Before I meet "Hugh Jackman, movie star and Tony Award–winning actor," I meet Hugh Jackman, husband and father. When he enters his living room in Los Angeles, his 11-month-old daughter, Ava, lights up. "How's my baby?" he says, as his wife of ten years, Deborra-Lee Furness, hands Ava to him. A second later, Oscar, their 6-year-old, whizzes around a corner and clings to his dad's leg. As Ava coos and laughs in Hugh's arms, her eyes widen with delight. For as long as I live, I will never forget her face in that moment. This is a man for whom family time clearly trumps career. It always has, despite a string of successful movies that includes X-Men , Van Helsing, Swordfish, and Kate & Leopold; a stellar turn on Broadway in The Boy from Oz; and five appearances in People 's annual "50 Most Beautiful People" issue. His own parents, who'd migrated from England to Australia, split when Hugh was 8. After his mother returned to England, his father raised all five children alone.
During our conversation, Hugh tells me how his childhood "hobby" of acting turned into a passion, why he and his wife adopted multiethnic kids, and how one daily practice transformed his life.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Hugh Jackman
Note: This interview appeared in the June 2006 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
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.
Oprah: But even then, you didn't know for certain that acting was for you?
Hugh: No. At the end of drama school, I made a contract with myself: I'd try acting for five years. I was 26. I had already spent eight years working in restaurants and gas stations. So I had seen enough small businesses to understand that that's what acting is: a small business. You have to put everything into it before you can really say you've had a go.
Oprah: How did The Boy from Oz come to you?
Hugh: I'd been offered the part in Australia six years earlier. I decided not to take it because I'd done two other musicals, and I felt like I was getting typecast. That's a tough road to get out of. Musical theater is looked down on by people in every other form of entertainment.
Hugh: Yes. A lot of directors don't respect musical theater actors. And I wasn't much of a singer, anyway.
Oprah: But you obviously could sing.
Hugh: Kind of. My first audition was for Beauty and the Beast. The casting director said, "Why did you sing that song?" I said I'd learned it at drama school. He said, "Never sing that again. It doesn't suit your voice. Go get some lessons and come back in a month." Luckily, I'd read for the part before I sang. I could tell they thought I was good. So when I came back, I got the musical. I may be the only actor in history to have a contract with this clause: "Must take singing lessons every week." I was suddenly doing eight shows a week and taking lessons for an entire year. Who wouldn't get better if you worked that hard?
Oprah: Did you love it?
Hugh: I loved the acting, not the singing. I still feel a slight sigh of relief when a song is over and I haven't stuffed it.
Oprah: There's another shocker!
Hugh: So when I was first offered The Boy from Oz, I turned it down. I said to my wife, "Deb, this sounds like a great idea. But I want to do movies." So I went off and did movies. The show was a big hit in Australia, and I went to see it. That's when I turned to Deb and said, "I made a big mistake. I should've done the show." Later, when my agent rang me and said, "There's something for The Boy from Oz on Broadway," I said, "I'm doing it." I didn't care what part. It was the first time in my career that I'd felt such passion and conviction. Later that translated into moments of full freedom and the feeling of being at home onstage. I was like, "Aaaaaah." Now that I'm blessed with a choice, my litmus test is conviction. The payoff for me and everyone around me is so great. I'm not saying everything I do will be successful. But I can live with a failure if it is born of conviction.
Oprah: That's how I feel. I interview only people I really want to talk with. That's why I'm here with you.
Hugh: Thank you.
Oprah: I read that you've been studying at the School of Practical Philosophy since 1991.
Hugh: Yes. The school began in London in 1938 with a group of men and women who saw the world heading for disaster—World War II. They were asking, "How do we share this planet? What is natural law for humans?" Capitalism is a wonderful idea, but it isn't a cure-all. So this nondenominational group of people wanted to get together, find the truth, then apply it. Now the school is all over the world.
Oprah: My God, I want to go.
Hugh: The school accepts everyone. There's even a school for children. Our son, Oscar, attends.
Oprah: I'm constantly reading, trying to figure out how the world works. I've been a student of spirituality and metaphysics. I always thought it would be fascinating to raise a child to understand the principles of divine order. That is a reason to have children.
Hugh: I totally agree. The main thing Oscar learns is how to be of service to others. At lunch the kids all serve one another before they eat.
Oprah: My favorite quote is from Martin Luther King Jr., who said, not everyone can be famous, but everyone can be great—because greatness is determined by service. If you can figure out how to use whatever your passion is—whether it's acting, law, or medicine—then you will raise the level of that profession to the highest quality on earth.
Hugh: Without a doubt. The word philosophy sounds high-minded, but it simply means the love of wisdom. If you love something, you don't just read about it; you hug it, you mess with it, you play with it, you argue with it. I learned about the school from a guy I met. After I'd known him for about three months, I said, "There's something different about you. What is it?" He said, "Come next Wednesday night. I'll show you." In class we learned an exercise. Twice a day, for two minutes—preferably at sunrise and sunset—sit down, be calm, get in touch with your five senses, listen without judgment. Then I went to acting school the next day, and my teacher—who is a legend—said, "I'm gonna tell you all something, and none of you will do it. But it will be the greatest thing I can ever tell you about how to be a good actor. The only thing that matters is being in the moment. That's the only thing that will make an audience connect. There's only one way to be in the moment, and that is to be in touch with your senses. Twice a day, you should sit." It was like, "Ding, ding, ding!" So right away, I knew the philosophy school would improve my acting, and it did. But after about eight months, I realized that acting was just another activity. The activity of being a husband, a father—those are roles, too, but underneath them is the spiritual center that connects us all, and that's what's most important.
Oprah: Whether you're an actor, a teacher, a parent...
Hugh: Irrelevant. Now I meditate twice a day for half an hour. In meditation, I can let go of everything. I'm not Hugh Jackman. I'm not a dad. I'm not a husband. I'm just dipping into that powerful source that creates everything. I take a little bath in it. Oscar asks me, "What's meditation?" I say, "I'm just gonna go sit with God and have a rest." Occasionally, he'll sit with me.
Oprah: That's extraordinary.
Hugh: Everyone takes a shower every day, and we don't complain about it. We do it out of discipline. There will always be an excuse not to meditate. In the Hindu tradition, there's something called ahankara, or the ego. The ego says, "You don't need to meditate, man. You're really busy. What about the kids?" But do I say, "I can't shower today because I have to make time for the kids?" No.
Oprah: I recently read a book called The Twilight of American Culture. The author's theory is that we've forgotten that all great powers eventually fail, especially when there's not a recognition of what it means to live in the moment. The maxim for our culture is "I buy, therefore I am." We don't understand what "I am" means.
Hugh: Exactly. I walk into that school, and it's a different world. You can create an atmosphere of more wisdom, less ignorance. As much as I want to, I can't fix what's going on in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but I have to be awake to fix those things I can. That's what your show is all about—helping people to wake up and connect. When I did The Boy from Oz, audience members showed up with all kinds of stories, but within 20 minutes, all that melted away and I saw the kids in them. Occasionally, I would ad-lib with the crowd. Once when a woman came in late, I said, "What's the matter, darling—was the queue a bit long? You should always use the men's. It's a lot more fun, trust me." She was all embarrassed. I said, "Don't be embarrassed. Come up here and talk to me." It turned out she was there with her son, who was 8 or 9. So from the stage, I said to her son, "Have you ever seen your mum dance?" He shook his head. "Do you want to?" He goes, "Yeah." Meanwhile, she's dying! But I got her to dance. She was really embarrassed, but she got over it because she loved her son so much. I had tears in my eyes—it was such a joyful moment. Then she really let loose, and the crowd got behind her. It was powerful.
Oprah: And that boy will never forget it.
Hugh: Because it was in the moment, it was honest, not written or rehearsed. Every night during Oz, there was magic like that. I have this dense little book called The Supreme Yoga. My teacher at the philosophy school gave it to me. He said, "Don't worry about understanding it all. Just read a bit." So I read a page a day, and one passage has stayed with me for the last three weeks. It was a story about a queen who goes into deep meditation and travels to the spirit realm after her husband dies. There, she meets him in another of his lives. The point was that in the world of the spirit, our life here is just a blink. It's easy to get immersed in this life. But in the world of the spirit, you're not an interviewer and I'm not an actor. This is just part of the dream. What's real are the feelings we have—like the one I had with that woman in the audience that evening.
Oprah: I love that story. What was the most extraordinary moment you've experienced during meditation?
Hugh: During one particular sitting—I do a version of transcendental meditation—I felt like my body went away. I began with a mantra; then the mantra faded. Meditation is all about the pursuit of nothingness. It's like the ultimate rest. It's better than the best sleep you've ever had. It's a quieting of the mind. It sharpens everything, especially your appreciation of your surroundings. It keeps life fresh.
Oprah: Do you have supreme moments all the time?
Hugh: No. But there are moments when I have felt tingling in my body, followed by complete peace and calm. That's happened several times, but I never know when it's gonna hit. Meditation is like a party: You've got to show up to find out that it's amazing. The more you practice, the deeper the experience gets.
Oprah: What do you know for sure?
Hugh: In the moments of clarity that meditation brings, I know that I am limitless. That's an incredibly powerful feeling.
Oprah: Are you afraid of death?
Hugh: Yes. I aspire not to be. In my research for a movie I'm doing called The Fountain, I observed neurosurgeons, and I saw a woman having brain surgery. When I looked at her, I thought of Deb, and I panicked. I'm afraid of death for me and for my wife. I'd love to feel that I was beyond it, but I'm not there yet.
Oprah: There's this wonderful line in Leaves of Grass where Walt Whitman talks about "Oh, death, what a surprise." I've spoken with many people who've had near-death experiences. But my most memorable interview was with a woman whose 26-year-old son had died of cancer. In his final moments, she crawled into bed with him. His last words were "Oh Mom, it's so simple"—then he closed his eyes. I believe that in the last breath, we're all going to feel that way.
Oprah: Deb is eight years older than you. Are you conscious of it?
Hugh: Never. Before we got engaged, my dad had only met Deb once. So when I announced we were getting married, he said, "Is this a maternal thing?" I just laughed. I said, "Dad, when you get to know Deb a little better, you'll see it's more of a paternal thing!"
Oprah: Your kids are adopted. Had you always wanted to adopt?
Hugh: We tried to have a child biologically, but we'd always wanted to adopt, too. The period when we were doing in vitro fertilization was really tough. Then we adopted Oscar. We were at the birth, and we got to know the birth mother quite well. During delivery, Deb and I were there holding hands. Then I said, "Do you mind if I go to the business end?" The birth mother said, "Oh, whatever. Off you go." She was a bit of a shy woman, but she'd had an epidural by that point. It was an amazing experience to watch the birth.
Oprah: I think that to be adopted is so special—to be chosen.
Hugh: I constantly tell Oscar about destiny. I tell him that he was always meant to come to us.
Oprah: Is he biracial?
Hugh: Yes. He's a bit of everything: African-American, Caucasian, Hawaiian, Cherokee. We requested a biracial child because there was more of a need. People wait 18 months to adopt a little blonde girl, while biracial children are turned away. So when we said we wanted a biracial child, the lawyer said, "We can have one for you next week." The same was true with Ava. She's half Mexican, half German.
Oprah: That's great. How did you get to be so grounded?
Hugh: Well, I'm not sure how to answer that. What I strive for in my life is everything but separation. If I meet someone at a bus stop, I want to really meet that person. I don't want to be "Hugh Jackman, the famous actor." Backstage at the Oscars, I once heard someone say, "George Clooney's so great, because he knows the names of the crew." I was like, "Shouldn't he? He spent five months with these 30 people." If you worked in any office for five months and didn't know people's names, everyone would think you were nuts. In my spiritual studies, it's all about connecting with other human beings. That's what it means to be grounded.
Oprah: What is your dream for your life?
Hugh: I'm living it right now—it's my family. That's my priority. Deb and I are about to celebrate ten years together, and I'm absolutely mad about her. For me, life is about deepening that connection and deepening my level of service. People often ask me, "How do you do the same show over and over again?" But we all do the same routine in life over and over again. People have the same relationships. We go through the same patterns. My acting teacher once said, "Acting is the best training for life." I have the opportunity to do the same show, but to make it deeper each time. And isn't that what we're here for?
Oprah: I love that. Do you feel that when you play Wolverine in X-Men?
Hugh: Absolutely. I've never read a comic book. But when we started doing the movies, our job was to make these characters real people. The core audience is teenagers who feel different. Weird. Ostracized. Misunderstood. Which is what X-Men 's about.
Oprah: What principles do you live by?
Hugh: The number one principle: Cause and effect. The second I take from Socrates: Know thyself. Another: Speak the truth. That's a hard one. You have to do it kindly. You can't just tell someone, "Hey, you've put on weight."
Oprah: Exactly. I love the first principle in The Four Agreements: Be impeccable with your word. Any others?
Hugh: Be of service.
Oprah: You've got it!