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Originally published September 19, 2013 at 5:05 AM | Page modified September 20, 2013 at 8:00 AM

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Hugh Jackman explores his ‘primal’ side in ‘Prisoners’

An interview with Hugh Jackman about “Prisoners,” a disturbing film about a lost child and a parent’s rage.

Seattle Times movie critic

Coming up

‘Prisoners,’ opening Friday, Sept. 20, at several theaters. Rated R for disturbing violence content including torture, and language throughout. For a review, go Thursday afternoon to seattletimes.com/movies , or pick up a copy of Friday’s MovieTimes.

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TORONTO — You might have thought, after seeing Hugh Jackman play the haunted, hunted fugitive Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables,” that the versatile Australian actor might take on something lighter next time. Not a chance. In “Prisoners,” opening Friday, Jackman plays one of his darkest roles yet: Keller Dover, a Pennsylvania husband and father drawn to vigilante violence after his little daughter is kidnapped.

“I often ask myself why humans don’t just watch comedies all the time,” said Jackman, looking impossibly relaxed (his famous charm is no myth) near the end of an afternoon of interviews at the Toronto International Film Festival last week. But he thinks that there’s something cathartic about tragedy — “something that collectively we need to acknowledge, which is these deep fears within us that we squash, out of necessity, on a day-to-day basis.”

Directed by Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies”), “Prisoners” also stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a cop investigating the case, Maria Bello as Keller’s wife, Terrence Howard and Viola Davis as the parents of another kidnapped child, Paul Dano as a suspect in the crime, and Melissa Leo as the suspect’s protective aunt. It’s not an easy film to watch, and Jackman’s character may well divide audiences in the lengths to which he goes to try to find his daughter.

“The tone of the violence has got to be unsettling and uncomfortable, both to play and to watch,” Jackman said, crediting Villeneuve with carefully steering the movie away from “any kind of glorification of that violence, like ‘Death Wish’ or ‘Taken.’ ”

During shooting, Jackman said, he often thought about “Mystic River,” another deeply disturbing film about a lost child and a parent’s rage. One scene from that film, in particular, haunted him — in which Sean Penn, as a father of a murdered daughter, turns up at the crime scene. Penn, he heard, arrived to shoot the scene and found only a few actors playing the cops who would keep him away from the body.

“Sean turned up saying, ‘You’re going to need more than three or four cops.’ In the scene, there are like 12 cops halting him. You can see these actors really straining. That’s kind of like Keller Dover. It’s primal, at this point. It’s not human-reasoned thought process. This is just something he has no choice but to do.”

Jackman will next be seen on-screen in “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” coming next Memorial Day. (Will that be the end of Wolverine? “Possibly. I don’t know.”) And he’s about to turn his attention back to musicals — both stage and screen. He’ll soon perform in the third workshop of a new musical about Harry Houdini; if all goes well, it’ll be on Broadway “sometime next year.” Though Aaron Sorkin, the original writer, has left the production (because of scheduling issues — “he does everything on his TV series”), it will have songs by Stephen Schwartz (“Pippin”), with playwright David Ives joining the project.

Though he’s long wished to film “Carousel,” Jackman’s next screen project may well be an original musical: “The Greatest Showman on Earth,” about P.T. Barnum. (Jackman clarified that this isn’t “Barnum” the musical, but a new work.)

“It’s taking a while to develop,” he said. “A musical’s always hard to sell — the conventional wisdom is that it’s such a finite audience, there’s very few people who are into it. Now, all of a sudden, there are more people who’ve seen ‘Les Mis’ than seen any of the X-Men movies.”

Moira Macdonald: mmacdonald@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2725.

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