Hugh ready to saddle up for Baz epic

Luhrmann taps thesp as Crowe flies

Baz Luhrmann is setting Hugh Jackman to star alongside Nicole Kidman in his Australian period epic for 20th Century Fox.

Jackman replaces Russell Crowe, who recently departed the project. The studio is negotiating with Jackman, who has met with Luhrmann and agreed to go forward.

Set before World War II, pic centers on an English aristocrat who joins forces with a rough-hewn cattle driver after her northern Australian ranch is threatened by Brit cattle barons.

Casting keeps the film on track to begin in February.

Luhrmann, who has been writing the script with Stuart Beattie (“Collateral”) and Ronald Harwood (“The Pianist”), hasn’t made a film since 2001’s “Moulin Rouge,” and the new project is said to be as ambitious.

“I rarely make a film and my process is unorthodox, but this fell into place nicely with Hugh,” Luhrmann said. “He’s a tremendously strong choice.”

A third lead, a rival for the heroine’s love and land, is yet to be cast; Luhrmann thought Jackman might take that role, until Crowe fell out of the lead. On that exit, Luhrmann said: “This is a hugely ambitious marriage between Fox, the director and the principal actors. As we tried to bring the budget to the right place and arrange shooting in the capricious weather in northern Australia, it was necessary that the studio and the actor come to a resolution. They got close, but when it came to a point where it was not resolved, the No. 1 thing to do was set an actor in that role.”

Jackman, who’s coming off “X-Men: The Last Stand” for Fox, opens in August opposite Scarlett Johansson in the Woody Allen-directed “Scoop” for Focus. In October, he stars in the Darren Aronofsky-directed “The Fountain” for Warner Bros. and in the Chris Nolan-directed “The Prestige” for Disney.

Jackman’s emergence as the lead comes just after the Aussie actor declared an intention to become hands-on in generating production in Australia, by hatching film projects through his Fox-based Seed Prods. banner. Seed won’t be involved in the Luhrmann movie, but shooting the film in Australia will give Jackman and Seed partner John Palermo time to scout local talent for their own projects.

Luhrmann added that his other epic, the one on Alexander the Great, has hardly folded its tent. He and co-writer David Hare and producer Dino De Laurentiis put it down, but he’s confident that it won’t be forever. “I spoke to Dino about it this morning, and I never came to a moment where I didn’t see myself making that film,” Luhrmann said. “I’ll do the Australian epic first, but I’d be very surprised if ‘Alexander’ was not the film I made right after.”

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