Hugh Jackman’s First Drama Class.

Hugh Jackman’s First Drama Class.

The future Australian superstar seemed destined to become a journalist, but something happened when he enrolled in a performance subject whilst he was studying at university. In this Stage Whispers exclusive, Sara Lander recounts the moment when everyone in the room realised that Hugh Jackman was something special.

The tutor’s instruction was to choose an animal and BE the animal. The disparate bunch of 3rd year University Communications students taking the Performance Studies class in 1990 dropped to all fours and in turn started mooing, clucking and meowing. I decided to be a cat and curled up for a nap.

Out of one half-closed eye I saw someone pretending to be a dog. No, not pretending to be a dog, he WAS a dog. Affable North Shore dork Hugh Jackman was such a convincing dog that the rest of the drama class stopped what they were doing and gaped in open mouthed admiration. This was the first time anyone in our cohort noticed that Hugh Jackman was, well, Hugh Jackman.

Flashback to 1988 as the cohort entered first year of Communications studies at the University of Technology, Sydney. We were a mixture of kids straight from high school who had got the requisite marks in the HSC and older students who had found their way into the course through life experience. Imagine if you can a bunch of teens with very little life experience, mostly from the wealthier suburbs, trying to mingle with students who talked their way into the course on the backs of their recovery from addiction, their immaculate social justice commitment, their immense CRED.

As one of the school-leavers, I of course immediately found refuge with the other teens. There was Adam from Cremorne, Patrick from Crows Nest, Eugenie from Neutral Bay and Bernard from North Ryde. We sat, shellshocked in the uni cafeteria, eating $1 boiled rice with curry sauce and getting to know each other. Hugh Jackman was one of us, a tall gangly boy from Pymble in jeans and a striped button up shirt, recently returned from a gap year in England.

Hugh was instantly likeable. He was the kind of boy who looked you in the eye, remembered your name, clapped you on the back and laughed at your jokes with an affable guffaw. His laugh was so adorable and recognisable we would imitate it when speaking (fondly) of him among ourselves. It was a rising “whoah-ah-ah” like a baritone kookaburra. Lovable he really was. To my friends these days who can’t believe I didn’t hurl myself into his arms; all I can say was – you had to be there. Hugh – handsome as he was - was too damn NICE to be what I considered sexy back then.

Hugh called grown men called Stephen ‘Steve’ without a second thought, and was the first person you would think of to ask for help if you needed assistance moving your meagre student possessions from one share house to the next. In a group of late 80s gothy, leftie, burgeoningly queer and thoroughly indie students, he stood out as almost glaringly wholesome, straight and mainstream.

As far as any of us knew he didn’t have any acting aspirations. Hugh chose the second most mainstream major in our course – journalism/PR (the most mainstream being the much-maligned advertising). However, one of the most fun things about our degree was that while entry was difficult, once we were in, we had the freedom to explore all the different streams including radio, film and writing.

One of the writing tutors, a mild-mannered man named Tony Mitchell, decided to put on a subject called Performance Studies, something a group of my friends did for a lark in second year, and I did in third year for lack of anything else to do. Enter stage right Hugh Jackman, poking his nose in from Journalism/PR world. We hadn’t had a class together since first year.

I don’t remember much about that semester other than Hugh being, to everyone’s surprise, very, very good. Tony, who I suspected would rather be almost anywhere than teaching drama to a bunch of profoundly untalented uni students, bore us patiently. A New Zealander, he had a flat laconic drawl and stood with his arms permanently folded across his chest, barely raising an eyebrow at the good (Hugh’s animal impersonations) and the bad (everything else).

The second semester of Performance Studies we got to – jazz hands – put on a show! Tony started handing photocopied scripts around of The Memorandum by Czech playwright turned President Vaclav Havel.

There were no auditions, and also no surprises when Tony cast Hugh in the lead. Written in 1965, The Memorandum is an absurdist comedy about pointless innovations in a bureaucracy leading to chaos and confusion. There were a lot of words, and a made-up language. Thankfully for the poor souls who came to watch the show, most of those words are spoken by the play’s hero Johan Gross aka Mr Hugh Jackman.

Hugh was a revelation. As the rest of us clunked through stiff 1960s language awkwardly translated from the Czech, barely able to get our lines out of our mouths let alone give them any meaning, Hugh commanded the stage, easily believable as middle-manager brought low by corporate skullduggery.

The opening night crowd were amazed. “I think you’re going to be an actress,” said the assistant director’s mum – who had herself studied at NIDA – to me, kindly. “Nah,” I said, nodding my head toward Hugh, accepting plaudits from newly found fans, “but he is”.

Was it the high of the applause from this limited run – which toured not only to the University of New South Wales’ blackbox theatre but also to Bathurst to grace the stage of Charles Sturt University – which convinced Hugh that his lot was not to be a journalist, but an international movie star? It may well have been.

On the drive out to Bathurst with several cast members in Hugh’s silver hatchback, at one point he acted out the type of celebrity endorsement which form a movie star’s bread and butter. “Hyundai!” he said, smacking the bonnet of his tiny car and with a wink at an imaginary camera “Solid”.

Did he know he was going to be a superstar? I think maybe he did. After we graduated from UTS, he enrolled himself in an acting course at the Actors Centre in Surry Hills. Dazzling in their production of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood, he chatted to us after the performance and disclosed that he had recently turned down the offer of an ongoing role in Australia’s hottest show, Neighbours. Why? He was off to Perth to study at WAAPA and take over the world. If there was nagging self-doubt lurking underneath this confident man on a mission, he didn’t show it. 

Every time I’ve heard of Hugh since that day, it’s been in the context of another career high. Straight out of WAAPA into the lead of an ABC drama. Lead in a mainstage musical. A Hollywood movie. Broadway. A Tony Award. Hosting the Tony Awards. Nominated for an Oscar. Hosting the Oscars. Goddamn Wolverine!

None of his success has come as a surprise to those of us who had the privilege of watching Hugh in his last year of uni, realising that he wasn’t a journalist, he was an actor.

It couldn’t have happened to a nicer bloke.

And he really was a bloody great dog.

The Memorandum was the beginning and end of my performance career, but I stay involved as a ‘stage mum’, as two of my daughters are themselves talented musical theatre artists. 

The last time I saw Hugh I was working as the publicist for ABC Radio’s 2BL in 1996. I saw a fine-looking tall man in a suit being whisked into the studio by his minders. It was Hugh, promoting his new show Sunset Boulevard, in which he had been cast as the leading man. I thought about saying hello, but the moment seemed too surreal, and I was certain there would not be enough time for anything more than a brief “hi”, a confused look and a flash of recognition before he was ushered away to his next commitment. 

However, in December 2017 my husband texted me from Bondi Beach. “Hugh Jackman is here. I’m gonna get a photo with the girls.” I sent him a photo of me and Hugh, back in our Memorandum days with the instruction “show him this”.

The photo did the trick, Hugh, having turned down many others asking for selfies, agreed to pose with the kids. Looking at the Hugh from a lifetime ago back in the days where he could go to the beach undisturbed, he told my daughters, “Say hi to Sara for me”. 

Painting Hugh’s Wagon.

Veteran Community Theatre director Tom Sweeney reveals that Hugh Jackman was also involved in amateur theatre as a teenager.

“Back in 1989 I was directing a production of Paint Your Wagon for the Willoughby Musical Society at the Bailey Hall in Chatswood.

“In those days you didn’t audition you just turned up. I had 28 men in the chorus, which was rare.

“At one particular rehearsal, everyone was on the stage singing ‘Away out here they got a name for rain and wind and fire’. Anyway, they were all bit lacklustre and I said ‘Stop, stop, stop, stop!’ I said, ‘Listen you lot, if you could act and sing like this guy,’ pointing a Hugh, ‘you might get somewhere.’

“So, I used him as an example of what they should be doing. He was only about 17 or 18 at the time and just out of high school. When I do talks about theatre, I say if it wasn’t for me Hugh Jackman wouldn’t even be on Broadway.

“He was singing, acting and interpreting the lyrics perfectly. Hugh had the X Factor even then.”

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