Hugh Jackman has spent a surprising amount of his career floating in water tanks. In Reminiscence, the new sci-fi noir thriller on HBO Max from writer and director Lisa Joy, the actor plays Nick Bannister, a former soldier turned private investigator of the mind, probing people’s memories while they’re submerged in a big, futuristic bath. The twist is that Bannister is addicted to revisiting his own past, taking frequent dunks to plumb the details of a romance he had with a missing woman named Mae (played by Rebecca Ferguson). It’s a clever tale, anchored by Jackman doing reliable work as an antihero haunted by his sins.
Jackman has performed this role multiple times, right down to the aquatic fixation. In his Hollywood breakout, X-Men, he played the metal-clawed Wolverine, an amnesiac who was constantly flashing back to his genesis in a military fish tank. Maybe his best-ever work was in The Prestige, as a hammy magician whose signature escape trick involves … well, you know. Every A-list actor has motifs and themes running through their career, but Jackman’s has been unusually specific.
Yet those recurring baths also chart the journey of Jackman’s varied career: The many prongs of his stardom encompass comic-book heroism, sincere song and dance, and grim dramatics. For years, Jackman did not have the clout to launch a project as weird as Reminiscence, which serves as a solid reminder that he has been one of Hollywood’s most underrated stars of the past two decades. Because he emerged with a genre-defining superhero role just as those types of films were taking over the industry, Jackman was for long periods locked in the public eye. That success has let him collaborate with more daring filmmakers, pursue passion projects, and help make original movies like Reminiscence.
Though Jackman’s first major starring role was in X-Men, he was originally plucked from the world of musical theater, where his boisterously chipper turn as Curly in a West End production of Oklahoma! had won him plaudits. So his film follow-ups to X-Men were on the gentler side: the overlooked romantic comedies Someone Like You, where he played a charming cad, and Kate & Leopold, which cast him as an English gentleman. In an earlier era, that was the typical strategy for a new male actor in demand: get him in a generic rom-com quickly, along with a generic action thriller (in this case, the nonsensical hacker flick Swordfish).
But even though the X-Men movies kept succeeding, Jackman took a while to find his footing as a star in his own right. He won a Tony in 2004 for his work in The Boy From Oz, but Hollywood couldn’t find a proper musical project for him until years later. He hosted the Oscars to critical acclaim in 2009, an indication of his popularity with viewers worldwide, but his only non-Wolverine box-office hit at that point had been Van Helsing, a critically reviled monster-hunter movie. While the other A-listers of his generation—George Clooney, Will Smith, Matt Damon—always found a mix of blockbusters and more serious projects, Jackman initially struggled to do the same, yet somehow retained his celebrity sheen.
Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film, The Prestige, which is probably Jackman’s finest performance, seemed to finally unlock him. Jackman played Robert Angier, a talented magician prone to corner-cutting who values showmanship over craft—a clever subversion of his jazzy Broadway persona. Whereas his work as Wolverine had emphasized one-dimensional berserker rage, here Jackman was a recognizably flawed charmer who eventually strikes a devil’s bargain to achieve real fame. At the time, Nolan said that, although he was initially drawn to Jackman because of his experience as a stage performer, “he also has the great depth as an actor that hasn’t really been explored.”
The Prestige was not a massive hit. But it succeeded in teasing out Jackman’s broader potential. He worked with more challenging directors, playing the time-shifted, lovelorn protagonist of Darren Aronofsky’s brilliantly baffling The Fountain, and the gritty cowboy love interest in Baz Luhrmann’s epic Australia. In 2012, he finally landed a significant musical worthy of his talent in Les Misérables, which earned him an Oscar nomination.
Even when his projects don’t entirely land, I appreciate Jackman’s eye for tough material, no matter the genre. One of his best performances of the past decade was in Denis Villeneuve’s operatically dank thriller Prisoners, but he gave his all even in projects that didn’t work, such as Joe Wright’s ridiculous Peter Pan prequel or Jason Reitman’s muddled Gary Hart biopic, The Front Runner. Jackman headlined his passion project, The Greatest Showman, an original musical about P. T. Barnum, which became a surprise word-of-mouth hit. He even shaped his later Wolverine roles into unexpectedly complex projects, working with Kate & Leopold director James Mangold on an acclaimed swan song for the character with the appreciably bloody Logan.
The key shift between the first half of his career and the latter half was that Jackman finally gained some control over his star power, and exercised it to act in movies that were obviously risky—many because of their grisly content or because they represented old-fashioned genres such as the musical. In 2020, he gave a dazzlingly vulnerable performance in Bad Education, the true story of a Long Island school superintendent who embezzled money from his district. The film emphasized Jackman’s age, casting him as a man trying to prop up his waning charm by investing in face-lifts and expensive clothes.
Viewed alongside his work as old man Wolverine in Logan, and as the troubled protagonist of Reminiscence who can’t forget his past, it’s clear that Jackman is happy to accept his age—something some of his peers, such as the eternally energetic Tom Cruise, have not. But more crucially, all of his upcoming projects are original stories from exciting filmmakers (Michael Mann, Florian Zeller, Hany Abu-Assad) that don’t have a whiff of franchise potential to them. Jackman may have emerged in Hollywood as a superhero, but he’s sticking around by embracing roles that are anything but heroic.