How Hugh Jackman went from teaching PE to Wolverine

Hugh Jackman is one of Hollywood's biggest stars today, thanks to his years playing Wolverine in the X-Men film franchise—but he wasn't always a grizzled, adamantium-clawed superhero. Here's how a lanky Australian teen went from teaching kids in gym class to ripping people to shreds. 

He taught P.E. in England

Hugh Jackman was eight years old when his mother left and moved to England. A few years later, his two sisters moved there as well, leaving Jackman to grow up in Australia with his father and two older brothers. The event left the adolescent Hugh feeling "volatile" with a lot of pent-up anger that didn't surface until his teens, which he channeled into sports at the all-boys school he attended. He told Parade, "We used to head-butt the lockers until there was a dent in them. Like, who was the toughest and craziest? In playing rugby, my rage would come out, rage that I identify as Wolverine rage. I'd be somewhere in a ruck in rugby, get punched in the face, and I'd just go into a white rage." But nevertheless, Jackman thrived, playing sports, starring in the school play, getting good grades, and even was school captain of the cadet corps.

After he graduated, Jackman decided to take a gap year to travel and work. He wound up in England at age 18 and was hired by the prestigious Uppingham School in East Midlands as an assistant housemaster. While he spent a good deal of his time teaching physical education and coaching sports teams, part of his duties also included tutoring freshmen only a few years younger in English and drama. "An 18-year-old Aussie teaching English to a bunch of English kids," he laughed while recalling the experience in conversation with the BBC. "I thought, if that was my school fees, I'd be pretty annoyed." But it sounds like he was pretty beloved in his short time at the boarding school. Retired housemaster Richard Boston remembered Jackman as "a delightful, open sort of person. A great communicator and he would have made a brilliant school master had he continued in that direction, rather than continue with acting."

When the year ended, he returned to Australia and enrolled in the University of Technology in Sydney as a journalism student—a change in course that would soon prove short-lived.

He got the lead in a play his senior year of college

After spending a summer working in the Areyonga Aboriginal community in the Western Desert of Central Australia, Hugh Jackman begrudgingly returned to Sydney for his final year at university and needed a few extra credits to graduate. He wound up enrolling in drama because he'd heard it was "easy to pass"—little did he realize a production of Vaclav Havel's play The Memorandum would put him on a path to pursuing acting professionally. His teacher gave him the lead, but Jackman hesitated. "I begged my teacher. I said, 'I'm in my finals; I can't do this play," he recalled to the Evening Standard, "But I loved it. Have you ever had that feeling where you've found your people, your tribe? In that week I felt more at home with those people than I did in the entire three years at university."

He had done some amateur theater on the side, but "it was a hobby. I didn't think that I could make a living acting," as Jackman told Parade. After he graduated from the University of Technology in 1991, he enrolled in drama school full-time in a program called "The Journey" at the Actor's Centre in Sydney, because he knew he "didn't have the drive" to be a professional journalist. But he struggled a bit at first to fit in. "I was like the dunce of the class. It just wasn't coming right to me," he told Shave Magazine. "Everyone was cooler, everyone seemed more likely to succeed, everyone seemed more natural at it." But he kept at it, and according to visiting director Ross McGregor, "he was very, very focused" on learning as much as he could, providing him with a foundation and "instilling a sense of play, risk-taking, and adventure."

He was 'discovered' at a Sydney gym

While at the Actor's Centre, Hugh Jackman took a side job working at a gym called the Physical Factory—not as a trainer, but as a receptionist. In fact, he didn't even like working out. "I never pumped weights," he told The Huffington Post. "I thought they were crazy, those guys." In fact, as his best friend-turned-trainer Michael Ryan later revealed, "We used to call him Chicken Legs." Still, Jackman had no trouble attracting the ladies at the gym; as Ryan remembered, "He was getting a hell of a lot of attention."

Some of that female attention proved to be fortuitous for the burgeoning actor. One day, Annie Semler approached Jackman at the front desk. Semler, the wife of Academy Award-winning cinematographer Dean Semler, was there for a gym membership sales tour. After staring for a few moments at the future movie star, she announced, "You're going to be a big star. Don't worry. It's all going to happen so fast. Listen to me, I'm a white witch." Jackman, spooked, brushed it off; as he told Men's Journal, "At the time I was thinking, Please just give me your credit card." But Jackman got both Semler's money and her magic: the very next day, he signed with an agent named Penny Williams.

He turned down a job on a major Australian soap

Not long after Hugh Jackman signed with agent Penny Williams in the early '90s, he was offered a role on the popular Australian soap opera Neighbours. The show's long been a launching pad for many future stars—including Kylie Minogue, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Margot Robbie, and Chris and Liam Hemsworth. It seemed like Jackman's big break had arrived, but he'd also recently interviewed for the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts' acting program. WAAPA accepted him on the spot, leaving him with a "dilemma."

While the promise of a two-year contract on a major TV show was pretty alluring, Jackman ultimately turned it down in favor of continuing his drama education for a further three years. "I'd learned just enough to know how little I knew," he told Men's Journal. Though it was rigorous, Jackman loved his time at WAAPA; he was immersed in all aspects of training from 9AM to 6PM every day. "We'd do Shakespeare, then circus skills and singing and dancing," Jackman recalled to The Telegraph. "It is a quality that seems to tap into my surname, Jack of all trades.'"

As much as those years made an impression on Jackman, he had the same effect on the staff and students of the school. "It was clear that he had the talent, drive and charisma to succeed at a very high level," his former drama teacher Chris Edmund told the New York Post. "He has that rare ability to to make an audience of five or 12,000 feel included and to have experienced something special in his presence." Perhaps that's why he was named the school's "Most Promising Newcomer" of 1994.

He met the love of his life and landed a major debut

The same night he finished his last performance at the drama school in 1995, Hugh Jackman got a call offering him a role in a 10-episode Australian TV crime drama called Corelli. The show centered on an inexperienced crime psychologist named Louisa Corelli who gets sent to a men's prison to work with the inmates and winds up forming a relationship with one: a hardened criminal named Kevin Jones. Jackman was cast as Jones opposite established actress Deborra-Lee Furness, and though the series was ultimately a failure, it wound up changing his life.

Jackman fell in love with Furness, much to his embarrassment. "I was terrified when I realized I had a crush on the star of the show," he told Parade. "I was like, 'My first job, the leading lady…She's going to look at me like this young little puppy.'" He was so nervous, he didn't talk to her for a week. It took some liquid courage for Jackman to make the first move at a small dinner party he threw after Corelli wrapped. He told People, "She said, 'What's the matter, have I annoyed you? You're not talking to me anymore. What have I done wrong?' and I said 'Oh look, I've got a crush on you, I'll get over it.' And she went, 'Oh really…I got one on you too.'" The couple married a year later in 1996 and are still going strong. "When I met Deb, I knew immediately I was going to marry her," Jackman said. "she's the greatest thing that ever happened to me."

Gaston gave him a musical edge

Hugh Jackman struggled a bit after Corelli ended, but he snagged a guest spot in another crime drama called Blue Healers and a handful of episodes opposite Guy Pearce in a western called Snowy River: the McGregor Saga. While he started making a name for himself playing ruggedly handsome tough guys on television, Jackman's stage past was calling to him…literally. The showman kept getting hired to do musicals all over Australia, eventually playing the roughly-the-size-of-a-barge Disney villain Gaston in a major production of Beauty and the Beast in Melbourne.

It was his first experience singing and dancing in a show, and the athletic star took to the physical demands of the role with gusto—maybe a little too much: one night, he peed himself onstage after drinking four liters of water to combat dehydration on the advice of an astropath. "Literally I'm picking up Belle and as I pick her up, I stopped singing," Jackman admitted, "and right in that moment I realized the muscles you need to release in order to sing are the ones you do not want to release if you need to go." But the show must go on, and his skills ultimately impressed stage producer and director Trevor Nunn, who cast the actor as Joe Gillis in the Australian debut of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard. Jackman won accolades from the Mo Awards and the Australian Variety Club, along with tons of critical acclaim. He also completely won over Nunn, cementing a collaborative partnership that would offer Jackman a stepping stone to even greater heights of fame.

Oklahoma made him a West End star

Thanks to Sunset Boulevard, when it came time to cast the new West End production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic musical Oklahoma!, Nunn had only one actor in mind for the role of cowboy Curly. But there was a catch: as Nunn told PBS, "I always ask people at musical auditions to do an acting piece as well…when he came to audition for Curly, he did a bravura bit of Hotspur from Shakespeare's Henry IV, a very good idea!" But nerves got the better of Hugh Jackman, and he fumbled the words while singing "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'." Luckily, by that time, the producers were already completely enamored with the actor and started singing along, prompting him to finish his audition and land the role.

Oklahoma! was a big hit in London, transforming Jackman into a bona fide international star. "Hugh has strength and vulnerability at the same time," choreographer Susan Stroman told the Los Angeles Times. "By the time we finished rehearsing … it was shaped through the eyes of Curly, and audiences saw it through his eyes. I never had felt that with any other production of Oklahoma! and it had everything to do with Hugh." Critics agreed. Reviews of the actor's performance were beyond glowing, and he received an Olivier nomination for Best Actor for his work. The production was filmed for television and aired both in the U.K. and on PBS in the U.S., where American audiences were introduced to the charismatic Jackman for the first time.

Close pal Russell Crowe turned down X-Men and recommended Jackman

Fellow Aussie actor Russell Crowe was on a hot streak in Hollywood when Bryan Singer offered him the role of Logan/Wolverine in his upcoming film adaptation of the hugely popular X-Men. But the actor turned Singer down, having just finished Academy Award-winning epic Gladiator. Instead, Crowe told Singer to take a look at his longtime friend Hugh Jackman, who was in London doing Oklahoma.

But Jackman's show schedule made the process a little tricky. The actor had to run over between a matinee and evening performance for his initial audition, and the X-Men team were a little put off by his appearance. "They basically said, 'Interesting, but lose the perm and the Southern cowboy accent,'" Jackman told the Evening Standard, but the audition went well enough they wanted to fly him to America for a second round. Jackman hesitated due to his commitments to Oklahoma!, and eventually, they agreed to send him on a Concorde jet to America where he impressed producers once again…and six months of radio silence followed.

20th Century Fox execs really wanted Scottish actor Dougray Scott for Logan/Wolverine, but the actor was stuck down in Australia filming scenes for Mission: Impossible 2. Production had already begun on X-Men and Singer didn't have a Wolverine. "Bryan suspected something was hinky," recalled X-Men screenwriter David Hayter, "so he sent the costume designer down to Australia, ostensibly to get wardrobe shots, but really it was to find out what was going on. What we found out was Dougray had been in a motorcycle accident filming the climax of MI2. He was pretty messed up." With Scott unable to film and production rolling, producers had to find someone else quickly. Thanks to some quick negotiating by producer Lauren Shuler Donner, Hugh Jackman was hired last minute, and a superhero and superstar was born.

Roughly two decades later, Jackman has clawed his way to the top of the Hollywood heap. "I think this is going to change everything," Jackman told wife Furness the weekend X-Men opened in 2000. Was he ever right.