Oprah: When did you know for sure, with zero equivocation, that you were an actor?
Hugh: During The Boy from Oz [in 2003].
Oprah: That recently?
Hugh: I love acting, but I always said to Deb that I might do something else at some point. During Oz, though, I had moments of feeling completely at home onstage. Then when I hosted the Tony Awards, I thought, "Here I am at Radio City Music Hall, and I feel like I'm with a bunch of my friends." It just felt so natural.
Oprah: That's huge. You know what happened to me? In 1978—you were only a kid then!—I did my first talk show. I interviewed some Carvel ice cream man. When I got off the set, it felt like coming home. So I'm shocked—capital S-H-O-C-K-E-D—that you felt that only recently.
Hugh: That's when I first said, "I'm meant to do this." As a boy, I'd always had an interest in theater. But the idea at my school was that drama and music were to round out the man. It wasn't what one did for a living. I got over that. I found the courage to stand up and say, "I want to do it."
Oprah: What did you think you were going to do for a living?
Hugh: I wanted to be a lawyer. Then a journalist. Actually, I graduated from university as a journalist.
Oprah: My father is from that generation who taught their kids that acting was a side interest, not a real job. Is that how your dad raised you?
Hugh: I had a fairly enlightened dad, though if you looked at his résumé, it might not seem that way. He was a chartered accountant for Price Waterhouse. He was strict, and we had a very ordered life. To this day, I am the least materialistic person I know, because my father didn't raise me to just go out and buy this or that car. The only reason I wanted to make money as an actor was because I'm passionate about food! But as disciplined as my father was with money, he would never try to save a dime on education. He loved being an accountant. He'd tell me, "You've got to love what you do because it's going to take a lot of your effort and time." He had only one reservation about my being an actor. He said, "I think you're too thin-skinned." And I am fairly thin-skinned.
Oprah: The process of auditions, people telling you you're not good enough, you're too tall, you don't have the right look—it's tough.
Hugh: Yes. That's why my father always said, "Education is the one cure-all for insecurity. If you feel insecure about something, prepare for it." So I studied acting for four years. I was offered a popular soap opera early on, after just three months of classes. It was a two-year gig with good money, but I told my dad I didn't know if I wanted to take it because I'd also been accepted at another drama school. He said, "I can't tell you what to do." Over that weekend, what kept hitting my mind—and I suppose this is where my ambition came in—is that I wanted to audition someday for the Royal Shakespeare Company. I wanted to audition for Broadway. I wanted to audition for movies. I thought, "After two years on a soap opera, will I feel like I deserve an audition at the Royal Shakespeare Company?" The answer was no. So I went to drama school. When I told my dad, he was relieved.