Hugh Jackman and Laura Dern confront teen mental health in new film The Son

Hugh Jackman and Laura Dern confront teen mental health in new film The Son

While preparing for their roles in The Son, Oscar-nominated actors Hugh Jackman and Laura Dern talked about their performance style.

"For the most part, I have been able to — however intense — go home and leave the job," Jackman told CBC News in an interview last September during the Toronto International Film Festival.

Then came French playwright Florian Zeller's script, in which divorced couple Peter (Jackman) and Kate (Dern) grow increasingly desperate — and are forced to make an unimaginable choice — as their teenage son Nicholas spirals into a state of severe depression.

"I wasn't with this one, and I think it touches on so much of the insecurity and impotence you feel as a parent," he said. The film was released in Canadian theatres on Friday.

Dern told CBC News that she wept upon reading the "flawless screenplay" by Zeller, who also directed the film — an adaptation of his 2018 play Le fils.

"As an actor, just to read something perfect in its storytelling is already really emotional and moving, 'cause you're so inside the story as an audience, as a reader," Dern said.

Rekha Garton/Sony Pictures Classics/The Associated Press
Rekha Garton/Sony Pictures Classics/The Associated Press

The Son is a spiritual sequel to Zeller's 2020 film The Father (also adapted from his own theatre work), both addressing mental health and its impact on family members.

But as a parent, the story resonated even more, she added.

"In some cases no matter how much shame or guilt or blame we put on anything, we can't fix what we don't get to control in this life," she said.

"Whether it's a lover or a parent or child — we don't get to be them, and we can't even know what is best for someone else. Which is why Florian so beautifully gave us a film that doesn't — as [Hugh] always said — it doesn't have the answers, but it invites us into the conversation."

Parenting is 'a precarious job,' says Jackman

Jessica Kourkounis/Sony Pictures Classics/The Associated Press
Jessica Kourkounis/Sony Pictures Classics/The Associated Press

Jackman's character has a mid-film standoff  with his own father, a cold and cruel Anthony Hopkins (playing a different character from his starring role in The Father).

Just as Nicholas reminds Peter of his younger self, Peter is afraid of becoming the kind of parent that his own dad was — a theme that resonated deeply with Jackman.

"All of a sudden, the scene comes up halfway through the movie, and it just reminds you that we're all daughters and sons and children of parents, and we carry all of that with us," he said.

That's why we love doing what we get to do. - Laura Dern

"I think one of the most tragic lines of the movie is when he says, 'I realize I'm becoming just like him, I'm saying things that I used to hate my father saying, and they're coming out of my mouth,' … it's almost like he can't stop it. As hard as he tries, as hard as he works at it, it's almost like he gets more underwater all the time."

"I think it's something very human and very beautiful about the screenplay," Jackman added. "It's a precarious job. We do make mistakes and if we could just admit that that's a given as a parent — you're gonna make mistakes."

Dern on 'the greatest gift of cinema'

Rekha Garton/Sony Pictures Classics/The Associated Press
Rekha Garton/Sony Pictures Classics/The Associated Press

Dern, who got her first starring role in 1985 with the coming-of-age drama Smooth Talk, said that family dramas offer a sense of community — and she recalled her own experiences lining up for her favourite films in the '80s.

"It's interesting because Hugh was talking about the movies that made him love movies and that as a moviegoer we were all in line for," she said. "Our generation, you know, I remember standing in line for an hour, three-block long line for Ordinary People, and that feeling of waiting to have that experience of community around the unspeakable."

"The Godfather does it in its own way," she added. "I mean it, it is — amazingly — a family drama of the utmost core."

"When filmmakers give us the gift of being able to invite us into that experience, it just allows us inside ourselves. And that's just the greatest gift of cinema. That's why we love doing what we get to do."