Aussie actor Hugh Jackman turns chivalry into pure charisma in the new movie Kate & Leopold. Good manners are sexy, he tells a nodding LINDA HERRICK.
There's something deeply disconcerting about Kate & Leopold, the new "romantic comedy" with Meg Ryan, who has made a career out of that movie cliche.
Now aged 40, Ryan's lovelorn damsel act seems less wacky these days than worn-out.
She did, after all, step out briefly with Russell "Bruiser" Crowe, a miscalculation that ended her marriage to Dennis Quaid and chipped her perky-princess image.
But that's not the surprise in Kate & Leopold. Truth is, nothing about Ryan in this film is a surprise, except maybe her rat-chewed haircut.
What does make you sit up and take notice is Aussie actor Hugh Jackman, who won a Golden Globe nomination for best actor in a comedy for his role as Leopold, third Duke of Albany.
Jackman, 33, not only elevates the movie with some gravitas and charisma as an 1876 English aristocrat who time-travels to New York City, 2001 (yes, it's absurd; he thinks so too), but also makes a thoroughly solid case for - whoa! - the return of good manners and chivalry towards women.
He's the kind of guy - sorry, gentleman - who stands when you rise from the table, opens the door for you, and protects you by walking on the outside of the footpath. A chap who lauds ladies and combats cads. In short, a rare breed indeed.
"The film is an ode to chivalry but Meg also reminded me that women are not used to receiving that kind of treatment either, that women can feel a bit awkward about a man behaving with great courtesy," says Jackman on the phone from London.
"Fifteen years ago you could get slapped for opening a door for a woman. But the great thing about the character of Leopold is that he knows nothing else. It's not that he's thinking, 'I'm doing this to get something.'
"Good manners are natural to him, he does it with confidence, which I suppose is sexy in a way."
In a way? Ryan's earlier career depended mainly on pairings with that most flaccid of Hollywood's leading men, Tom Hanks. On the other hand, Jackman's Leopold is rather, um, stimulating. Maybe it's the height (1.9m, ladies), the erect posture, the formal vocabulary, the deep, posh English voice ...
"I had no excuse there," laughs Jackman, who actually speaks with a faintly Strine accent.
"My parents are English and I've spent quite a bit of time there. The hardest thing was that for the first couple of weeks I felt like a real twit speaking like that.
"In the 60s every leading man had that kind of accent, but in Australia we've moved right away from it. I felt silly so I stayed in the accent all the time, including when I was at home with my wife and child, and that helped. When you're living in it, you start to deal with it as you, and it gets you into the character."
He splutters when asked if Ryan had a problem playing against another Australian leading man so soon after Crowe?
"Well, maybe the English accent helped!"
Although just his sixth film, Kate & Leopold confirms a Hollywood buzz that's been building around Jackman since he trounced John Travolta in last year's decidedly dodgy cyberhack flick, Swordfish.
But he's best known - so far - for his mutton-chopped portrayal of the mutant freak Wolverine in 2000's smash hit X-Men, for which he won high praise from co-stars Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart.
The Jackman word most bandied around is "versatility", but timing also helps, he says.
"X-Men really got me going but if I'd done Kate & Leopold first I wouldn't have been offered that role of Wolverine. I'd go into meetings after X-Men and people always expected Wolverine.
"Hollywood doesn't really understand range, but in Australia and New Zealand it's called survival. People can't believe for example that Russell Crowe did a musical or played a gay guy.
"Acting is all about learning to learn, giving anything a go. There might be a bit of humiliation but at the end it's versatility and I like that."
Jackman also likes to make the point in interviews that he's a family man, repeatedly referring to "my wife". It was reported at one stage that he'd claimed to have slept with "at least 750 women", which may have been a joke.
He met his wife, actress Deborra-Lee Furness, when they co-starred in the Australian prison series Corelli in 1995. They married less than a year later and in 2000 adopted son Oscar, who's now 21 months old.
"I'm in London being Mr Mum, a house husband," he says. "My wife is here to direct a short film she wrote last year. She raised the money for it; she starts shooting on March 17 with Alan Rickman, Michael Gambon and Maureen Lipman.
"I have a gig in it - well, I hope I do! But I'm basically here to look after our beautiful little boy."
There's been some half-baked pseudo-Freudian analysis in a couple of magazines of the fact that Furness is eight years older than Jackman, whose mother walked out on the family when he was 8 without saying goodbye.
Whatever, the marriage seems like true love. The couple are never apart from each other for more than three weeks at a time, and their wedding rings are inscribed with the Sanskrit words (Jackman is an ardent practitioner of transcendental meditation) "Om Paramatana Me", which means "to the supreme self we dedicate our lives".
"Anything in life can destroy marriage if it takes priority," Jackman has said. "If we are really dedicating our marriage to what we think is important, it's the priority.
"Our rule is, if it's going to help our marriage, we do it. If it's not, we won't."
After his mother's flight, Jackman and his four older siblings were strictly raised by their accountant father, and eventually the skinny kid known at school as Worm graduated from Sydney's University of Technology with a communications degree and a vague ambition to be a television journalist.
"But my heart wasn't in it," he recalls now. "I was faced with the prospect of getting a job, doing the death knocks and working my way up - to what?
"The great thing about acting is that you might have five years of unemployment but if you get any job, no matter how small, it's great."
Jackman trained for a year at the Actors Centre in Sydney, then transferred to Perth for a three-year course at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts - getting the casting call for Corelli the night he graduated.
He's never stopped. An accomplished singer, Jackman has had major roles in stage productions of Sunset Boulevard, Beauty and the Beast, and Oklahoma! (at the Royal National Theatre in London). Next month he's featuring in workshops to revamp the musical Boy from Oz, about the life of singer-songwriter Peter Allen, for London and North American seasons. In June, he takes the role of Curly in a benefit concert of Oklahoma! at Carnegie Hall.
His Oklahoma! co-star Maureen Lipman said of his London season in 1998, "Women, men, children and dogs completely went to pieces when Hugh took his shirt off."
And later in the year he starts filming the X-Men sequel ...
It all points to a big, bright future for Jackman, but stardom doesn't appeal.
"I would definitely take longevity as a working actor over stardom," he says. "If you ask who I'd like to model myself on, I would look to someone like Paul Newman, a great character actor who has maintained integrity."
Leopold, of course, has integrity to burn, allowing himself - because of love - to be used by market researcher Kate in a television commercial for margarine. But when he tastes the product, both Leopold's tastebuds and his ethics are outraged, and the unlikely romance wobbles dangerously.
"The plot is absolutely preposterous," agrees Jackman with a laugh. "When the script was pitched to me, I went, 'Ugh, that sounds a bit silly.' Even when I was shooting it, and afterwards, I was reluctant to tell people the pitch because their eyes would glaze over - time-travel, fish-out-of-water, Crocodile-Dundee-meets-Dr Who ...
"But [director] James Mangold, he gave me the confidence to believe, 'Yes, this guy does travel through time'."
Aside from the pure pleasure of watching the Jackman charisma at full throttle, Kate & Leopold also offers opportunities to observe his gift for saying a thousand stern words with the lift of a finely arched eyebrow.
Jackman guffaws. "Ha ha, yes, I have to watch the old arched eyebrow trick a little bit."
* Kate & Leopold opens on Thursday.