For Jackman, the offer came as a surprise, even if it was exactly what he'd been actively chasing. Jackman and Zeller nearly worked together once before, years ago, when the latter was staging a production of his play, The Truth. "But the timing didn't work out," the actor reflects. This was before Zeller made his film debut with 2020's The Father, adapted from his play of the same name, which went on to receive six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and win two Oscars (Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor for Anthony Hopkins). "That film floored me on every level," Jackman says. "So, I chased him down."
Jackman learned that Zeller was set to adapt another one of his stage shows for the screen, The Son, a family drama about divorced parents struggling to deal with their teenage son's depression. The actor sought out a copy of the play and, "A third of the way through, in my gut, I was like, 'I've got to do this.'" Jackson was so set on it that he did something that went against all of his actorly manners: He sent an email to Zeller pitching himself for the part. "I said, 'If you're dancing with somebody else, I'm not the kind of guy to cut in on a dance, so good luck and I wish you all the best. But, if you're not, I want to play the part.'"
Zeller wrote back within the hour saying that he wasn't in talks with any other actors, and that he'd like to set up a meeting. The next day, they met on Zoom, as is customary in these times. "I had equal parts fear of getting the part and not getting the part," Jackman remembers, "which is always a good sign."
"And I would say a minute into that conversation, small talk was gone. We started talking very deeply about our lives, our personal lives, our professional lives, our hopes, our artistic dreams. And I think it became clear to him that, at this point in my life, I was really ready to take on a part like this," Jackman tells A.frame. And then, seven minutes into the call, "Florian just said, 'Stop, stop, stop,' as Florian often does. And I said, 'Everything all right?' He goes, 'I want you to play the part. You are Peter.'"
The Son arrives exactly a decade after Jackman earned his first Oscar nomination for his performance as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. By that point in his career, the Aussie actor was already a bona fide movie star, having broken through as Wolverine in 2000's X-Men (a role he would reprise nine times over the years, with a 10th forthcoming), and was equally acclaimed for his work on stage. Les Mis combined his two loves for a career-best turn as the heroic Jean Valjean, the epitome of the redemptive power of compassion and love.
"I'm more confident as an actor, I think," Jackman says now of how the past 10 years have changed him as an actor. "Weirdly, how that confidence manifests is I'm more open to letting go... I guess it's control, ultimately. Letting go of control."
In The Son, Jackman plays Peter Miller, a high-flying lawyer on the verge of achieving his dream job and the model of a family man, a loving husband to his new partner, Beth (Vanessa Kirby), and doting father to their infant son. When his ex-wife, Kate (Laura Dern), who Peter left for Beth years prior, shows up at his door unannounced, she asks for help with their 17-year-old son, Nicholas (newcomer Zen McGrath): Nicholas has been missing school for weeks on end, bears the scars of self-harm, and often despairs that life is too much for him. When Peter steps in, in an attempt to give Nicholas the sort of love and guidance that he never felt he got from his own father (played by Anthony Hopkins), he finds himself losing more and more control over both his son and his life.
"Coming out of the pandemic, I'd had a lot of time to myself to reflect and digest my own upbringing, and obviously, I spent a lot of time with family," Jackman says. "When I read this script, I resonated with this idea that trauma is passed down unwittingly from generation to generation, that it rips through the family like a wildfire. And the actual ability to stop and raise your hands to that wildfire is monumental. It takes great courage and it takes wisdom, and it takes help. Because, otherwise, you just unconsciously find yourself being the bridge between that trauma, and it gets passed down."
"I'm not playing the character or thinking about the character, but whatever was working within me through that part, I feel it still working through me. I'm still making sense of it."
On set, Jackman found himself having to let go more than ever before. Although Zeller, like Jackman, comes from the theater, the filmmaker made the deliberate choice to forgo rehearsals with his cast. "He said, 'I have no interest in anybody watching the monitor or reviewing things. We're going to go with our gut, and then, we just keep filming until we've got it. And we'll only know we've got it when we've got it,'" recounts Jackman.
"The actors were a bit unnerved when I told them we weren't going to rehearse, but to me, it was really, really important," explains Zeller. "It was not about performing for the sake of performing; it was about discovering in the now on set. It was about leaving room to be overwhelmed by the emotions. I cast the film on the basis that these actors had a deep, secret connection to the story — not only as actors but as fathers, and sons, and mothers. I wanted to catch those truthful connections to the story, and my way to do it was to not rehearse at all."
Jackman intrinsically understood the challenges he would face as an actor on The Son, needing to be present and raw even as the scenes became more and more emotionally-demanding. And, as the tide rises around Peter, the actor knew, too, that he had to get out of his own head and trust his director would help guide his performance. "It was more important for me to be emotionally truthful than to try to moderate or pitch my performance in a certain way," Jackson says. "I know the culmination of feelings that are like a volcano that you just can't stop. And because I know it, I would know if I was doing it badly. It's not something you can B.S. You have to feel it. And it's not a comfortable place to go. And I think part of me was always like, 'I know where I have to be, and I'll know if I haven't got there.' That's the frightening part."
What he perhaps didn't anticipate is the toll going to such places would have on him as a person.
"I was a hot mess during it, I really was. I wasn't sleeping," he recalls with wide-eyed incredulity. "I leant on my director, and I leant on the other actors and the crew. They had psychiatrists available for every single person on this, because it was very traumatic and triggering. I kept a journal, which I still do, and it doesn't feel like I've left it. I'm not playing the character or thinking about the character, but whatever was working within me through that part, I feel it still working through me. I'm still making sense of it. Particularly now, as we promote it and I get out and talk about it, things are clearer to me than they were at the time. But I don't really know if I'm done with it yet."
Ahead of The Son's premiere at the 79th Venice International Film Festival, Jackman saw the film for the first time at a screening in New York City one Sunday morning last Fall. "I took my son and daughter, my son's girlfriend, and my wife," he shares. (Jackman is married to Deborra-Lee Furness, with whom he has son Oscar and daughter Ava.) "My wife is very chatty, so we got into the car and my wife is saying to the kids, 'So, what do you think, guys? What do you think? What do you think?' And, by the way, we'd sat in the cinema for 10 minutes, just sitting there. Now, 'What do you think? What do you think?' And my son said it best. He goes, 'I'm going to need 24 hours.'"
"It actually wasn't that long," Jackman grins. The actor left his family for a matinee performance of The Music Man, in which he's starred as Professor Harold Hill since the revival opened on Broadway in early 2022, but returned home that night. "And we sat at the dinner table for two hours talking all about it," he relays. "What's fascinating to me is my 22- and 17-year-old totally want to have those conversations. They're not sheepish at all about it. My generation, it's more secretive. It's more awkward. It's hard to talk about. There's more shame, more ignorance around it than for younger people, which is fantastic. Because we need to have these conversations."
At the time of our chat, Jackman has only a handful of performances left in his run of The Music Man, and then, will begin preparing for his next movie role: Wolverine, one final time, in Marvel's upcoming Deadpool threequel. Even still, Jackman continues to feel the impact of The Son. "It didn't feel like it stopped at the end," he reiterates. "It's a strange thing to describe, but it's a great blessing, as an actor, as an artist, when you find a role and a story that touches you. It changes you, and this movie changed me."
As we say our goodbyes, Jackman suddenly grows serious.
"By the way," he says, "in this interview, I said I've learned to give up control. Please don't show this to Ryan Reynolds, okay?" He breaks into that Hugh Jackman megawatt smile. "I just want to be very clear about that."
By John Boone