February 5, 2023


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Actors from Hugh Jackman to Paul Mescal talk parenting

6 min read

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

Strong and complex familial feelings span across genre, gender, race and class, whether it’s “as long as,” where Daniel Deadwiler’s mother becomes a political activist driven by her son’s lynching; Or “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” where Angela Bassett’s matriarch is an example of grief to keep her people united. They support an up-and-coming artist broken by her parents’ divorce in “The Fablemans,” they radicalize abused mothers and daughters in “Woman Talking,” and embrace Gabrielle Union’s homophobic mother in “The Inspection.”

diversity From Hugh Jackman to the intensity of their parent-characters, he talked to five consecutive acting contestants. In “The Son,” he played Peter, a father whose teenage daughter is overwhelmed by emotions. Jackman says diversity: “The movie says ‘love is not always enough.’ Peter is desperately trying to connect with his older son, but is afraid to look at himself in the mirror. He realizes he is repeating his own father’s mistakes. Sadly, this is a cautionary tale.”

It was “one of the hardest shoots of my career,” Jackman said. In the script, Peter and his ex-wife visit their son in a mental ward after a suicide attempt.

The traumatized father makes the kind of decisions no parent should ever make, with intense repercussions.

A personal crisis catalyzed his extreme passion for shooting. “I lost my father a few days before the shoot [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 long for me to cry.”

That absurdity also shines through in Andrea Riseborough’s troubled Texan in “To Leslie,” which has already earned her a Spirit Award nomination. She plays an alcoholic mother on a downward spiral. “Leslie abandons her son, reunites with him, disappoints him — she’s a mother anti-hero out of a country song,” says the actor.

Like Peter, Leslie is compensating for the painful emptiness inside her. What caused that heartache? He replied: “If we could answer this question, we could solve addiction.”

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

“We’ve all met Leslie, tried to save them and run away from them,” Riseborough says. “How hard is it to love an alcoholic.”

Like Leslie, Paul Mescal’s depressed father Callum struggles to be the best parent he can be in “Aftersun.” He takes Sophie (Frankie Corio) to a resort for a carefree father-daughter vacation, but there’s a disconnect between who he is as a parent and what he’s suffering as a person. That excitement attracted Mescal. Says the actor, “Pain and despair and sadness are these heavy internal emotions. Seeing someone fight because he doesn’t want to experience these feelings … This guy who’s incredibly into wrestling, it’s brutal, his back is against the wall.

Mescal added, “Sophie’s love for Calum is relentless, as is her depression. Sometimes her love triumphs and sometimes her depression.” Among the actor’s most difficult scenes occurred in their hotel room. “Sophie comes back and feels depressed” after a long day of travel. “She worries that she is giving it to him.”

Throughout, Calum and Sophie’s mutual concern binds the narrative. This is not a case of a child’s father being a parent. Calum’s best and proudest thing is being a father. Yes, “If he makes a mistake, he covers him with a blanket. [This isn’t] Exclusive to the parent-child relationship, it is a loving relationship. You care when you think someone needs it and you get care when you need it. Only relationships that die have a specific caretaker and caregiver.”

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

The key to understanding graphs, according to Strong, is “lack of adherence”. “I’m not saying that James’ father raised James this way, but in this myth that lack of upbringing creates an airy abyss, a hole in their lives that needs to be filled. Sometimes you fill it by developing ambitions in an art, or an addiction, or a certain TV series.

In a disturbing scene, Irving screams — and then Splinter — through the bathroom door to reach terrorist Paul hiding in the shower. It is a clash of love and violence.

“Those scenes were tough that day, for James, for me, for Embody and for Banks,” Strong said. “At the same time what you want as an actor is to go to extremes. Irving believes he is hardening his son for a tough dog-eat-dog world. He wants more than anything for his sons to live. James and I spent a lot of time—he’s an insatiable detective about his father—and all these elements are the essence and distillation of who his father was. The incidents of abuse were worse than what was in the script – and that’s where I took what you saw in the film.

“The layers of these characters surprised me,” Strong said. “His silliness and tenderness, and then his cruelty, and then finally the level of insight and vulnerability. Dustin Hoffman, one of my great heroes as an actor, and I spoke of inadequacy as the foundation of my own artistry. That’s true for Irving, it moves me and I feel sympathy and it’s annoying at the same time. His inadequacies lead him to behave like a monster.”

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

That intergenerational cycle flows through “Avatar: Waterways.” Sam Worthington’s patriarch, Jake Sully’s mantra is that family is a fortress and the father’s role is to protect. “The grief that ensues when he’s forced to move and loses control over the family’s security,” says Worthington, “when he loses his older son and his younger one has to face his critical behavior.” That’s the main thrust
his journey.”

Worthington added: “Sully is a balance between the burdens of being a warrior and the responsibilities of being a father.” For Worthington, who has three sons of her own, it resonates. She has publicly discussed her battle with fame and sobriety. “I don’t want them to be like me, I want them to be better than me. To help them and make them better than me… With my kids, they’re going to teach me lessons about myself. Jake is on that journey.”

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

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