The Profile Dossier: Hugh Jackman, the Philosopher of Hollywood

“The longer it takes you to become successful, the harder it will be for somebody else to take it away from you.”

As a complement to the regular Sunday newsletter, the Profile Dossier is a comprehensive deep-dive on a prominent individual. The dossier editions are only available to paying subscribers.

When you think of actor Hugh Jackman, you probably picture Wolverine. 

That’s because Jackman played the role of the fearless mutant in the X-Men franchise for a record-setting 17 years. In his real life, though, Jackman had a hard time unlocking the confidence and courage that’s often present in the characters he portrays on screen.

“Growing up I was scared of the dark. I was scared of heights. It limited me,” he says. “I hated it, and that contributed to my anger. Isn’t most anger fear-based, ultimately?”

The fear stemmed from one of the most formative events in Jackman’s early life. He was 8 years old when his mom left the family and moved to England, leaving Jackman to grow up in Australia with his father and older siblings. “I used to be the first one home, and I was frightened to go inside. I couldn’t go into the house on my own. I’d wait outside, scared, frustrated.”

For years, he held out hope that his parents would reconcile. When he realized that wouldn’t happen, he began harboring what he calls an all-consuming “white rage.” “From the moment Mum left, I was a fearful kid who felt powerless,” he says.

He found refuge on-stage. It’s the one place that gave him inner peace and deep satisfaction. As his star has risen, Jackman has had to face the fear, sadness, and rage he felt as a result of his parents’ divorce. “For many years, I carried a doubt whether there was some kind of wound or damage that would frame my entire life,” he says.

Jackman turned to philosophy. He studied the Stoics, calling Meditations by Marcus Aurelius one of “the greatest books on Stoicism and leadership, humility and wisdom.” He also follows the work of Esther Perel, Sam Harris, Tim Ferriss, Ryan Holiday, Brené Brown, and Tony Robbins.

Jackman says philosophy may sound high-brow, but it’s simply “the love of wisdom.” He believes that the more ideas we absorb, the better we can navigate our everyday lives.

“If you put Buddha, Jesus Christ, Socrates, Shakespeare, Arjuna, and Krishna at a dinner table together, I can’t see them having an argument,” he says.

Jackman is a Hollywood superstar — he’s starred in X-Men, The Prestige, The Greatest Showman, and Les Misérables, just to name a few. Somehow though, he’s been able to fly largely under the radar. In all his years of superstardom, there’s never been a single longform profile written on Jackman’s life and career. 

Below is my humble attempt to compile his ideas in one place.

READ.

On living a full life: This Q&A delves into Jackman’s early life and takes us through the trajectory of his career, marriage, and parenthood. He discusses the deep anger he felt when he saw his parents get divorced and why he’s placed such great importance on having a happy marriage with his wife of 24 years. “When I met Deb, I knew immediately I was going to marry her,” Jackman says. “Every day, love just got deeper. I felt a complete trust with her to be exactly who I am. I don’t have to be any other version of Hugh Jackman for her to love me.”

On the importance of authenticity: Jackman makes a living by pretending to be other people. But he doesn’t see the act as inauthentic. “The reason I weirdly pretend to be other people—this may sound sort of ass-backwards—but the reason I do it is to actually understand life, humanity, myself, and why we're here. I do believe that it gives you great insight into those things,” he says. In this Q&A, Jackman explains what he learns from the characters he portrays and how he’s learned to take the mask off at the end of the day. 

LISTEN.

On living a disciplined life: Every single morning, Jackman meditates, takes a cold shower, and reads a book with his wife for 30 minutes. No exceptions. “And we know that, no matter what happens in the day, which invariably gets away from you, you’ve had that quality time together,” he says. In this podcast, we learn why Jackman believes a good life requires self-discipline — and why anyone can achieve it. If you listen to one thing today, let this be it.

On the importance of vulnerability: In this conversation with Oprah, Jackman opens up about some of the most intimate parts of his life. He discusses how he dealt when his mom departed the family when he was young, how he approaches parenthood, and why his marriage is one of his proudest achievements.

WATCH.

On his rise to stardom: In this 60 Minutes clip, Jackman gives a rare interview with his spouse of 24 years Deborra-Lee Furness. The duo shares what happened when they first met on the set of an Australian TV show called Correlli in 1995. “I was so reluctant,” Furness says, about pursuing a relationship with Jackman. “My New Year’s resolution was not to date any actors — and definitely none under 30. Meet my husband.” This is a rare glimpse into how they balance preserving their privacy with the scrutiny of being in the public eye. 

On character development: Before a role, Jackman does a significant amount of research on the character, and he makes choices ahead of time that will eventually play out in the scene. But his best moments, he says, have come from leaving room for spontaneity. “I actually think you need to risk being bad,” Jackman says. “Just … let it be.” He’s still trying to learn how to enjoy the process of letting go a bit more.

On working with people you trust: In this interview, Jackman talks about his numerous roles from Wolverine in “X-Men” to Peter Allen in “The Boy From Oz.” Director Jason Reitman once told him, “My job is to understand the psychology of every person on the set. I need to know how they work, so I can get the best out of them.” As an actor, Jackman says, you want a director who “gets you.” The best directors, he says, are those who “get you” in a way where they see even the parts of yourself you’re trying to hide. Find directors, coaches, and partners who have that talent. “When you can really trust them, that is the holy grail,” he says.

TECHNIQUES TO TRY.

Visualize how you want your day to go: Every single day, Jackman does something he calls “daily design.” Before he even gets out of bed, he takes a moment to manifest the day he wants to have. He doesn’t think about it in the future tense like, “I really hope… I think that… I’m going to try… or I will… ” Instead, he structures his thoughts in the past tense like, “Today, my son and I had the best hour together laughing and talking, and we connected on some of the most elemental things in ways we’ve never connected.” He recommends typing out a text, sending it to an accountability partner, and then checking in at night to see how close it matched reality.

Stack your priorities in the beginning of the day: One of the biggest things Jackman has learned is that the afternoon and evening are never great times to get stuff done. At the end of the day, he’s always tired or never has time to do what he promised himself he would. So he started front-loading his day with activities he wants to get done. Each morning, he takes a cold shower, sits down to meditate, and reads a book out loud with his wife for 30 minutes. “It’s become our favorite time of the day as a couple,” he says.

Apply the ‘85% Rule’ in your everyday life: We live in a society that praises all-out effort. But giving a task 100% of your energy can lead to burnout, over-exhaustion, and injury. Jackman believes in the “85% Rule,” which means that intensity, force, or stress should never override form, technique, and preparation. Jackman elaborates: “A sprint coach realized that [Olympian] Carl Lewis did nothing at the 50-meter mark; his breathing and form was exactly the same. Other runners would try to push harder, clenching their fists, scrunching their faces. But Carl Lewis stayed exactly the same—and went on to breeze past the others.” It’s like that with everything in life — the more you try to force something, the less optimal your performance. Aim for 85% energy expenditure, and reserve the other 15% for mental & physical calm.

Get lost in the details: Jackman is obsessed with doing jigsaw puzzles because delving into the detail is deeply satisfying to his mind. Here’s what he recommends: Take a picture of something you stare at every day — it could be your backyard, for example. Send it to a service that can turn the image into a jigsaw puzzle. As you work to complete the puzzle, you’ll zone in on the image for so long that you’ll notice things you’ve never noticed in your own backyard before. “You’re focusing on the minute details of this building and that building or that tree, this tree,” Jackman says. “When you go back to that place, your appreciation of the world is so much greater.”

Learn to see people for who they are: Jackman remembers his mom always telling him: “Everyone needs to feel appreciated. It doesn’t matter what they do, it doesn’t matter who they are, that’s a need in everybody.” After listening to Brené Brown, Jackman has realized that people need to be seen for who they are and appreciated for what they give. In a world full of superficiality, learn to see through people’s insecurity masks directly into who they are as human beings. That’s the key to true connection. 

Meet your true self: Jackman believes that in life, you’re either growing or you’re decaying. The best way to grow is to become your fullest self. How? Start by quieting the mind. Jackman began his meditation practice when he was only 23 years old. He meditates twice a day for half an hour, saying it’s the ultimate rest. “In meditation, I can let go of everything,” he says. “I’m not Hugh Jackman. I’m not a dad. I’m not a husband. I’m just dipping into that powerful source that creates everything. I take a little bath in it.”

Never back down from fear: Jackman remembers being “a deeply fearful” kid. He was afraid of the dark, terrified of heights, and hated the idea of rock climbing with friends. “I made myself get over those fears,” he says. “If anything comes up and I feel frightened of it, I have to attack it because I know it will creep into other areas of my life and start to take over.” Over the years, he began saying “yes” to the things that scared him the most. “I believe the more you do something, the less frightening it becomes because you start to realize the outcome is not as important as you think.” (Related: As Chris Hadfield says, “Things aren’t scary. People get scared.”)

Keep your word even if it doesn’t benefit you: The most important lesson that Jackman’s father taught him was that promises are sacred. His dad taught him to always stay true to his word — even if it turns out there’s a better option or something will benefit him more. “If you get an invitation to go across the road to your mate’s place for dinner, and then an hour later, you get an invitation from the queen of England to go to Buckingham Palace, you stick by your first one,” Jackman says. “You always keep your word.” This, Jackman believes, is the only way you become a trustworthy human. 

Don’t be afraid to look your partner in the eye: Jackman and his wife Deborra have one of the longest-lasting marriages in Hollywood. Before they got married, they made a simple but powerful choice to “always look each other in the eye at every crossroad in life.” “Those crossroads are sometimes big, sometimes they're small, sometimes you don't even realize they're crossroads until you look back," he says. When they come to a fork in the road where they have to make a decision, they ask each other the following question: “Is this good or bad for our family?” As often as possible, they do the thing that is good for the family. 

Seek respect, not success: There is no such thing as guaranteed success. To succeed at anything, you must first try — and risk falling flat on your face. “What I respect as far as in myself and in others is the spirit of just doing it,” Jackman says. “For better or worse, it may work and it may not, but I’m going to go for it. Ultimately, I probably prefer to be respected for that than whether it works out or not.” The biggest secret to Jackman’s success, he says, is that he’s not afraid to make a fool of himself.

QUOTES TO REMEMBER.

“The longer it takes you to become successful, the harder it will be for somebody else to take it away from you.”

“When your dreams become reality, they’re no longer your dreams.”

“Civilize the mind, but make savage the body.”

“Sometimes you have to go places with characters and emotions within yourself you don’t want to, but you have a duty to the story and as a storyteller to do it.”

“Giving people a hand up, not a handout, is the way forward.”

“The definition of being good is being able to make it look easy.”

“To get down to the quick of it, respect motivates me — not success.”

“With age, you see people fail more. You see yourself fail more. How do you keep that fearlessness of a kid? You keep going. Luckily, I’m not afraid to make a fool of myself.”

“I truly believe that the job of an actor and the drive of an actor is simulating the internal journey in life which is to get deeper and deeper into our understanding of who we are.”

“We can live tough lives, but the human spirit is stronger, seemingly, than anything. There is redemption, hope, and love. All different forms of heartbreak, but beyond all that there is hope, there is love. There is beauty and bliss.” 

“You know, sometimes when you cage the beast, the beast gets angry.”

“Nobody suddenly discovers anything. Things are made slowly and in pain.”

“If you accept the pain, it cannot hurt you.”

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