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Actors From Hugh Jackman to Paul Mescal Talk Portraying Parenthood on Film

Films like "To Leslie" and "Armageddon Time" portray the joys and grief of family bonds

Aftersun (L-R) Frankie Corio, Paul Mescal Credit: A24
A24

A father attempts to save his suicidal son. An alcoholic mother tries to reunite with the child she abandoned for the bottle. An obese dad rallies for a final connection with his estranged daughter. From “The Son” to “To Leslie” to “The Whale,” this year’s acting contenders find powerful challenges channeling the volcanic emotions — grief, anger, shame, love — that bind one generation to the next.

Powerful and complicated family feelings extend across genre, gender, race and class, whether it’s “Till,” in which Danielle Deadwyler’s mother becomes a political activist propelled by her son’s lynching; or “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” in which Angela Bassett’s matriarch is an exemplar of mourning to keep her people united. They upend the future artist cracked by his parents’ divorce in “The Fabelmans,” they radicalize the abused mothers and daughters in “Women Talking” and entangle Gabrielle Union’s homophobic mother in “The Inspection.” 

Variety talked to five acting contenders drawn to the intensity of their parent-characters, starting with Hugh Jackman. In “The Son,” he plays Peter, a father whose teenager is spiraling emotionally. Jackman tells Variety: “It’s said in the movie ‘love isn’t always enough.’ Peter is trying desperately to connect with his older son, but is afraid to look at himself in the mirror …. He’s realizing he’s repeating mistakes his own father made. Sadly, this is a cautionary tale.” 

This was one of “the most difficult shoots of my career,” Jackman says. In the script, Peter and his ex-wife visit their son at a mental ward after a suicide attempt. 

The traumatized father makes the kind of decision that no parent should ever have to make, with drastic repercussions. 

A personal crisis catalyzed his extreme emotions on the shoot. “I’d lost my father a few days prior to filming that [hospital] scene. I felt him in the room that day … somehow it comforted me, knowing he was there too. My emotions were raw. It didn’t take a lot for me to cry.”

That rawness also manifests in Andrea Riseborough’s tumultuous Texan in “To Leslie,” a performance that has already earned her a Spirit Award nomination. She plays an alcoholic mother on a downward spiral. Says the actor, “Leslie abandoned her son, reunites with him, disappoints him — she’s an anti-hero mother out of a country song.” 

Like Peter, Leslie is compensating for the aching void inside her. What generated that heartache? She replies: “If we can answer that question, we may have solved addiction.”

Leslie is a vivacious free spirit trapped in a cycle of shame. Adds Riseborough, “Her love for her son is vast, all consuming, and her response to that love is her own self-destruction. Sometimes love is so overwhelming it’s easy to self-sabotage.  

“We all of us have met a Leslie, tried to save them and tried to run from them,” Riseborough says. “How difficult it is to love an alcoholic.”

Like Leslie, Paul Mescal’s depressed dad Calum in “Aftersun” struggles to be his best parent. He’s taken tween Sophie (Frankie Corio) to a resort for a carefree father-daughter vacation, but a disconnect exists between who he is as a parent and what he’s suffering as a man. That tension attracted Mescal. Says the actor, “Anguish and depression and sorrow are these heavy internalized emotions. Seeing someone fight because he doesn’t want to entertain these feelings … this man who’s incredibly loving wrestling, it’s brutal, his back is up against a wall.”

Mescal adds, “Sophie’s love for Calum is relentless, as is his depression. Sometimes, her love wins and sometimes his depression.” Among the actor’s hardest scenes occurred in their hotel room. “Sophie comes back and feels depressed” at the end of a long day touring. “He’s worried that he’s giving it to her.”

Throughout, Calum and Sophie’s mutual concern binds the narrative. This isn’t a case of a child becoming a parent to the father. What Calum’s best at, and most proud of, is being a father. Yes, “if he makes a mistake, she covers him with a blanket. [This isn’t] exclusive to parent-child relationships, it’s from a loving relationship. You give care when you feel like someone needs it, and you get care when you need it. Only relations that die have a fixed caretaker and receiver of care.”

Mutual nurture doesn’t characterize “Armageddon Time,” the 1980s autobiopic by writer-director James Gray. Jeremy Strong plays Irving Graff, the strict father of Paul (Banks Repeta). A boiler repair man, he’s always on the verge of exploding himself.

“Lack of nurture” is key to understanding the Graff’s, according to Strong. “I’m not saying that this was the way James’ father raised James, but in this mythical story that lack of nurture breeds a yawning abyss, a hole one needs to fill in their lives. Sometimes you fill it by making art, or addiction or, in the case of a certain TV series, ambition.”

In one disturbing scene, Irving yells through — and then splinters — the bathroom door to reach a terror-stricken Paul hiding in the shower. It’s a collision of love and violence.

“Those scenes were difficult on the day, for James, for me, to embody, and for Banks,” says Strong. “At the same time what you want as an actor is to go to the extremities. Irving believes he’s toughening up his son for a difficult dog-eat-dog world. He wants more than anything for his sons to survive. James and I spent a lot of time — he’s an insatiable detective about his father — and all that material’s an extract and distillation of who his father was. Those events of abuse were worse than what was in the script — and what you see in the film is where I took it.

“The layers of this character surprised me,” says Strong. “His goofiness and tenderness, and then his cruelty, and then a level of insight and vulnerability at the end. Dustin Hoffman, a great hero of mine as an actor, and I talked about inadequacy as a basis of one’s own artistry. It’s true for Irving, it moves me and I feel empathy for, and at the same time it’s upsetting. His inadequacy leads him to behave like a monster.”

Strong notes that he lives in a therapized generation. “We’ve spent time turning our gaze inward and considering what kind of behavior is compassionate,” he says. “All of these things didn’t exist at the time for Irving. He himself was traumatized as a child. It’s cyclical.”

That intergenerational cycle flows through “Avatar: The Way of Water.” The mantra for Sam Worthington’s patriarch, Jake Sully, is that the family is a fortress and the father’s role is to protect. “The grief that’s caused when he’s forced to move and loses control over the family’s security,” says Worthington, “When he loses his eldest son and must confront his critical treatment of his younger. That’s the main thrust of
his journey.” 

Worthington continues: “Sully is a balance between the burden of being a warrior and the responsibility of being a father.” For Worthington, who has three sons of his own, this resonates. He has publicly discussed his battles handling fame and sobriety. “I don’t want them to be me, I want them to be much better than I always was. To help and make them better than I was…. With my kids, they’re are going to teach me lessons about myself. Jake is on that journey.” 

The “Avatar” star isn’t the only parent evolving with his character. “Looking back,” says Jackman. “I can say with complete certainty playing Peter has made me a better father. I listen more, and when I don’t have the answer to a question, I’m honest and say as much.”