imagination. I wanted him to know what I could do, just in case he thought about ringing Daniel Day Lewis!