Hugh Jackman's "Wolverine" is "Stronger Than Ever"

SPOILER WARNING: The following interview contains minor plot spoilers for "The Wolverine"

Like a fine wine, Wolverine is improving with age -- at least, that's the word from Hugh Jackman.

"The Wolverine" marks Jackman's sixth big screen appearance as the fast-healing hero, with a seventh turn in next summer's "X-Men: Days of Future Past" already filming. At this point, Jackman has lived with the character for nearly fourteen years now, but he's not tired of life with Logan. Quite the opposite, in fact.

"I'm actually enjoying playing him now more than ever," Jackman said during a recent New York City press conference attended by CBR News. "I recently reflected on why that would be. Wolverine is somewhere between the age of 150 and 300, and on some of those four o'clock mornings, I felt about 300 years old. But maybe I'm enjoying it now, just being a little bit older."

Jackman's enthusiasm owes much to the fact that he's finally made the Wolverine movie he's always dreamed about. The actor has wanted to adapt Chris Claremont and Frank Miller's Japan-set "Wolverine" miniseries since he was making the first "X-Men" movie -- even though he wasn't allowed to read the books at the time.

"[Director] Bryan Singer had this mandate that no one could read comic books on set, because when he was creating the first 'X-Men,' he wanted it to be very human and three-dimensional," he recalled. "He was worried that actors would come on set with an over-the-top performance, that their perception of comics books was two-dimensional, even though 'X-Men,' as you know, is not. But we were handing them around anyway. It was like contraband!"

Claremont and Miller's "Wolverine" series was one of the titles Jackman encountered, and he immediately told producer Lauren Shuler Donner that he wanted to make a movie based on it.

"As time progressed, the idea of making it as the ultimate movie for Wolverine grew in my mind," he said. "It's this great fish out of water story that takes him to a place that's completely foreign, where he's truly unhinged and doesn't know anybody. He's a natural outsider, and the customs and atmosphere and samurai codes of honor and obeying, that's the opposite of Wolverine. It's just the perfect place to put that character."

In setting "The Wolverine" in Japan, Jackman and director James Mangold strived to create an entirely new take on the character, unlike anything presented on-screen so far. Creating an authentic representation of Japan wasn't easy, and Mangold credits the success to the film's Japanese cast -- veteran actors like Hiro Sanada, who stars in the movie as deadly swordsman Shingen Yashida.

"A lot of movies located in Japan, there's a lot of misunderstanding of our culture. But [the 'Wolverine' crew] respected our culture and researched it a lot," said Sanada. "When I saw the movie, I was so happy. This movie has a great balance and a nice mixture between east and west, tradition and modern. It's super-modern Japan with nostalgia. It felt like a taste of all the classic Japanese movies, but set in modern Japan. I think it's a great mixture."

Jackman added further praise for Japanese actors Rila Fukushima as Logan's lethal "bodyguard" Yukio and Tao Okamoto as his love interest Mariko. Where Sanada is an incredibly accomplished and popular actor in Japan, Fukushima and Okamoto are newcomers to the craft, with "The Wolverine" serving as their first feature film.

"It's a very daunting thing to make your first film," Jackman said. "And when your first film is as big as this, there's a lot of pressure. I'm so proud of what these women achieved. I want to take my hat off to Jim, because there are few directors with such confidence in themselves to hire newcomers for such pivotal roles. I really think it helps the audience come to this world like Wolverine in a fresh way, not knowing what's going on. I'm very proud of them."

Mangold accepted Jackman's compliment "with an open heart," but gave the lion's share of the credit to Fukushima and Okamoto's talent. "They were just the best," he said. "It's easy when you're reading people and meeting people, and two people land in front of you, and each one speaks to you in the role and inhabits the role."

"I don't believe acting is taught," he continued. "I believe acting is unlearned. We are all born acting and playing, and we learn to get self-conscious and frightened of being other people and pretending. I'm always looking for people who haven't lost it, rather than people who have to learn it. I think that's very true of Tao and Rila, and everyone in this movie."

But despite the discussion about "The Wolverine" working as a standalone story, make no mistake: it's still very much an "X-Men" movie. The film directly deals with the aftermath of "X-Men: The Last Stand" and Jean Grey's death at Logan's hands. Indeed, Famke Janssen has a small but pivotal role throughout "The Wolverine," appearing in dream sequences, a testament to the pain and suffering her death has caused Logan.

"[Jean and Logan's relationship] is such an important part of the ['X-Men'] series, and what happens to Logan's journey after that: the guilt he lives with, the reconciliation he has to do with his past, and the fact that somehow, Jean then comes in to either guide him or challenge him or help him find a way through this part of his past," said Janssen. "I think that's a really beautiful way that they ended up incorporating this into the story. It gives room for the audience and of course Hugh's character to have some reconciliation with that big moment in ['The Last Stand']."

But Jean is one of very few mutants featured in "The Wolverine," a conscious decision on Mangold's part. "For me, trying to get inside all of the characters in this movie, means we needed space from other mutants," the director said. "You can't make a movie that gets inside the characters when you have twelve mutants and two hours, because each character gets eight minutes, if that. You need a story that has openings for people to expose what's inside them: the pressure."

That's a key-word for Mangold's creative approach to "The Wolverine." Rather than compete with the "epic scale" of other summer blockbusters, the filmmaker decided to focus in on the story's pressure and intensity.

"What I wanted to see in the film was sweat, blood and eyes: grounded action," he said. "Wolverine isn't Spider-Man. He isn't Superman. He can't jump up and grab a 747 and fly into the atmosphere. He has claws and he has a skeleton, and he's bitter and he's grumpy and he heals -- and that's it."

Jackman agrees wholeheartedly with Mangold's approach to Wolverine. "He has claws, he has an adamantium skeleton, and he can heal himselfv-- but he's really defined by [other] characteristics," he said. "That berserker rage. The idea that on paper, he might not have the greatest powers, but he's the last person you want to piss off. You want him on your side. That's what makes him formidable. That's why I think teenagers relate to him. There's confusion, there's emotion, there's unresolved anger.

"To see the human side and vulnerabilities of Wolverine, all of these things have made it more challenging and satisfying and more fun to play," Jackman added. "I'm really glad that everyone from the writers to the studio got on board that idea. The movie we wanted to make -- I think we made it."

"The Wolverine" pops its claws into theaters on July 26.

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