In the 3-D action film “The Wolverine” (based on the celebrated comic book arc), Wolverine (played by Hugh Jackman), the most famous character of the “X-Men” universe, travels to modern-day Japan, where he must protect a mysterious heiress named Mariko (played by Tao Okamoto), who is the target of people who want to kill her. Mariko’s father is Shingen Yashida (played by Hiroyuki Sanada), a ruthless businessman who is the leader of a vast criminal empire. In his quest, Wolverine (who also goes by the name Logan) reluctantly accepts help from a tough, sword-wielding accomplice named Yukio (played by Rila Fukushima), who also acts as Wolverine’s translator and self-appointed bodyguard.
Vulnerable for the first time and pushed to his physical and emotional limits, Wolverine confronts not only lethal enemies — including a poisonous vixen named Viper (played by Svetlana Khodchenkova) — but also his inner struggle against his own immortality. Wolverine is also haunted by visions of his deceased lover Jean Grey (played by Famke Janssen), while he finds himself falling for Mariko, who is engaged to be married to another man. At a New York City press conference for “The Wolverine,” several stars of the movie (Jackman, Janssen, Okamoto, Sanada and Fukushima) and “The Wolverine” director James Mangold gathered to share behind-the-scenes stories.
Hugh, can you take a look back on getting this career-changing role as Wolverine and how your relationship with the character may have changed over the years?
Jackman: [He says jokingly] Well, in 1953, I got the part. It sometimes feels like that. it was in the past century: in 1999. [He says seriously] I’m actually enjoying playing him now more than ever. I was kind of reflecting on why that would be. Wolverine is somewhere between the age of 150 and 300. And on some of those 4 o’clock mornings, I felt about 300 years old, maybe just a little bit older.
I think the script, particularly as you can see by the title, we are focusing on this character. We are focusing on his journey. It’s a more intimate and more interior story. We’re not wall-to-wall mutants flying around with blazes coming out of our eyes, etc.
This is a real, true character story. And with someone like Jim [Mangold] on board, to know and do the action, just unbelievable creativity and to make it original, but also make it a true drama, to see the human side and also the vulnerabilities of Wolverine. All of these things made it, in a way, more challenging and more satisfying and more fun to play. I’m really thrilled that — from the writers to the studio — they’ve all gotten on board with that idea. The movie we wanted to make, I think we made.
Hugh, you’ve been a movie actor and a theater actor. Is there a difference to how you approach your roles in movies and in theater?
Jackman: There is a difference. This is my sixth time playing this part [Wolverine]. I actually approach this role differently each time. You can’t help it as an actor. You change as a person. You change in your interpretation of a role.
There is something, however, that is essentially the same, which is, as an actor, you’re looking for the truth of the character. You’re looking to get inside the character, to understand them, even if they have claws and really weird hair and ridiculous muttonchops.
Your job is to get inside and tell the story from as truthful a place as possible. And that’s no different whether you’re on stage or on screen. You have the advantage of screen, particularly when you have a director like Jim, he’s interested in the gray areas; he’s interested in what happens in between the lines.
You have an opportunity for the camera to delve into you, to go inside. In the theater, obviously, you have to take care of the people who are a hundred yards away. There’s a different technique, in a way. It’s not dissimilar to how a runner who runs a 100-meter race runs differently than one running an 800-meter race, but they still run.
Hugh, you’ve talked for a long time about doing a Wolverine story in Japan. How do you feel now that you’ve done it?
Jackman: [“X Men” director] Bryan Singer had this mandate that no one could read comic books on the set, because when he was creating the first “X-Men,” he wanted it to be very human and three-dimensional. He was worried that people actors would come on set with an over-the-top performance, and that their perception of comic books was two-dimensional — even though “X-Men,” as you know, is not. But we were handing them around anyway. And I remember being handed this comic book like it was contraband! And I said, “This is a great movie.” Those people who know the Chris Claremont series know that it involves all the X-Men. So I said, “This would be a great ‘X-Men’ movie.”
As it progressed, the idea of making it as the ultimate movie for Wolverine grew in my mind. And Jim agreed me. This great “fish out of water” story that takes him to a place that’s completely foreign, making him sort of unhinged and not knowing who anybody is. He’s a natural outsider. And I think the customs and the atmosphere the history and all samurai codes of honor and obeying are the opposite of Wolverine. It’s just the perfect place to put that character.
“The Wolverine” seemed to be structured like a western movie. Can you talk about any western movies that may have influenced “The Wolverine”?
Mangold: I’m glad that you recognized that. I really feel like a lot of genre is different from what people think they are. I’m kind of the guy who likes record shops where all the records are in one stack. I never go “Why is Ray Charles in country and western? And why is this album rock and roll?” It’s almost like you guys need to put things in boxes so it makes it easy to talk about and then we all follow. The reality is the western and the Samurai film are incredibly similar. Obviously, there’s been a huge amount of dialogue between those films over the years, but that was really something we really focused on.
For me, what Hugh was touching on, was trying to get inside all of the characters in this movie. You need space from other mutants. You can’t make a movie that gets inside the characters when you have 12 mutants and two hours. Each character gets eight minutes, if that. You need a story that has openings for people to expose what’s inside them: the pressure.
The western is a beautiful example of a format with both action and character. It always has been. It’s really not just about horses and guns. It’s really about the character underneath. Rila, what about you? What do you have to say?
Fukushima: It was just fun. Shooting was just amazing time. This was my first-time experience to act in a film. So I just tried to channel that. That’s about it.
Do any of the other cast members want to add to that?
Janssen: I just want to say that “X-Men: The Last Stand” ended on a very emotional note, but the audience didn’t really have time to process what happened, which is the Wolverine kills the female character of Jean Grey. And that’s something, of course, that people were left with. And the fact that both Jim and Hugh took on this [Jean Grey being in “The Wolverine”] — even though it’s a very small through line in the film — but it’s such an important part of the series, and that happens with the journey that Logan goes through after that.
The guilt that he lives with, the reconciliation he has to do with his past, and the fact that somehow, this Jean Grey character that then comes in to either guide him or challenge him or find a way to help him through this part of his past. I think that’s a really beautiful way that you guys ended up incorporating this into the story, because t gives room for the audience and of course Hugh’s character to really have some kind of reconciliation with that big moment that happens.
And I think both of them [Rila Fukushima and Tao Okamoto] are absolutely incredible. I said this to both of them. Having been part of the four [previous “X-Men”] films, I’ve never been able to really watch these films without any kind of preconceived notions because I have been part of them. But this one because I filmed what — less than a week — I really didn’t know what was going on when I wasn’t there. So I saw it as a true audience member.
And I think what is so absolutely remarkable about it is that I think women are going to respond to this film more than any of the other “X-Men” films or “Wolverine” films so far, because it has a love story, it has real emotional depth, it has this journey of the Wolverine character. And that’s really this team, these two guys here [she points to Mangold and Jackman], and of course an incredible cast and the women who are — all of you — amazing. So it was really nice being an audience member!
Jackman: Can I just say a couple of things? Jim said to me in the very first phone conversation we had, when I rang him about it and when I read the script, he said, “Tonally, I’m thinking ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales.”
I said, “I haven’t seen it. He sent it to me immediately. And immediately, I knew we were going to create something different. And setting it in Japan, obviously, makes it different. We wanted to make this a stand-alone film. We didn’t want it to feel like any other “Wolverine” movies or any other comic-book movies. We wanted it to be in service of the character. We never worried about ratings. We just thought, “Let’s bring this character to life.”
And one of the things in the comic books, some of you will know, the thing is with women with Wolverine. It’s sort of his Achilles heel in a way.
And in this movie, we have a predominance of women., And having a Famke back. She plays such a key role in this. In a way, in such a short time, we got to explore their relationship more than ever,
And I just want to point out these two [Rila Fukushima and Tao Okamoto]. I will get back to you, Hiro. It’s a very daunting thing to be in your first film, but when your first film is as big as this — and as you all know there’s a lot of pressure — I am so proud of what both of these women achieved.
I also want to take my hat off to Jim, because there are very few directors with the confidence in themselves as directors or what they’re trying to produce that would hire in such pivotal roles to newcomers. I really think it helps the audience come to this world, like Wolverine does, in a fresh way, and not know what’s going on. I think both of them have done an unbelievable job. And so I’m very proud of them. We’ll talk about you later, Hiro.
Would you like to add to that, Hiro?
Sanada: Yeah. As a Japanese-born actor, I would like to say thank you to Hugh and Jim and every crew and cast [member] because a lot of movies are located in Japan, and sometimes there’s a lot of misunderstanding of our culture. But [“The Wolverine” cast and crew] respected our culture and researched it a lot.
So when I saw the movie, I was so happy, because this movie has a great balance and a nice mixture between East and West, tradition and modern. I think Japanese audiences will be happy if they’re watching. It’s super-modern Japan with nostalgia. It felt like a taste of all the classic Japanese movies and also super-modern Japan. I think it’s a great mixture. So I’m very happy to be a part of this movie.
Hugh, what was it like riding shotgun in that Audi in the mountains? How did it compare to your first car?
Jackman: I was in my trailer at the time. We did zip around in that car on the streets of Sydney. What I love about Jim is that it’s always the same. We did the first [take], zipping around the corner, and I was like, “Whoa, that was fast!”
And Jim’s like, “Faster! This is pathetic! You’re Wolverine!” And every take was like, “Faster! Faster!” I like zipping around in a car.
Mangold: He actually speeded up the shot. It was never fast enough. [He laughs.]
Jackman: The Audi is a great car. My first car, for all I know, is still on the …
Mangold [to the reporter]: Where are you from? The Audi newsletter?
Jackman: My very first car, I cost $800. I spent $400. My mate Warrick spent $400. I was in drama school. As far as I know, it’s still on the side of the freeway in Perth, because that was the eighth time it broke down. For an $800 car, we were like, “Stuff it.” And we just left it and just hitchhiked our way. So I have no idea. I broke every rule known to man …
[Jackman then switches the subject.]
I may not get a question that relates to this, but I’m just going to tell a story about Hiro. It was beautiful what you said, and I have to tell one story. When we were in Sydney, it was actually …. turned into a Japanese funeral site, as we were finishing the set one day, I saw all the extras, and they were lining up.
And I thought, “Maybe they’re collecting mobile phones or cell phones. Maybe they’re handing over some prop.” When I craned my head around, out of sight from anybody, was Hiro, who’s done how many films? Eighty films in Japan?
Jackman: Sixty films and is an icon there. [He] stood on the side and, one by one, shook the hands and bowed and thanked every extra on the film. So when people say to me, “Oh, you’re known as a nice guy in Hollywood, “Uh-uh, I ain’t nothing!” The humility, the respect and the generosity was there with Hiro, was there with the girls. It made a huge difference. I’m sorry to embarrass you to tell that story, but to me, it really is indicative of who you are.
Sanada: Thank you so much.
Mangold: To the degree that we are not existing only in Western clichés, of Japanese life, I think that it is a credit, honestly, to the cast, who were very vigilant and kind to me and gentle in explaining when I was doing something idiotic.
But also, they were watching out for language and custom and helping me with blocking. And even on days where they weren’t working in character, they were coming by set. I think what Hugh touched upon very graciously in saying how brave I was to cast these ladies, I take the compliment with an open heart. But I also think that they were the best. They were both the best.
It’s easy when you’re reading people and meeting people, and two people land in front of you, and each one speaks to you in the role and inhabits the role. I don’t believe acting is taught. I believe acting is un-learned.
We are all born playing and acting, and we learn to get self-conscious and frightened of being other people and pretending. I’m always looking for people who haven’t lost it instead of who need to learn it. I think that’s very true of Tao and Rila, and everyone on this stage, of course.
Can you tell us the behind-the-scenes story about the intense fight scene on the bullet train? And to Hugh, where does that action scene rank for you, in terms of all the action scenes you’ve done in movies?
Mangold: That scene was made up of hundreds of pieces. There’s a lot of pieces in that sequence, and it requires two kinds of planning: One of things that could happen planning an action sequence for a film, especially when you have resources, is that you can do anything. And the trick when you can do anything is that there’s a huge temptation for the filmmaker is to start flying the camera through the window of the train and up through the accordion and up the window through the drainpipe.
And my overriding goal with the actors and with the camera and the way I was directing the film was to try and make the film more real. And therefore, don’t make shots you couldn’t make. With technology, which you can see in the films this summer, you can do anything. You can literally do anything. So when that happens, it almost puts the filmmaker in an odd position, in which suddenly, if you can create any frame in any shot, it’s almost too many choices.
Why does the chase in “The French Connection” with Popeye Doyle in Queens look so good? Because it was a hand-held camera running down over the underpass at high speed and it’s real. Every time you do a sequence now with all the technology that’s available, you’re suddenly your crew is asking, “Do you want the windshield in front? Because we can do this without the windshield.”
Everything can be better, more visible, the camera can move from here to there. And I’m in the habit of saying no. I’m in the habit of saying, “Give me the shot as if I were doing it all, absolutely, 100 percent for real.”
The other side of it is just the cast who were in that sequence, which was mainly Hugh and the great guys playing the Yakuza who were fighting with him. They went through physical hell, in terms of the way their bodies were being slammed around. And when they weren’t really risking themselves, when we were doing green-screen work in that sequence, we were literally blowing 700,000 pounds of wind in their eyes. I think Hugh would say that the greatest achievement he had in that sequence was keeping his eyes open while we had six leaf blowers aimed at his face.
Jackman: You made it look like Wolverine was crying during the entire thing. It was a humbling thing to watch because I loved it. There was this one scene where there are these industrial leaf blowers. And as I look back at one of the scenes, you can literally see the folds of my skin flapping around. That was a point when you think, “I feel young, but I don’t look so young!”
It was three weeks. For me, I’ve done a lot of action things, and it was certainly one of the hairiest — a few cuts, a few bruises, a couple of tweaked necks … But the experience was very exciting because I thought it was very emblematic of what I was trying to do: creative fun, action.
It was going to give the audience what they wanted, but not overblown … not that over-the-top action sequence where you just don’t care anymore. I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to spend two hours in the theater, I can only look at pretty, amazing visuals for so long if I don’t care about what’s going on.
James, did you study any Japanese action movies before taking on “The Wolverine”?
Mangold: One of my attractions to do this movie … was the fact that I’ve always been a huge fan of Japanese movies, samurai or otherwise. In a way, as Hiro was indicating, this movie is kind of like this Life Saver roll of different tastes of Japanese culture. You have a crime movie, you have a samurai film, you have a fantasy film, you have a western and a historical film. You have all these things kind of tied up in it — all of which I’m fans of.
As we were developing the script, I think one of the most Japanese directors who allows you into Japanese culture but is least appreciated in the West is [Yasujirō] Ozu … He had a huge period of making movies about Japanese life and domestic life, city and country, particularly kind of flourishing post-war, beautiful films that had a big visual effect— strange as though it may seem — on this movie and the look of it.
And when we were working on the script, that journey that Tao and Hugh make down south, it’s almost the opposite journey of the family in “Tokyo Story.” The village, when I was scouting, I didn’t know Japan. I didn’t grow up there. This movie really opened Japan up for me. But what I was really looking for was, in my mind, these seaside villages I’d seen in these great Ozu films and wondering if they still exist or what existed of them.
Obviously, in relations to samurai stuff, for me, it was about trying to make the movie physical. And what I thought was an opportunity here, especially with someone like Hiro, who is not only a master himself but a master teacher and I think helped everyone here with their sword work and their choreography, what I was really into and what I wanted to see in the film was sweat, blood and eyes — grounded action.
We weren’t at the budget level of some of the other summer movies. And I didn’t want to compete on an epic scale. I wanted to compete on an intensity scale. What that meant for me is that Wolverine isn’t Spider-Man. He isn’t Superman. He can’t jump up and grab a 747 and fly into the atmosphere. He has claws, and he has a skeleton, and he’s bitter and he’s grumpy, and he heals. And that’s it.
So what that allows you to do is to. I thought much more in line with Dirty Harry films or Popeye Doyle films and Toshiro Mifune films. These are all heroes who have captivated us but whose feet are firmly on the ground.
Hugh, how did you relax when the intensity got really high?
Jackman: I’ve been to Japan maybe 10 or 11 times, so to film there was really a great thrill. I took the opportunity to take my family, because we were there for quite a long time. And that was something that I’ll never forget. When we went to Tomonoura, this village in the south, it is so beautiful there! If you wanted a Western breakfast, they said you needed three days’ notice. We were really out of Tokyo.
For me, I don’t know if you know, but I’m a big foodie. I love Japanese food. I am almost ashamed to say that I went gluttonously to Jiro when we were there. I went once. Then I had to take my wife there. And then the crew.
We swam. We did loads of beautiful things. I climbed Mount Fuji with my son. I went in some onsens. I don’t know I I told you this. I went into an onsen, which is separate for male and female. And they hand you a towel, a small wash cloth. And when you get in the onsens, there are eight different types of tubs, different heats different temperatures. And one of them was cold.
So I’m getting so hot and of course I’m using the towel they gave me to dip into the cold water and putting it on my head. And I was getting very strange looks from everybody.
This is at the base of Mount Fuji. Every night in Tokyo I was the only white person there. And they were looking at me and I thought maybe this is not cool, maybe I’m not meant to be there. I was getting uncomfortable. And finally this guy in a tub, he’s looking at me … Then finally I realized that the towel was meant to be covering my privates! I’d spent about an hour waltzing around the place with this thing in my hand and a beer in my other hand!
What is so appealing about dark themes?
Mangold: Dark themes are in cave paintings from 500 years ago. People draw pictures of monsters and what they’re scared of. Drama and movies and art have always been a way for people to look at what scares us, as well as what makes us happy. I think in many ways, I think that’s what makes Wolverine such an appealing character and Hugh’s particular inhabiting of the role so universally appealing is that he both inhabits the darkness and you always know there’s some kind of light somewhere inside there.
Why would you want to watch a drama with no conflict and happy people with no problems? It is the conundrum of modern market-tested movies: People ask people if they’re happy every five minutes in a movie and are happy with the characters. And they produce these movies where the characters have no problems because the characters are so well-adjusted, and they all have a happy landing at the end, and everything’s perfect.
We, in effect, create that. We answer questions and we talk about movies. I think darkness has always been a huge part of what we enjoy in films. The most popular films of all time are loaded with darkness.
Jackman: I think it’s in the DNA for the comic-books for X-Men. I’m mentioning that because when it came about in the ‘60s, Wolverine was one of the first anti-heroes. And all of the powers of all those characters stem from an emotional place.
Let’s just look at Wolverine. He has claws, he has an adamantium skeleton, and he can heal himself. But his really defining characteristic is that berserker rage. On paper, he might not have the greatest powers, but he’s the last person you want to piss off. He’s the person you want on your side. That’s what makes him formidable. That’s why I think teenagers relate to it, because there’s confusion, there’s emotion, there’s unresolved anger.
All of these [“X-Men”] characters, somehow they use their dysfunction, their pain, their indecision — all those things that are within become their strength and become their defining quality. With Wolverine, as you see in this movie, it’s as much a burden as a superpower or a great thing. And that’s what’s made “X-Men” interesting and I think why audiences have loved it in a comic-book series and why it’s lasted as a movie thing. So you can call it darkness, but I really think it’s just complexity.
Mangold: I thought about what makes Wolverine so appealing. And I think it’s because he’s screwed by nature and screwed by science. I always think when you’re a teenager, you feel like, “Why was I born this way?” You have all this angst about who you are and what you arrived on Earth with …
There’s a way he feels like [Wolverine] is reeling from being messed with from two different sides and always trying to re-find his balance. I think we all identify, in the sense, with how nature screwed us and how our parents have too. How do we find our own balance in the world? And Logan is kind of, for 300 years, trying to find it. [He laughs.]
Janssen: Science can add to it too. It can add an enormous amount of wealth and information, but at the same time, it can be an enormous burden, because it can take you away from what you truly are. And he’s kind of part science, part-man.
What are the basic elements that turn a film into a classic?
Mangold: I’m unequipped to answer. I would say 10 years later if you’re still thinking about it, or 20 years later if you’re still thinking about it.
For more info: “The Wolverine” website
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