While we may grow up believing our future to be bound to one certain path, the reality is closer to an inexplicable butterfly effect that feels impossible to trace back to one root cause, each definitive stage neatly enveloped from cocooning until we are thrust into maturity. For 20-year-old actor, Zen McGrath, his early life was set in Melbourne, Australia, living with his parents and an older brother, Gulliver, and a younger brother, Winta (also actors).
The flutter that catalyzed McGrath’s journey was a seemingly pre-ordained moment of spontaneity and proximity: casting directors unexpectedly coming to Gulliver’s school and casting him in an ad, kickstarting his acting career and landing him a handful of prominent film roles. As Gulliver hit adolescence, he found himself aging out of a role he’d previously booked for the 2014 drama, Aloft. With luck—and a touch of this predestination—a younger actor from the same gene pool stepped up: Zen. The latter had never acted professionally but had observed his brother over the past few years. Then, when the show runners needed to cast a younger sibling for Zen’s character, Ivan, they chose his younger brother, Winta, ever extending the ripples of the familial trajectory.
“I really love having two brothers who have gone through similar experiences,” McGrath shares. “It’s actually quite empowering because we’re all in this together. It’s a career with no guarantees. We are always very proud of each other when we get a role, or when we finish a role. And it’s not competitive.”
Thus, a symbolic egg hatched into a larva, and a budding acting career into a blossoming one: following Aloft, McGrath landed roles likeJosh in the mystery mini-series, Dig. Gaining sustenance outside of acting, McGrath devoted—and continues to devote—much of his free time to personal animation projects, with aspirations to eventually pursue these films full-time. But with a burgeoning acting career ahead of him, McGrath shares that he stepped away from acting and didn’t expect to get another role—until fate swept in.
Arguably most crucial to the life cycle, the transformative stage—or pupa stage, butterfly metaphor withstanding—marks McGrath’s emergence into more mature roles within the film industry. Recently, he enjoyed a breakout moment as Nicholas in lauded film, The Son (2022), directed by Florian Zeller, and starring Laura Dern, Hugh Jackman, and Vanessa Kirby. McGrath notes that this project marked his transition from a child actor to that of an adult. “Learning how to connect with these other actors and really both immerse yourself in the roles,” here calls of his experience with The Son, “I hadn’t really had to do that before. When you’re a kid, you sort of just play pretend and roll with it, you know, ‘Oh, camera’s going, just say lines, and you’re a kid, you’ll be fine.’ With this, you have to be quite vulnerable.”
This sense of metamorphosis intimidated McGrath at first, especially when pillared against these seasoned actors, but the results were inversely empowering and collaborative. McGrath’s Nicholas is a teenager grappling with mental illness, as his divorced parents attempt to coparent. McGrath had to draw on deep emotions he had not experienced be-fore, forcing him to look outward—including to director Florian Zeller, and the mental health professionals on set. “Everyone on set had some-thing personal to give. And I could draw from that and have a sense of meaning when doing that as well, which I was really grateful for,” he shares. “I was able to derive some minuscule sense of what Nicholas was going through and try to portray that.”
McGrath hopes The Son reverberates conversations around mental health transparency, as well as more mental health conversations through media. “I feel like men, on average, are more closed off and more inclined to not ask for help,” he notes. “But this film affects every-one with mental health, in the sense that it will get people talking about it more, which, in doing so, will get men or anyone else to open up about their feelings, because you can’t struggle alone with this kind of stuff.”
While his breakout in The Son has thrust the Melbourne native into a new, “bizarre” sense of visibility, McGrath has learned to trust the fate that brought him here in the first place—after all, it’s been good to him. Look up in the air, against blue skies, and you may see him soaring gracefully, with the free will to go anywhere and do anything that he chooses—whether that means returning to university or building on the momentum of his acting. No longer nestled in the cocoon that audiences first observed him in, McGrath is now blossoming into his own, shed-ding his so-called chrysalis and breaking out in thin air—blink, and you might miss it.
Photographed by Raul Romo
Styled by Gorge Villalpando
Groomer: Candice Birns at Statement Artists
Stylists Assistants: Chloe Cussen, Frankie Baratta, and Rossely Tatia
Location: Mel's Drive In
Flaunt Film: Tyler-Marie Evans