Screenwriter and director Florian Zeller said he was impressed and moved by Hugh Jackman’s “honesty and humility” when he received a letter from the Hollywood star asking to be cast in his latest film.
The Son is the follow-up to Zeller’s two-time Academy Award winning film The Father, which starred Sir Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman.
The new drama features Jackman in the title role opposite Vanessa Kirby, Laura Dern and Zen McGrath, as well as the return of Sir Anthony in a minor role.
At the film’s UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Zeller told the PA news agency: “For The Son I had no-one specific in mind when I wrote the scripts, apart from Anthony Hopkins was the only one that was already in my mind when I wrote the script, who by the way was the first one who read the scripts when I finished it, and so he’s the first one who said yes to the project.
“Hugh Jackman came to me, he heard about the fact that I was working on the adaptation.
“And so he wrote me a letter and he said, ‘If you already had a conversation with someone forget about the letter, but if not, I would love to meet with you to tell you why I should be the one’, and I was very impressed and moved by his honesty and humility to do that.
“We met and I was not planning to offer the role, just first meeting. And after five minutes, I think I stopped the conversation and I said yes, for you.
“Because I felt strongly that he was deep down completely connected to the emotions that I wanted to explore and that he would do something that was profound and unexpected.”
The Son follows Jackman’s character Peter, whose life with his new partner Beth (Kirby) is upended when his ex-wife Kate (Dern) appears with their troubled teenage son Nicholas (McGrath).
Despite his success with The Father, Zeller said he did not feel pressure because it was “so important to me to tell that story”.
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He told PA on World Mental Health Day: “It’s an emotional journey, but it’s about guilt, about how guilt makes us blind somehow and it’s also about people struggling with depression, which is another epidemic around the world.
“It’s like creating a mirror in which people can watch themselves and question themselves, and to open a conversation about mental illness.”
Zeller returned to collaborate with “dear friend” Sir Christopher Hampton on the script, following their success with The Father, which saw Sir Anthony win an Oscar for best actor in a leading role.
Speaking about offering Sir Anthony a small role in the second film, Zeller added: “To make a film, it’s a very sentimental journey, so we are very close.
“So I sent him the script and he got back to me three hours later to say, ‘Yeah I want to do it’.
“So it was straight away and generous of him because it’s not a big part, it’s an intense scene and somehow it’s the opposite of what we did in The Father so it was a challenge.”
British actress Kirby, 34, said she wanted to be involved in The Son because she thought the story was “really brave”.
She told PA: “I loved The Father so much, it was my favourite film from that year, so I knew that he’d (Zeller) do something arresting and compelling and challenging more than anything, and I liked that it was about trauma that we inherit, we don’t process as families.
“I just really supported the courage to tell a story about teenage depression and the complexities of a family trying to deal with it, not knowing how to face it and epigenetics, basically, of how we inherit things if we don’t heal.
“And the fact that that was the message, I think it’s really profound, and I felt really honoured to be a small part.”
Kirby said it was a “delight” working alongside Wolverine actor Jackman.
“He’s so fun, he’s too fun. He’s magic, he’s absolutely magic. He’s everything that everyone always expected him and more. He’s kind, warm, funny and generous, so generous,” she said.
“He was really beautiful and his family are amazing. It’s a real family feeling especially because it was mid-Covid so we were in this little bubble ourselves, it was a pleasure.”
Talking about Sir Anthony, Kirby added: “I did a tiny part in a TV drama years ago, when I was really young, I knew nothing.
“And he sat with me in his dressing room and I asked him 1,000 questions about his process and how he does things and he gave me so much wisdom and so much advice and I really took it in, so it’s a real honour to share the screen with him again.”
The film is part of a trilogy of plays Zeller wrote, which also includes The Mother.