It's an experience Hugh Jackman is hoping not to repeat when he hosts the 81st Academy Awards tonight, although a case of nerves is understandable: Along with producers Bill Condon and Laurence Mark, Jackman's been tapped to add pep and popularity to a show suffering from steadily declining ratings. Luckily, the "X-Men" star and Tony winner has learned a thing or two since his tights-wearing days more than a decade ago performing in "Beauty and the Beast."
"I was having headaches and a naturopath told me I was dehydrated, so I was drinking a lot of water," Jackman recalls of his onstage debacle. "I was doing a very vigorous scene, and when I went to pick up Belle, I weed a little bit. So I stopped singing, and that was the moment I realized that the muscles you need to hold onto to stop weeing are also the ones you have to release to sing. It was a Sophie's choice of hitting the high note or not peeing. When I got offstage, my dresser looked at my red tights and said, 'Wow.' "
A man willing to go on with the show come what may is just what Condon is betting will bring the Oscars show out of its slump. It's a show Condon acknowledges is a strange hybrid: "A theater production celebrating movies that's broadcast on TV." With Jackman, he explains, "There's something about his openness that suits our mission to celebrate people. There's nothing ironic about him." A bonus: "There are a lot of people who don't know that ['X-Men's'] Wolverine does so many other things, and that's exciting."
Those other things include a knack for singing and hosting; Jackman won a Tony in 2004 for playing Peter Allen in "The Boy From Oz" and a year later won an Emmy for emceeing the Tonys themselves. "If it weren't for hosting the Tonys, I'd be terrified," admits the 40-year-old actor, who lives in New York with his wife, actress Deborrah-Lee Furness, and their children, Oscar, 8, and Ava, 3. Nevertheless, he cops to suffering from 3 a.m. anxiety dreams that involve blowing off studying for exams only to flunk the test.
He's ensuring that won't happen in real life by spending a month doubling up on his weekly singing lessons, calling Steve Martin and Ricky Gervais to ask for advice, and rehearsing six hours a day.
As for what those rehearsals entail, Jackman, whose scruffiness on this winter day looks less a studied style than the result of long days cramming for his new gig, is mum. "I didn't sign any confidentiality agreements, but it's a showman thing," he explains. "It may not be as good as I think, but at least I'll get you for the five seconds you're surprised." He will say that he's responsible for a six- to seven-minute opening number and a sizable chunk in the middle of the show, which will include some singing. But he insists he's equally focused on enjoying himself as if he were just another guest.
"I know from the Tonys that while everyone is [griping] about the awards at home, I'll be sitting around the monitor doing the same with funny writers," he says. "I'm a big believer that whatever you're feeling, the audience feels too. There are great actors who are wracked by fear, like Judy Garland, where you think, 'Is she going to make it? Is she going to make it? Ah! She made it!' and performers where you say, 'This is cool. This is fun.' I'd like to be the latter."
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And should he fail? "I know from watching in the past that the sport isn't how great the host is doing," he says with a laugh, "it's that they're dying, that there are crickets chirping when they make a joke, that they're horrible. But the beauty of being there is I'm going to be in a room filled with people far more nervous than I am. They're all nominated, and they don't know what's going to happen. And I assure you, the camera will be on Brad [Pitt] more than it will be on me."
For those left wanting more of Jackman eye candy when the evening ends, they'll have to satisfy themselves with the May 1 release of "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," in which his mutant character struggles to learn the secrets of his past. The actor has yet to decide on his next project, although he's hoping to return to the stage, perhaps performing Shakespeare. "Nothing about my career has been intentional," he says.
"My wife was just saying this morning, 'If you told me 20 years ago I'd be married to Wolverine, I'd have told you that you were insane.' I said, 'Deb, if you'd told me I was going to be that guy, I would have told you that you were insane.' But then, when I was at drama school, I never thought I'd do musicals," he continues. "And I also thought if I was going to be in movies, I would be cast as the ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances."
Ordinary? Not so much. But he's right about his circumstances, at least for tonight.
"It's not like I ever thought, 'One day when I host the Oscars . . . ' so that makes it so much easier," Jackman says. "And I've already pissed in my pants onstage, so at least I don't have to worry about that."