Before Hugh Jackman could appear in his current Broadway play, “The River,” he had to learn his lines, dig deep into his character and do something he’s never done before: gut a fish.
His character is a fisherman who in one scene pulls out a real 3-pound sea trout, cuts it open with a fearsome-looking knife, removes the internal organs, chops a fennel bulb, slips lemon slices into the skin and seasons the flesh before popping the dish in a fake oven.
It’s a mesmerizing scene and Jackman — a man who plays a sharp-clawed Wolverine in the movies — seems completely at ease as he unhurriedly prepares the fish like a Food Network veteran.
He wasn’t always so calm.
“I was originally a little nervous about it,” said Jackman over lunch in Manhattan. “I’d never done it before and I knew it had to look like he’d been doing it his whole life.”
So Jackman did what any actor worth his salt does: He consulted chefs and practiced. He originally planned to gut a fish every day for months until it became second nature, but he was told the better route was to gut 40 in a single, fishy session.
He got out his knives and made fish fillets and fish sticks and fish soup. “There are fish cakes still frozen in my freezer,” he said, laughing. “No one’s having fish at my house for a long time.”
The scene comes in the middle of Jez Butterworth’s enigmatic play about love and repetition. Various women from the fisherman’s past enter and leave his remote fishing cabin, warping time and space.
“I think the more poetically you take the piece, and less literally you take the piece, the deeper you go with it,” Jackman said. “Ultimately, I think it’s a play that just spoke to me and my heart. I read it and I was like, ‘Wow. There’s something very true and real and honest about connection, about loss, about the search in life.’ That’s something that I’ve always had.”
Jackman, who plays the pirate Blackbeard in next year’s “Pan” and said he’s close to starring in an original movie musical about P.T. Barnum, threw himself into the new play. He spoke to memory experts and read works by psychotherapist Carl Jung.
To nail the fish dish preparation scene, Jackman also consulted with a master — chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, where he has chosen to eat on this afternoon. But Jackman has turned down the lobster tartine and caramelized foie gras for a more modest lunch of raw avocado, toast, peanut butter and marmalade.
“Perfect,” he said when his plate arrives. “I really love going to a three-star Michelin restaurant and they say, ‘You really must try the marmalade with your peanut butter.’”
“The River,” at Circle in the Square Theatre, has been a sellout, in part to Jackman’s star power. But even with his comfort in front of an audience, the fish-gutting scene didn’t go too smoothly when he first performed it, despite all the practice.
“I’ll admit: The first time I did it, I remember thinking, ‘My heart rate is about 75 beats a minute,’” said Jackman. Things got worse when he cut off the end of his thumb.
“It was not much but it was enough of a cut and it bled the entire play. I didn’t realize it was that bad. I thought it would stop,” he said. He could hear the audience murmur about it. “It was not my finest moment.”
There were pools of Jackman’s blood all over the set and the onstage carpet had to be pulled up and cleaned. “I’m a little slower now but now I’ve really got it. Now I’m really enjoying it,” he said.
He’d better: Jackman is eating fish eight times a week as part of the show. The raw trout he’s prepared is quietly swapped out for a roasted one, prepared for each performance from the nearby Emmett O’Lunney’s Irish Pub.
Jackman, who also washes his hands and kitchen tools in a working water spigot onstage, had wanted to cook his fish each time, but it turns out it’s illegal to have a working oven onstage.
Instead, he now bites into the catered fish at each show — and adores it, insisting it doesn’t get old.
“Actors love that: free food,” he said. “That never leaves you.”