Among the props Zen McGrath admits to swiping from the set of The Son is a photo of his much younger self Photoshopped on a beach alongside a smiling Hugh Jackman.
“I took it because it looked so funny,” he says. “I just thought, I need that for myself.”
The Son, having its world premiere in Venice and the follow-up to Florian Zeller’s Oscar-winning directorial debut The Father (and another adaptation of one of his stage plays), sees McGrath play Nicholas, a 17-year-old New Yorker whose deteriorating mental health begins to rip apart his deeply loving but painfully impotent family, including father (Jackman), mother (Laura Dern) and stepmother (Vanessa Kirby), the arrival of whom and his parent’s divorce he largely blames for his depression.
It’s an astonishing — and emotionally devastating — turn by the young Australian actor who was just 18 when he was cast by Zeller over Zoom during lockdown to play his key role, the two only meeting three days before shooting kicked off in London.
But the cleverly spliced photo of a young McGrath — now 20 — and Jackman, while a wonderfully unique keepsake, also offers a somewhat charming representation of his career so far.
Because it wasn’t long after the original shot was taken, when McGrath was just 10 years old, that he landed his first role, putting the wheels in motion.
As he explains, in the early 2010s the McGrath family — neuroscientist mother Heidi, anesthetist father Craig, eldest brother Gully (short for Gulliver), middle child Zen (“this is a big secret, but that’s my second name, my first name’s actually Augustus”), and youngest brother Winta (actually Hudson Winta McGrath) — moved from their hometown of Melbourne to Birmingham in the U.K., primarily for his mom’s research.
By this point, Gully — four years older — had already appeared on a few Australian TV shows and films, and his auditions and roles only got bigger while in England (parts in Hugo, Dark Shadows and Lincoln would come in quick succession).
“But then one day he was offered an independent film about a brother and his little sister,” says McGrath, speaking from Melbourne (they moved back after a few years). “But I think the film was delayed, and he couldn’t do it, so he suggested that me and my little brother should audition for the role.”
Neither had acted before, but the producers were so impressed with the siblings that not only did they cast Zen as the brother, but they switched the gender of the little sister, giving the role to Winta (three years younger).
“So me and my little brother both worked on our first project together and as brothers,” he says, adding that, just to complicate matters, they called Winta’s character Gully (“I was very confused”).
The film in question was Aloft, writer/director Claudia Llose’s frosty and hypnotic drama led by Jennifer Connelly and Cillian Murphy. While it may not have set the box office alight, it did take all five McGraths to the 2014 Berlin Film Festival for the world premiere (“I had an absolute blast over there, it was really fun,” says Zen). Soon after he would pick up representation with London’s Artists Rights Group.
In the years that followed, a sprinkling of roles would come, most notably a recurring part in USA Networks’ Jerusalem-set miniseries Dig and, once back in Australia, family comedy Red Dog: True Blood. But McGrath then decided to take a break to focus on school.
“I was interested in science and physics and wanted to get the grades. I just thought … options,” he says. “My mom and dad have always said, always do what you love, but leave your options open.”
And so, barring a small guest role on Australian comedy series Utopia, for his last two years of high school McGrath turned his back on acting to bury himself in his education. “But when those were done by mum basically asked me if I wanted to do any more auditions and I was like, yeah sure, I may as well. But I just thought it would be a side thing.”
About four months later, with McGrath having signed up to do a science degree at Melbourne University, the audition for The Son came along. He sent over a self-tape he’d made with his dad.
“It was funny, because my dad was doing Laura’s part. And it was quite an emotional scene,” he says. A week went by and he got an email for a callback, followed by a Zoom with Zeller. Another week passed, and McGrath got another email, one slightly more seismic. This time it told him that he was “frontrunner” for the role.
“So I Zoomed with Florian again — the second time I met him — and he basically wanted to check that it was something I wanted to do and talked about the intensity of the role and possible exposure, and explained that it was not going to be easy,” he says. “It was quite strange and almost felt like a prank, because I effectively got hired over Zoom without having met anyone officially. And I didn’t see anyone officially for another two months.”
By the time shooting kicked off in the fall of 2021 in London (where an entire New York apartment was built inside a studio), McGrath had undertaken voice coaching sessions to polish his American accent and had been introduced to fellow Australian Jackman (again, via a video call). He’d also put in his own research, first by immediately watching The Father (which he says is “such a beautiful film”) and then trying get under the skin of his character.
“Because of the dark nature of the role, I talked to a lot of people about their own personal struggles, and just talked about what Nicholas is going through and about how to empathize with him.”
But even with his research, little could prepare McGrath for the intensity of playing someone suffering from clinical depression day after day. In between takes, he tried to break character and lighten the mood, playing pranks by moving props around and convincing some of the assistant directors to say made up Australian slang. “Because to be in that headspace for so long is incredibly draining.”
And at the end of each day, if there was time he’d go for walks around London or watch TV with his dad (who accompanied him for the entire shoot), or play Minecraft online with his friends. “I played a lot,” he says. “Although it wasn’t very fair as I could only play for a couple of hours a night, so I’d come back, and my friends would have built over my base or just destroyed everything.”
Sometimes, the requirements of the shoot saw McGrath remain in Nicholas’ deeply troubled character, notably when a particularly brutal scene was filmed in a hospital over two days.
“Because I had to be in such a nervous state and so riddled with anxiety, in between takes I would just sit there and stare at the ground, with no distractions to try to phase everything out,” he says. “It was a lot harder to go in and out of that state, so I just stayed in it for several hours.”
Despite being set in the city, McGrath only had about a week’s filming in New York. But he was there long enough to be introduced to Anthony Hopkins (who won the best actor Academy Award for The Father and was brought back for The Son by Zeller for one small, but pivotal, scene). Although the two don’t share the screen, the director invited his young star to watch Jackman shoot alongside the Welsh icon in upstate New York.
“I remember feeling a bit nervous meeting him, because when he first looked at me, his eyes sort of pierced my soul,” he recalls, adding that Hopkins would later impress him and Jackman with his best Australian accent.
McGrath, quite rightfully, was blown over by Hopkins’ scene in The Son, claiming that his “incredible” few minutes in front of the camera is likely to “take the spotlight.” And while much attention may be focused on The Father’s Oscar-winning lead returning for Zeller’s hotly-anticipated sophomore feature, plus the knockout performances from the film’s trio of top-tier talent, a great deal of the applause should be reserved for its titular star, whose fragile, vulnerable portrayal of a teenager descending into despair is the drama’s central pillar.
For the first time since Berlin in 2014, the whole McGrath family is planning to hit the red carpet together for The Son’s world premiere in Venice (they’ve already seen the film at a special screening in Melbourne, a screening Zen says reduced his dad — who had been with him every step of the way — to tears).
The siblings are all at different phases of their careers now. Gully recently wrapped a couple of Australian shows and is now planning to move to London full-time to be closer to the action, while Winta — seen in HBO Max’s Raised by Wolves — is approaching the end of high school and auditioning. And as for Zen —who says having two brothers also in the industry helps create a “self-sustaining eco-system” — his experience on The Son has reinvigorated his passion for acting.
“The whole thing was a dream project. I totally understand this may not always be the case, but Florian, the other cast members, and the whole crew were so nice and welcoming. It was really meaningful for me to be part of something like that,” he says. “I would definitely pursue acting now and attempt to do something like that again, especially while I have an opportunity like this. I do love it.”
The science degree is currently “deferred,” and McGrath has had a few auditions — “and a few close calls” — since The Son wrapped. All could change once the film moves to Toronto and its surely inevitable awards season run gathers pace.
But whatever happens and wherever this exciting young actor’s career takes him, he’ll always have that delightfully doctored photo of himself on a beach with Jackman. “No one else would get the joy I get from owning that.”