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AT THE MOVIES

The charmer

Strength and sensitivity -- Hugh Jackman works 'em both in 'Australia.' And yes, sexy.

November 27, 2008|Lisa Rosen | Rosen is a freelance writer.

Unlike that last film, with its glorification of the Confederacy, this story aims to be on the right side of history. "Australia's" action and romance surround the true story of the Stolen Generations of indigenous and mixed-race children, who were taken from their homes by the Australian government and placed into institutions and missions, to "civilize" them. The practice continued until the early 1970s, and only this year did the Australian government apologize to the victims. The tragedy is embodied by Nullah (Brandon Walters), a mixed-race boy whom the Drover and Lady Sarah come to care for as their own.

Jackman, who went to a prestigious boy's academy in Sydney, had learned nothing about the Stolen Generations until he reached college. "I almost didn't believe it at first; I was like, this is too radical," he says of the government's treatment of the country's Aborigines. "And then the more I read, the more outraged I was that I didn't know about it before."

Luhrmann told the actor that the most gratifying reaction has been at screenings for predominantly indigenous audiences in the Northern Territory. The film has been greeted with cheering, tears and hugs, and a sense of relief "not dissimilar to what you've gone through here with the election," Jackman points out. "The strongest part of the film for me is that line, 'Just because it is, doesn't mean it should be.' "

But, Jackman adds, "Baz said if we made a very didactic and earnest story about the Stolen Generations, we'll have about three people watching the movie." Hence the romance, the drama, the Japanese bombing of Darwin (an actual although little-known event) and a treacherous cattle drive through the desert.

"It was the most challenging role because not only were there all these genres, but how to make them mix together, and ultimately how to make people still go on for the ride in the story and feel something at the end," Jackman says.

He was aided by costars he called a dream. Kidman is a good friend of Jackman's wife, but in working with her he found "there's a kind of danger about Nicole, in the best sense of the word," he says. "No matter how much you know her, there's always something a little unpredictable that keeps you on your toes." And he was blown away by Walters, who was 11 at the time of filming and in his first acting role. "You spend a lifetime craftwise as an actor, getting used to doing your thing and learning how to ignore the camera, using it but getting beyond that. Brandon just instinctively has that. It's magical. He may be one of the most transcendent actors I've ever worked with."

Jackman threw himself into the physical aspects of the role just as he's thrown himself into his career -- facing his fear and going all out. Seeking to truly embody the character, he spent a year learning to ride like a real stockman. One of his many stunts found him surrounded by 200 wild horses that the Drover was bringing into the corral. His riding instructor, Craig Emerton, told him that once they began galloping, all Jackman could do was go along for the ride. "He said, 'This will be a point in time when you can pull with all your might and nothing will stop this horse,' " Jackman recalls. Then they were off, "faster than the Kentucky Derby. And I just sort of let go and we were flying."

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