For Hugh Jackman, the secret to making “Real Steel” work was less about boxing robots and more about landing a knockout emotional punch. For that, he tapped into his own challenges as a parent looking to connect with his kids.
The Australian actor tells PopcornBiz he knew that while the spectacle of the heavy metal heavyweight fighters would be a great hook to draw people to the theaters, the plan was always to use the special effects to enhance what’s essentially a father-and-son story.
Jackman says it’s the evolving relationship between his character, Charlie – a put-to-pasture prizefighter resorting to desperate get-rich-quick schemes built on secondhand robot boxers in a future where only machines headline professional and underground slugfests – and his estranged young son Max that form the core of real drama for the film - which opens on Friday.
“Charlie’s lost belief in himself. He thinks the world has past him over. He doesn't feel anything anymore, because it's easier to live that way, "Jackman says. "When life is disappointing to you and you get hurt so much you just end up switching off. I think that's something we can all relate to on some level…"
Playing a parent who’s much more immature than his child helped Jackman work out some of his own parenting frustrations, he admits, as he and 12-year-old actor Dakota Goyo traded in-character insults on set.
“Several times I saw Dakota after cut look over to his mum like ‘Mom, they told me to say that!’ Truth be told, I kind of enjoyed it,” chuckles Jackman. “I have kids – I have an 11-year-old, literally there's times you want to say things and you're like [grumbles] and you just shove it back down inside. I've walked out of rooms so frustrated for fear of what I'm going to say in that mode, you know. And for three months it all just came out!”
Jackman, the father of son Oscar and daughter Ava, says he’s also no stranger to struggling to connect with his own offspring. “With my son, I was really hoping for a huge sports fan – I thought ‘This is going to be awesome!’” he explains, then reveals, crestfallen, the painful discovery: “My son hates sports. I said ‘All right let’s try this: we’ll kick a soccer ball. Hates it. Throw a baseball? Hates it. I was like ‘This is unbelievable!’”
“Then it tweaked it for me that actually what the gift of having children is that they come in with these things, maybe different than what you’re into,” Jackman says.
“But because you love them so much you want to be with them so much and connect with them, I found myself at more museums, looking through geological books. My son knows the name of every tree that you would ever see – their botanical names as well as their real names – [and now] I can tell you things about history, cultures and tribal history that I never thought I would have known. So really it’s about listening to your kid and connecting with them rather then forcing them to like the things you like.”
Luckily, he adds, he didn’t have to force his own affinity for “Real Steel” on Oscar – “He loved it,” says the actor with a mix of fatherly relief and pride – though the younger Jackman did try to add one of Charlie’s poor parenting choices into his own upbringing. “He did say to me ‘Can I bring sodas for breakfast now?’ But genuinely he did not talk about father-and-son [story]. He just got racked up into the story of Adam. He loved that robot. He saw the magic in that robot, just like Dakota's character does.”