While it’s true that most Hugh Jackman movies have actually been X-Men movies, those days are officially behind him. The 49-year-old has traded in Wolverine’s claws to take on the role of the greatest showman on Earth, P.T. Barnum, in the appropriately titled The Greatest Showman. As Wolverine, the actor has been something of a pop culture phenomenon for the past 17 years, but that all came to a close back in March with the Logan movie, which marks his final turn as the character. For many, this would be considered a career risk, but taking chances is something that this Australian is all about — though it’s something that took him a surprising amount of time to realize. The idea of being true to himself was far from second nature for Hugh, particularly when it came to his love of dancing, which was decidedly uncool for guys at the time.

“I understand the pressures to follow the crowd,” he admits. “To fit in, to be a certain way. I truly love dance, but there were eight years of my life that I didn’t do it, just because I wanted to fit in. So now it resonates with me, and I think with most people on the planet, that to be authentically you is the only path that can bring you true happiness. Otherwise you’re putting on a mask to make other people happy. And as the father of two teenagers, I talk to them constantly about the idea that no matter who you are, no matter how you’re different from supermodels and football players, it’s irrelevant. Love yourself exactly the way you were born.”

More than anything else, this was an element of Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum that he completely identified with. “It’s not exaggerating to say that Barnum ushered in modern-day America,” Hugh points out, “and especially the idea that your talent, your imagination, and your ability to work hard should be the only things that determine your success. He knew how to make something out of nothing; how to turn lemons into lemonade. I’ve always loved that quality. He followed his own path, and turned any setback he had into a positive. So many things I aspire to in my life are embodied in this one character.”

P.T. Barnum, who lived from 1810 to 1891, is the man who ushered in the idea and the age of the three-ring circus (among his many other accomplishments, including politician and businessman). He also set the stage for everything that circuses have evolved into, from animal acts and human “oddities” (in years past known as “circus freaks”) to feats of athletic and creative performances. P.T. was also one of the country’s first self-made millionaires and served as a visionary of mass entertainment aimed to set the imagination free.

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According to the film’s producer, Laurence Mark, Hugh was born for the role. “Hugh is just about the only person in the world who could be both Wolverine and P.T. Barnum, actually. There’s just something about [his] DNA that allows him to walk on a stage and take charge of it so easily, naturally and charismatically.”

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What this film — which also stars Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, and Zendaya — has done is take events from Barnum’s life and career, fictionalized part of it and turned it into a musical, putting it in the hands of commercial and music video director Michael Gracey, who makes his feature debut. For his part, Gracey was determined to make sure the music, despite when Barnum lived, would have a modern sound, so he turned to La La Land lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. He had in mind a mash-up of the past and the future that basically set Barnum’s story outside of period and in a kind of universal world where pop culture, romance and human connections are the most important things.

“Michael is cutting edge with music and storytelling,” says Hugh. “He was kind of a big deal already, and even though he hadn’t yet made a film, everybody knew about him. It’s also true that when Michael pitched the story of The Greatest Showman, he was better than I’ve ever been playing P.T. Barnum. Michael is incredible, but his determination is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. There was no option for him other than this movie getting made.”

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“I always say that, to me, one of the saddest moments in any child’s life is when they learn the word ‘impossible,'” Michael said. “Barnum’s story is about not limiting your imagination, about using what’s in your head to create new worlds — and that’s also what directors do. You come up with something and then you spend years and years of trying to realize it, in a process that is full of heartache but also allows you to truly bring dreams to life.”

And that is the connection that Hugh feels with Barnum and the film as a whole. “Barnum was a little bit of an Oddity himself growing up. He believed that what makes you different makes you special. That resonates with me in a huge way — and I think everybody can relate to it, particularly young kids. That’s why I’m thrilled that the theme of this movie is that it is empowering and cool just to be you.”

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The Greatest Showman opens December 20th.

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