As Australian actor Hugh Jackman bids goodbye to his most iconic character, Wolverine after nine films and 17 years, what he will miss most is the sense of family in the X-Men film franchise. He feels this especially with Patrick Stewart, whose character Professor X has become a father figure to Wolverine over the years.

“I’m going to miss being on a set with this man,” says 48-year-old Jackman of the acclaimed 76-year-old British actor, at a press event in Taipei, “I like to think there’s such a thing as the art of living and, if there’s anyone who’s perfected that art, it’s this man here. I’ve learnt a lot about how to live life from him.”

That sense of family comes through in the new Wolverine film Logan, which opened yesterday. In it, Jackman plays a waning version of the eponymous superhero in 2029, when mutants like him have nearly vanished. Reduced to driving a limousine to make ends meet, he cares for the ailing Professor Charles Xavier, dubbed “America’s most wanted nonagenarian”, whose psychic powers have spiralled out of control as age erodes his mind.

Jackman was “star-struck” when he found himself on the set of the first X-Men film in 1999 with his idol Stewart, whom he had always dreamt of performing Shakespeare with. 17 years later, it is his turn to carry Stewart — literally, as Logan frequently lifts Charles in and out of a wheelchair.

“I told Hugh when we met to start work on the film that I had lost 20-plus pounds for the role and it was with him in mind,” quips Stewart, adding, “I felt safe, even when he was going very fast down a flight of narrow stairs.”

Their characters’ precarious existence on the Mexican border is interrupted by the arrival of young mutant Laura, played by 11-year-old newcomer Dafne Keen. Logan reluctantly becomes her surrogate father, as the three go on the run from the corporation that created her.

“Family is not convenient,” says Jackman, who is married to actress and producer Deborra-Lee Furness with two children. “It is annoying, frustrating, you don’t get to choose it; you have to learn to live together with people you have nothing in common with. It’s such a great microcosm of the world.”

With scenes of Logan driving through a wall between Mexico and the United States, and helpless people trying to cross a border to safety, one could draw parallels with the real-world issues of tightening immigration controls in America and the refugee crisis.

Jackman acknowledges this, but cautions against pigeonholing the film as a “political movie” that focuses only on the plight of certain groups of people. “It takes away from the heart of the movie, which speaks to every single person on the planet,” he says, “As uncomfortable or dangerous or annoying as it is, the road to living a worthwhile life in society is to open yourself up, to learn from the other, to put yourself in his shoes before your own.”

Stewart echoes his sentiment, “If only some of our leaders and political figures could practise that — stand where that person is standing, see it as your problem, not theirs — it could transform how we live.”

In what Jackman calls a “radical departure” from the rest of the franchise, Logan is no blockbuster adventure bursting with explosions, alien invasions or super-jets. Rather, it is three generations of mutants on a road trip. “It’s three superheroes in a car, needing gas and running out of battery,” Jackman says.

He, Stewart and Keen bonded during the long hours in which they were stuck in the car together. “We were in that car in pretty intense conditions,” says Stewart, “100o F temperature, 95 per cent humidity and ineffectual air-conditioning, which certainly did not reach the back seat, where I was!”

To pass the time, he says, they played word games Jackman invented and sang songs. “I saw the crew outside, wondering ‘What the heck is going on with those three?’ It was delightful.”

Both men were full of praise for their young English-Spanish co-star Keen, who did most of her own fighting in the film and hated being told to stop work at the end of the day, so much so that the producers had to sidle up to her parents to get them to intervene.

Jackman and Stewart’s long connection made it easy for them to banter and improvise, under the encouragement of director James Mangold. Stewart’s favourite ad-lib comes from a scene in which Logan tells a family they meet on the road that his “father” used to be the principal of a school, to which Charles, who formerly ran an institute for the X-Men, responds, “A special needs school”.

Such moments of levity inhabit an otherwise brutal film, in which Jackman took beatings so violent that his wife found them hard to watch. While shooting a fight scene, he accidentally punched his stunt double in the jaw; then took a blow to the face four takes later.

In the film, Logan’s powers of healing have begun to fail as he ages and the multiple wounds he sustains are starting to take their toll. Likewise for Jackman, it gets harder to be Wolverine as he gets older. “You can see I’m not healing as well,” he says ruefully, tapping a plaster on his nose left over from his latest skin cancer treatment — he had a sixth basal cell carcinoma removed last month.

As he had ruled out the possibility of another film as Wolverine, the stakes were high on set. “I was a bit of a pain in the neck to James,” he says. “I didn’t want there to be any regrets, feeling that we could have done anything else.”

Jackman may be leaving the franchise, but it will not be leaving him, he says. “We’ll still be at the table having dinner; we just don’t have to cook it anymore.”

Stewart, who previously said he would not rule out a return to the franchise, admits that he changed his mind as he watched the credits roll on the film a week ago in Berlin. “I realised I don’t think, in terms of Wolverine and Charles Xavier, that we can do better than this. This is a perfect conclusion.

“Maybe I’m done too. And I’m very, very content about that.”

The Straits Times/ANN