Hugh Jackman says he was driven to reach out directly to Florian Zeller to ask if he could star in The Son, the playwright-turned-filmmaker’s sophomore feature following his acclaimed — and Oscar-winning — directorial debut The Father.
Like The Father, The Son was adapted from one of Zeller’s plays, this time tackling the subject of depression and centering on 17-year-old Nicholas — newcomer Zen McGrath — whose growing struggle with mental health begins to devastate the lives of his New York lawyer father Peter (Jackman) and mother Kate (Laura Dern). Vanessa Kirby, meanwhile, plays Beth, Pete’s new partner, the arrival of whom and his parent’s divorce Nicholas largely blames for his deteriorating condition.
Speaking at the film’s press conference in Venice ahead of its world premiere on Wednesday evening, Jackman said he’d seen The Father and had almost appeared in one of Zeller’s plays, but the script for The Son gave him a rare burning desire that told him he had to play Peter.
“When I read The Son I had a feeling like a fire in my gut,” he said, speaking alongside Zeller, Dern, Kirby and McGrath. “It’s a scary feeling to have, but it’s beautiful. You rarely get it as an actor, that this part is right for you at this part of your life and you must get it.”
The fear, Jackman admitted, was the he wouldn’t get the part, so he emailed Zeller directly. “I said, I don’t know if you’re dancing with someone on this, and I don’t want to cut in on that dance.”
Thankfully, Zeller hadn’t been dancing with any other actor, and a subsequent Zoom meeting with Jackman immediately told him he had his man.
“After 8 minutes I offered him the part,” Zeller explained. “I felt something really strong about why he was connected to that story, and that we could explore really emotional territories. And it was the best decision I ever made, because from then on it was the most fruitful journey.”
Dern noted the timing of The Son, saying that film was being released during “greatest crisis” coming out of the pandemic, which is the “epidemic of mental health, especially in adolescents.”
“It’s frightening,” she said. “Even you feel powerless, even when you feel alone in shame, guilt and blame, you can turn to so many who have been there before and may advise you. We all long to feel community in this larger conversation we must be having about mental health.”
Following its Venice bow, The Son is scheduled to be released in the U.S. on Nov. 11.