My time on Broadway
Hugh Jackman takes a walk down memory lane, recalling his student days at UTS and how one unfortunate subject choice led to a successful career in showbiz.
When I think back to my time at UTS, I immediately think of fried rice with curry sauce. Which, from memory, I ate every lunch for three years at the cafeteria downstairs. It was $1.95 and if you had a modicum of charm you could get the curry sauce for free. I haven’t eaten fried rice ever since.
Looking back at my life since I left UTS, which is 19 years ago, it feels very much like a puzzle. There was no real plan but what that puzzle illuminates for me is what a profound effect my time at UTS, particularly its staff, had on me.
You may be wondering to yourself: how does a degree in Communication at UTS lead someone into the world of showbiz? Well, I can tell you that my time at UTS laid incredibly strong foundations for the life that I’ve had. In looking back, three things come to mind.
First, my time there taught me how to think. The first major challenge that I faced when I went to UTS was that independent thought was not encouraged, it was demanded. I was a kid – ironically accepted as a mature-aged student at 19 after bumming around Europe for a year – who had a rather sheltered upbringing. I was raised on the north shore where most of my school years were at Knox Grammar School.
So I think it’s fair to say I was a little shell-shocked by some of the left-wing politics I encountered in the Communications course.
What really shocked me was that, at age 19, I really didn’t have an idea of my own – nothing that was thoroughly thought through. And that was demanded of me on many occasions.
Lecturers would ask: ‘What do you think?’ Of course, I’d bury my head in the book and say: ‘Well, what this says here...’ And they’d say: ‘I don’t care about the book, what do you think? What do you think of the Indigenous situation in Australia? What do you think about East Timor?’
I remember a colleague of mine saying: ‘Television is all about selling advertising space.’ I looked at him and thought: ‘What? This guy is so cynical.’ I was very, very green but I’ve learnt a few things since then...
It took me 18 months – the first 18 months of my degree – to really open up my heart and mind and look around the world I live in and try to work out exactly how I fit. I think the facility I learnt to analyse and trust my own instincts is the basis of any career, not just my own, and it is something I hold very valuable to this day.
In my business, behind closed doors, they call it the business of failure because if you do 10 movies you’re lucky if one is any good. So it’s not a great strike record. But if you believe when you start something, knowing in your heart that you’re right, then it’s much easier to live with the failures than if you’re just following what someone else says is a good thing to do. Ever since my time at UTS, this is something that I have had and I am very grateful for it.
The second influential piece of the puzzle was my love of journalism. It became my major in communications and I still plan to fall back on it at some point. I suppose over the last 15 years I have had an intimate relationship with the press in one way or another and when people ask me a question like, how do I get into acting? I say to them: ‘Go to UTS and major in journalism – it will help you more than anything else.’
That chess game between interviewers and interviewees is something that I cherish to this day and perhaps I have a little more empathy and respect for journos than some others in my profession. After graduation I remember thinking it was an incredibly hard business to get into. So, at the daunting thought of becoming a journalist, I thought I’d take the much easier option of becoming an actor. I obviously didn’t learn too much...
The third piece of the puzzle is something gratuitous, I suppose, and that was turning up to a drama class in year three, which was my graduating year.
When I was at UTS, you needed 24 units to pass the degree. So, going into third year with 22 credits I had to find two more and the word around campus was that drama was the gig. You turned up, discussed a bit of Shakespeare, there was no exam and no assignments. There’s your two points – fantastic! I was in.
So I turned up and it was true. Tony was a tutor and we talked a little about plays, about a movie we saw the other night, it was great. And if you were very clever, you could sit in drama class and read up on some of your other subjects.
Lo and behold, the year I turn up to drama was the first year in the history of the course they decided to perform a play. So in true UTS fashion, the casting process was completely egalitarian: Tony wrote up on the board the list of characters in the play in order of appearance and then the class list written on the other side in alphabetical order. Then he drew a line from one side to the other, matching up characters from the play with student names.
Being a ‘Jackman’, I thought this was alright: I won’t be playing the lead. Well, in this particular Václav Havel absurdist play The Memorandum, the lead didn’t turn up till page 10 and never got off. He never stopped talking and I was the lead in the play The Memorandum.
I protested wildly at this. I was facing my graduating year with so many assignments and I was very involved with radio and I really had no time for [a play]. I made a very impassioned plea to Tony: ‘Please, mate, listen to me – find another lead, I’ll do something else. I’ll open the curtain, whatever you want me to do but I can’t play the lead.’
He said: ‘Listen, this is the way we did it and it was fair for everybody. If you’d like to change courses, no problem.’
Terrific! I was out the door and I went to change course but, alas, it was week three and – a technicality – you’re not allowed to change course [at that stage]. So if I’d walked out of that class, I wouldn’t have graduated from the degree.
The rest is history: I spent more time on that subject than the other subjects combined, we ended up touring the play and I absolutely loved it.
I discovered that what I thought was a hobby in my life, then, at age 22, was a real passion. And here I am 19 years later. UTS is an amazing institution: it was unique at the time. I remember there was no one there from the north shore: none of my mates went there – they all went to Sydney Uni.
As I started studying, I compared it to what my mates were learning and I found myself heading off along new roads, finding new friends and new circles and having ideas that completely blew me away, while I saw them stuck in the same ideas, staying in the same circles – I was so grateful.
UTS has a way of melding the practical with the theoretical seamlessly. It’s a place where what you think, your actions, what you have to say is more valuable than what job you’re going to do at the end of it. It opened my mind, it opened my heart and, most importantly, it lit my fire and passion for learning that has never gone out to this day. And for that alone I am truly grateful.