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Hugh Jackman, Prisoners

Hugh Jackman took on darkest role yet for Prisoners’ Keller Dover, he tells Jeremy Kay.

It will not have gone unnoticed that for such a dark film, Prisoners owes much of its power to three celebrated artists who are renowned for being particularly nice and/or jovial, none more so than Hugh Jackman.

Like director Denis Villeneuve and co-star Jake Gyllenhaal, the Australian is charm personified when we talk and has that knack of making the interviewer feel like a quick skip to the pub might be on the cards.

Jackman has made a name for himself portraying good people or mutants in turmoil. Think of his Oscar-nominated Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, Charlie Kenton in Real Steel or, most famously, Wolverine. But he has never done anything like Keller Dover.

The chief protagonist in Prisoners is a decent, God-fearing family man whose carpentry business has been ravaged by recession and is thrust into the ultimate parental nightmare. 

When Dover’s daughter is kidnapped, he becomes more ferocious than anything with adamantium claws. He tracks down a hapless innocent whom he believes holds vital clues and does things to the man Wolverine would never inflict on his enemies. 

“As a father I can relate to a lot of it,” says Jackman. “As soon as you become a parent you can understand almost anything someone does for the sake of their children – that’s something elemental.

“[Dover is] a character I like. I have a soft spot for characters like this. I can be objective enough about my life and know a lot of stuff comes more easily to me than it does to him.

“He’s a man who’s had to struggle for everything – his job, sobriety. He’s doing everything to be the best man he can… It touched me. I was drawn to him.”

Collaborating with Villeneuve

The script made its way into Jackman’s hands more than a year before production on the Alcon Entertainment thriller began in early 2013 in Atlanta.

“I read it and thought this was an incredibly violent movie,” says Jackman. “But I didn’t want to do it in a gratuitous way and Denis gave it a lot of heart.”

Jackman is not alone in his high regard for Villeneuve. “Since I’d seen Incendies I knew he would pull it off. He reminds me of Christopher Nolan in that he’s very collaborative and definite in his vision.

“You get a great relaxation on set,” he says, adding the self-deprecating aside: “He knows when to rein actors in and let’s face it, you don’t want to give too much rope to actors.”

Jackman threw himself into preparation for the role. “I did a lot of research on sleep deprivation. Over the course of eight days [in the Prisoners storyline], no-one sleeps.

“Denis explored what exhaustion did to everyone. Denis allowed things to sit. I read a lot about child abduction, alcoholism, sleep deprivation. I wanted to be very specific about when your hand starts to shake and you are a lot rawer.”

There were long conversations with Villeneuve about the scenes involving Alex Jones, the unfortunate young man with learning difficulties played by Paul Dano whom Dover captures and tortures.

“I read a lot about torture. I am sure I am on some kind of watchlist. I looked into that. The stuff with the hammer when I threatened to smash Alex’s hand and didn’t smash it? That was a classic Al-Qaeda thing: threatening violence but not doing violence.”

Research and responsibility

The extent of Dover’s religious devotion was toned down from earlier drafts of Aaron Guzikowski’s screenplay, yet it informed the man and was crucial to get right.

“I kept saying to Denis that in Australia we have this idea that we hear about extremism in religion in the US and it feels unrelatable. I didn’t want the audience to dismiss Keller as a religious nut.”

As a parent himself, Jackman may not have needed to imagine too hard the horrors of child abduction, yet he pored over private videos of couples being interviewed by the police and watched footage of press conferences.

“I had a feeling of responsibility knowing [child abduction] is going on now,” he says. “This is real, happening now, and we need to pay homage to those people who went through it.

“It drives people crazy, particularly for Keller, who is trying to keep control in his life but loses the one thing that he cannot control. It drives him crazy.

“There’s one woman whose children went missing and two years later she was at an intersection and found herself on top of a car demanding the driver open the trunk. She had heard they took her child away in the trunk of a car and could not stop thinking about it. She realised she had gone crazy.”

An emotional set

Villeneuve maintained careful control of production to protect the actors and ensured things did not get too heavy in between takes. Nonetheless, performances like this take their toll.

“When you’re shooting there are very elemental emotions,” says Jackman. “Sometimes the camera would stop and you would still ‘be there’, but the thing about acting is it’s our job to access that elemental stuff, but most of the time I can say it felt cathartic.

“What was being required of me was something I have not been asked to do a lot – that rawness and openness.”

The same went for the rest of the fine ensemble. There is Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki, Dano and his on-screen aunt played by Melissa Leo, Maria Bello as Dover’s wife and Viola Davis and Terrence Howard as family friends whose daughter also goes missing.

The passage where Dover takes his friends to the makeshift cell where he has incarcerated Alex Jones – Dover’s wife, meanwhile, languishes in bed-ridden depression – is gripping.

“It’s a great portrait. Four people get pulled into [the nightmare]. The most powerful thing in the movie is when Terrence and Viola are sitting in the car and Viola says, ‘We’re not going to take part in this but we’re not going to stop it.’”

Indeed Jackman believes the scene resonates most profoundly in the post-9/11 era, where societies have watched as governments implement desperate policies in the hunt for perpetrators of atrocities.

Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki goes toe-to-toe with Dover in an absorbing portrait of flawed men in parallel pursuit of resolution.

“We got on really well,” says Jackman of Gyllenhaal. “We both approach acting in a similar way. We like to talk, we like to rehearse and on the day we like to mix it up.  

“What Jake did with his character was extraordinary. That sense of history. The twitches, the tattoos. The humanity he brought to it with that sense of restraint of trying to be detached but this emotion brimming underneath. He broke my heart.”

Dover breaks hearts too. In the best performance of his career and one of the overall best performances of the season, Jackman shelved the showier aspects of his enviable talents to reveal a hitherto unseen depth and grittiness.

“He’s a fantastic actor,” says Villeneuve. “He was willing to show an ugly side of his character. He’s very charismatic, so that’s what was so ambitious about choosing Hugh Jackman because we were aware people would want to follow him but that would take them into a moral conflict that was quite dark.”

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