Actor Hugh Jackman has said he was “a hot mess” making his latest film, The Son.
The 54-year-old X-Men star explained: “I certainly realized how vulnerable I was.”
He plays a successful lawyer with a teenage son (Zen McGrath) from a previous marriage who is suffering from depression.
Jackman told the BBC the subject matter of the film and returning to acting after not working during Covid lockdowns caused him “anxiety”.
And then his father died while he was making the movie.
“My father actually never missed a day of work in his life,” Jackman says, explaining why he didn’t take any time off to grieve. “I did imagine what my father would say and he would say, ‘Go to work’.”
Nevertheless, making The Son was hard and the pressure took its toll.
“I would be one of the least [likely] people I know who I’d describe as a hot mess, but I certainly was during this.”
Jackman suffered sleepless nights while playing the role of Peter, a workaholic with a new partner, young baby, an ex-wife and their troubled teenage son. The star says he continues to consult a therapist who helped him through filming.
The film’s producers also employed psychiatrists on set in case members of the cast and crew needed to talk about the upsetting material.
“This was the first time I’d ever seen such a thing on a film,” says Jackman, “and people used it and it was necessary.”
While intimacy coaches have become commonplace when sex scenes are being filmed, Jackman advocates mental health support as well.
“There’s a little part of the old school part of my brain [that thinks], ‘Well, that’s up to you to work out.’ If you need to go to a doctor, for whatever reason, your foot, your mental health, you know, you work that out.
“But I think it would certainly be a sign from an employer that we understand taking care of the whole person, not just paying them, but taking care of their well-being in all forms is really, really important.”
See-Saw films, which produced The Son, worked with the Film and TV Charity, which has developed a free industry-wide resource to destigmatise poor mental health in film and TV.
The charity’s 2021 Looking Glass survey found that nine out of 10 people working in the sector had experienced a mental health problem.
The Whole Picture Toolkit offers guidance and advice on supporting mental health and well-being on set and pre and post-production and, so far, the kit has been adopted by 35 productions.
Jackman says he hopes The Son will spark conversations around mental health issues “that are urgently needed”.
He says: “There is a real lack of knowledge and ignorance and shame around the subject and I think it’s something we need to confront, really, really quickly.”
The film, which explores absentee parenting and the effects of divorce on children as well as adolescent mental illness, is tough to watch.
While The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw praised the “beautifully composed and literate drama”, not everyone was a fan of The Son, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival and opens in the UK in February.
The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney said it was “a depressing film about depression, while The Times’ Kevin Maher dismissed it as “a wearily predictable slab of family values hokum.”
However, Jackman has already received a Golden Globe nomination for best actor for his role in the drama.
It comes at a moment when some are questioning the future of gendered acting categories in awards ceremonies.
Jackman says he’s a “big fan” of having one gender neutral acting category in which all performers compete.
“That would be a really positive step. I don’t understand why it’s split into just two genders when we all know it’s a much bigger spectrum.”
Acknowledging that he “might have just shot myself in the foot” as his own chances of winning would be halved if there was one non-binary acting category instead of separate best actor and actress categories, he adds: “Whatever the mix is, we should maybe just break down any of those categories that end up being divisive and unnecessary.”
If the past is anything to go by, Jackman could be in with a shout of taking home an award this season. The Son was co-written and directed by Florian Zeller, who directed the 2020 drama The Father, which earned its star Sir Anthony Hopkins his second Oscar.
Sir Anthony, famous for his roles in The Silence of the Lambs, the Thor movies and Westworld, makes a cameo appearance in The Son.
And Jackman gives a fascinating insight into how Sir Anthony continues to work after more than six decades on screen.
“He shot for one day. He spent six months emailing the director Florian every single day. Florian said to me, ‘I got as many emails about this one scene in a movie as I did for The Father, where he is in every scene .’ He takes it so seriously.”
And that meticulous approach continued on set.
“At one point, he wanted to redo his close-up again. And I pulled Florian aside and I said: ‘But what he did was so incredible.’
“And he said: ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got everything I need, but I think he just misses acting. He hadn’t acted for 18 months. I think he just misses it, he wanted another go.'”
The Son represents a departure for Jackman, who played Wolverine in nine blockbuster films – and is coming back for at least one more.
He also made his name in movie musicals, including Les Misérables and The Greatest Showman and on Broadway, where he is currently starring in The Music Man. So how does he pick roles?
“I’m always looking for things that I haven’t done before, that challenge me, that scare me,” Jackman says.
“And by the way, when I did Wolverine, it always scared me, too. That’s a million miles away from who I am as well.”