The last time Hugh Jackman played Wolverine, the comic-book superhero he has portrayed onscreen for 17 years, was not an especially decorous occasion. In the midst of his work on a coming movie musical, he had to return for two days of reshoots on “Logan,” the 10th film in Fox’s X-Men franchise, to inflict some beatings and take some beatings, and he ended up shouting his voice hoarse.
“I yelled and screamed so much, and then I had to go back to the musical the next day,” a more restored Jackman recalled recently with a laugh. “I actually said to someone, ‘Not with a bang but a whimper.’”
His claw-popping alter ego fares no better in “Logan,” which opens Friday. Set in 2029, it finds the title character weary and weakened, unable to heal as rapidly as he used to. The X-Men are long gone, and he’s reduced to driving a limousine while he tends an aged Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), whose psychic powers have become a dangerous liability.
From the moment Jackman became a movie star, with the original “X-Men” in 2000, he has been synonymous with Wolverine, a feral mutant with a metal skeleton and a tormented, decades-long past lived under the name Logan. It is his most visible and successful role, and one that, as recently as late January, he still wasn’t finished with. Because there was always one more dialogue rerecording session or conversation to have with his director, “I’m uncomfortable saying goodbye,” he said.
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And surely, it can’t be easy for Jackman to pull away from a role that he has inhabited longer than almost any other actor has been associated with a comic-book character or fantasy franchise — a span when genre mainstays like Batman, Spider-Man and Superman were each rebooted twice, and even his “X-Men” co-stars had to share custody of their parts with a younger class of actors.
But asked if he envisions “Logan” as his final outing as Wolverine, he answered, “When I had the script, I was like, ‘Yes,’” he said. “And when I was shooting the movie, yes. As I sit here today, yes.”
“God knows how I’ll feel in three years,” he continued. “But right now, absolutely.”
Not that Jackman seemed all that devastated. Over breakfast at a boutique hotel in New York City, this Australian-born performer, 48, was upbeat, convivial, crisply attired and almost too charming for an actor pitching a dystopian action movie. (Even with his announcement, made via Twitter on Monday, that he had been treated for another basal cell carcinoma, he tries to find positivity and humor: Along with a photo of himself, with a treatment on his nose, he wrote, “Looks worse w the dressing on then off!”) He’s not big on career retrospectives, and not inclined to ask, as his Jean Valjean memorably did in “Les Misérables,” “Who am I?”
But what happens if and when he bids farewell to the one constant in his film career; who’s left behind when you subtract this X-factor?
“Let’s be clear — I’m not retiring,” Jackman said. Yet for as many times as he has played the character, in the “X-Men” series and solo “Wolverine” movies, he said, “there’s been a gnawing turmoil that I hadn’t really nailed it, fully — either story or performance or whatever.”
It’s not just the X-movies, he said: “Every film I’ve ever done, I’ve had that gnawing doubt. But I have it way less in this one.”
Jackman was hardly an unknown when he was first considered for Wolverine, having already performed on Australian TV and onstage, and having received wide acclaim for playing Curly in a 1998 West End revival of “Oklahoma!”
It was after a matinee of that show that Jackman whipped off his leather chaps and rushed out, his hair in a perm, to a London casting office to put himself on tape for an “X-Men” audition. (When he was tapped for a callback, Jackman said, “They were like, ‘OK, lose the perm and the Southern cowboy accent.’ It was the only American accent I could do at the time.”)
Only after Dougray Scott had been hired to play Logan – and then dropped out over a scheduling conflict with “Mission: Impossible 2” – was Jackman brought to the “X-Men” set to screen-test, and to gawk at potential cast mates like Stewart and Ian McKellen, his acting idols.
Stewart remembered Jackman for his modesty on that visit. Following the screen test, Stewart said, “Hugh came back about 45 minutes later, and the first thing he said was, ‘Well, you guys are never going to see me again.’”
Instead, Jackman has starred in the first three “X-Men” movies, two previous “Wolverine” films and the 2014 entry, “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” (Combined worldwide gross: $2.7 billion.) He won a Tony for “The Boy From Oz” in 2004 and received a special Tony in 2012 for contributions to the Broadway community; he has hosted the Tonys four times, won an Emmy for hosting the Tonys and hosted the Academy Awards.
Aside from a brief, bloody cameo in “X-Men: Apocalypse” last year, Jackman did not necessarily see himself returning to the franchise. That changed during a publicity tour for the science-fiction film “Chappie,” whose director, Neill Blomkamp, asked if he could do only one more film in the series, what story would he tell?
“I’d had a few wines,” Jackman recalled. “I said, ‘I think I’ve only got one more film, if I do it.’ And I just blurted out something. I went home and went to sleep, and I woke up at 4 in the morning, picked up my phone, and recorded a voice memo.”
In that memo, Jackman laid out the framework for “Logan,” with a story that would take its influences from “Unforgiven,” “The Wrestler” and “Shane” (a portion of which appears in “Logan”), and tell the story of “the fallen hero, trying to escape his past, find some peace and deal with disappointment and regret,” he said.
James Mangold, who directed “Logan” and wrote the screenplay with Michael Green and Scott Frank, said the film was a natural reaction to the “exhaustion that’s setting in with the formula that’s been used for the last couple decades” of comic-book movies.
“There’s cities exploding and super evil villains flying in from the planet Yahoo,” said Mangold, who directed Jackman in “The Wolverine” in 2013 (and before that, in the 2001 romantic time-travel comedy “Kate & Leopold”). “There’s enough circus and spectacle. When you start to strip a lot of that out, you go: ‘Is this enough? Can we function on this?’”
If anything, Mangold was more sure than Jackman was that “Logan” could be his last time as the character.
“I don’t think he ever viewed it as ‘could be,’” Mangold said. “I think he approached it as, it was.”
He added: “By thinking of this as his curtain call, he arrived every day on set electric. I don’t think anyone can see this film and call it a paycheck film for him.”
Jackman said it was only a matter of time before another actor took over Wolverine.
“The character will go on,” he said. “Someone else will play it, for sure.” He insisted he was at peace with that, “unless Daniel Day-Lewis plays him and wins the Oscar — then I might have a little problem.”
Stewart, who already shares the Charles Xavier role with James McAvoy (who plays the character’s younger incarnation), said that as a classically trained Shakespearean actor, he believed performers invariably developed an attachment to their best-known roles.
“Occasionally, you feel, hang on a minute — that’s my role!” he said. “Macbeth is what I played! Shylock is what I played! What are they doing?”
Beneath Jackman’s sanguine exterior, Stewart said, he probably recognized the significance of giving up the character.
“I think he very much senses the weight of that,” he said. “But I have to tell you, Hugh Jackman carries that weight very lightly.”
Jackman had now spent several weeks in New York filming “The Greatest Showman,” his Barnum musical, which is planned for a Christmas release, and which casts him as the showboating, larger-than-life impresario who is worlds away from the inward, beaten-down Logan.
“The Greatest Showman” is not a film that Jackman specifically planned as a pivot from Wolverine. But it’s one that he spent several years helping to develop — “I probably thought there was a 50-50 chance of it being made,” he said — and seeing it take shape has made him enthusiastic about what a possible post-X-Men future might look like for him.
“I’m a little addicted to movies feeling personal, if not life or death, so that there’s really something at stake, and win or lose, it feels right,” he said.
And when “The Greatest Showman” is done, Jackman said, his schedule will be clear. “I’m actually freer than I’ve ever been,” he said. “I don’t have anything actually planned for after this movie, which is really exciting for me.”
He laughed and then added: “That may be naiveté. Like: ‘Dude, there’s a reason.’”