The Whale has shown us a whole new side of Brendan Fraser.
Best known for films like The Mummy or Encino Man early in his career, Fraser acknowledges that his decision to take on the role of Charlie may be unexpected to his fans. But when he was offered the character, he not only enthusiastically accepted but he was humbled by the opportunity.
“I’ve had so many diverse opportunities and movies I’ve made,” Fraser recalls. “I’ve gotten stretched in lots of different directions. Clearly, on paper, this is an actor’s role that distinguishes itself from so much that I’ve done or have seen done. To have the authenticity of it protected by Darren Aronofsky and Samuel D. Hunter’s award-winning play (then screenplay), I can’t think of any actor worth this weight in my peer group that wouldn’t want to pay attention to being a part of that. I still pinch myself that I was lucky enough to be the guy to get the job.”
Written by Samuel D. Hunter and directed by Darren Aronofsky, The Whale tells the story of Charlie (Fraser), an online writing instructor who struggles with obesity. Weighing 600 lbs, Charlie feels embarrassed by his appearance and hides away from the world in his apartment. However, when heart problems threaten his life, Charlie refuses medical attention other than the care of his friend Liz (Hong Chau). Knowing that his life is coming to an end, Charlie reaches out to his estranged daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink) in the hopes of finding some connection to her. At the same time, Charlie receives visits from a Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a door-to-door evangelist from New Life Church who begs Charlie to repent of his sin so that his soul might be saved before the end.
Although covered by prosthetics and makeup, Fraser delivers such an authentic and honest performance that one cannot help but be changed by the experience. And, for Fraser himself, the time spent with Charlie left a mark on his soul as well.
“It takes an incredibly strong person, [and] not just physically, to inhabit a human body that it has that corporal composition,” he begins. “Yes, it was a laborious process to have all that application and live in it throughout the day. It was appropriately cumbersome, but that all was what Charlie had on board. And to take it off at the end of the day, it gave me a sense of–I don’t know if it’s like Survivor’s Guilt Lite or something. I could walk away from that after an hour and, interestingly, although all the appliances were off, I still had this vertigo. Like when you step from a boat onto a dock, that sort of modulating sense. So, I felt that I was living that man’s existence for however many hours a day we did this. I think it gave me an appreciation viscerally for those who live with obesity in this way. And the story itself struck all the notes in my heart and empathy about what it feels like to be overlooked or mocked or shut away and forgotten about and the ramifications of how that affects your personal life. Clearly, Charlie is a man who yes, has a no small measure of regret. But he still does have hope that he can reconnect with his daughter, while he is running out of time, to let her know that he loves her.”
After the frenzy of support that he’s experienced online over the past few months for his performance, Fraser remains amazed at the response to his return to the big screen. Even though The Whale is a very different type of film for him, he also understands that he is a different person than he was in his youth.
“It’s kind of cool because everybody has kids of their own now and they were kids back then,” he explains. “It warms my heart for sure. I appreciate it. It’s eye-opening for me to be straight up, honest. I’m a different guy now and that was then. I feel different. I look different. I’ve got a kid who’s got special needs, who’s going to be 20 soon. My other son’s going to be a senior in high school. My other kid is going to get a driver’s license and… I feel like I’ve grown up some too. So, putting that gravity of our lives that we have to work to play a part that’s not as mass produced or easily digestible in its pop culture fare is everything I was looking for in this. Who knows what the future’s going to [bring]?… I’m grateful for the support.”
Given the sensitive nature of the character of Charlie, it was important for everyone involved to make sure that they present his journey in a sensitive manner. Although the story stemmed from his own journey, Hunter and Aronofsky worked together with the Obesity Action Coalition so that the film did not reinforce any dangerous stereotypes or stigmas.
“I actually don’t know [when they first got involved]. It was really from the beginning when we first started,” says Hunter. “I developed a script with Darren over many, many years. When we finally were sort of like, ‘Okay, I think we might be doing this’, we brought them on very early on. We did a special screening for them a long time ago… like a very early cut of the film. This comes from a very personal place for me. I, in part, wrote this because I grew up gay in North Idaho and I went to a very religious school that taught that people like me shouldn’t exist. Eventually, I started self-medicating with food and I continued for a really long time. Of course, that’s not everybody’s story who’s big. There’s plenty of people out there who are big and happy and healthy. That wasn’t my story and that’s not the story I decided to tell. So, I think it was just very, very important to us early on that we brought in the OAC as a partner to make sure that we brought a level of authenticity to this beyond my lived experience.”
“Their concerns are legitimate,” Fraser responds, “that we wouldn’t be making a film that would compromise them, [or] that would make them feel as if they were now seeing on the big screen the manifestation of the story of their lives that they’ve had to live that put them in such a state that they can’t feel like they can get away from their challenges. It was a process of meeting with individuals who had lived with obesity, had had bariatric procedures, or were going to. They gave me their stories, their testimonials, in the most candid way that it was moving. I was moving to learn. And I’m no demographic psychologist or anything, but I noticed from person to person who I spoke to, and it was at least between 8-10 zoom calls that winter, that their journey began with someone early in their life who was quite cruel to them, verbally made them feel horrible about who they were. Sadly, I noticed it was often a man. It was often their father, from just among the eight or 10 people that I spoke to. What that just let me know is it’s true. Years and years ago in Bangkok, I was at a temple [with a] massive golden Buddha and a plaque out front said, ‘painful indeed is vindictive speech’. That stayed with me. I mean, words have meaning. To break the cycle, I felt duty bound to tell this story, not in a Hollywood way that put actors in costumes and suits and makeup that defy gravity to be a one note joke because, with their support, we needed to take a risk to do this. Art is about taking a risk. We’re not going to please everyone. I don’t anticipate it, but I do feel confident that… some hearts and minds could be changed. Not everyone, but some. And I’m okay with that.”
What’s more, after connecting with Fraser, Hunter knew immediately that he had the humility and grace required to bring Charlie to life onscreen.
“It’s been a really long process,” recalls Hunter. “It’s been a decade… It’s been a really long journey, but I’m really glad it took 10 years because it took 10 years to figure out how to make it the right way. At the core of that was who is Charlie and I feel so personally connected to [him] and this story. It was hard for me to write [because] it came from a very vulnerable place and I was terrified about who we were going to give it to. But from the moment that Brendan read the screenplay in a little theatre in the East Village, about a week before COVID hit, I felt completely safe in his arms and continue to feel so, so safe.”
“Sadie Sink was there too… I had a front row seat,” Fraser adds. “That performance could have been compromised by the trope of the angsty teenager who walked in the door. But she showed up utterly pressing in her talent… And on top of that, her character shows up with a lot of questions and will not be ignored. That’s a testament as [Sam’s] writing.”
With this in mind, The Whale is more than a screenplay for Hunter. It’s a window into the experiences of his youth. As a result, one can understand why, despite his enthusiasm, Hunter might be anxious to hand it over to another person to bring it to life onscreen. Even so, after his conversations with Aronofsky, he became increasingly comfortable trusting the director with his screenplay.
“I was excited about the whole thing. I feel like when he called me and he said, ‘Let’s meet and let’s talk about making The Whale into a screenplay’… I still am an off-Broadway kid and this is a very different world for me. So, I was really anxious about it because I just didn’t know what to expect. I think I bought Final Draft to write this screenplay and I guess I came into it thinking like, ‘Oh, I guess he’s going to want to do that thing of like opening it up’. I was really nervous about that because I was like, ‘What is that?’ I don’t know if the story wants that and I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do it with integrity. But very early on, Darren [said] let’s keep it in the room and that was the moment for me where I was like, ‘Okay. He gets it. We both want to make the same thing’.”
“I was on set the entire time,” Hunter continues. “I’m working with everybody very closely, but I wasn’t part of the editing process. And so, I walked into a theater [to see the first cut] with sweaty palms. I’m like, okay, what’s this going to be? But like five minutes in I was like, ‘Oh, he did it. It’s exactly what I hoped it would be’. I knew that Brendan’s performance was there. I saw it every day. It was a thing to behold. It was a marvel, but you just don’t know what’s going to happen in the editing room. And, once I saw it for the first time, I think I walked out of the screening room and I waited to call my husband and he was really nervous about it too. So, he was like, ‘Why are you not calling?’ And I just kind of walked down the block because I just needed a moment. And then finally I called him and I just burst into tears.
“I feel ya. I couldn’t get outta my chair,” echoes Fraser. “Just thinking, I need to gather myself here and thinking this could change some hearts and minds. I mean, that’s an altruistic notion, but I thought people are going to have to reorient the patterns of thinking that they brought into before seeing this film. They’ll be thinking twice about it after they leave it. It had such an impression on me. It just made me feel like this could do a lot of good. And movies are distractions. They’re entertainment. I get it but this just fed my soul.”
Fraser may be on to something. Part of the power of Charlie’s journey throughout the film is his undeniable optimism about the human spirit. Despite all the trauma that he’s endured and the brokenness within him, he clings to the belief that ‘people are amazing.’ Asked if they agree with Charlie’s optimism, Fraser and Hunter both trust that there is hope for humanity.
Says Fraser, “I believe it. I believe Charlie believes that because he’s an optimist and essentially, he has a secret superpower, which is to see the good in others and to bring that out in them, even when they don’t know that about themselves. I mean, as an educator, it’s his job. But the tragedy is that he’s overlooked that in his own family. The regrets he has for the relationship that could have been with his ex-wife, with his daughter. That’s the journey that we must go on.”
“I think we live in such deeply cynical times, and I’ve never been a cynical person and I’ve never been a cynical writer,” Hunter points out. “This way, maybe even more so than any of my other [projects],… as a writer, and I think Darren is a filmmaker too, we’re just kind of opening a door and inviting you inside. We’re not going to grab you and drag you in with the tricks like plot gymnastics or visual effects, or none of the [other] things that normally drag an audience through the door. So, as such, I think I’m just opening the door and inviting you inside. The trick is, if you’re going to meet that with a furrowed brow, then we’re kind of at an impasse, you and I. But if you have just a little bit of faith and walk through that door, I’m hoping that we can have a rewarding experience together. I’m a humanist through and through. I do believe that, that people are amazing and I actually think that that’s the harder choice to make. Cynicism is easy. Believing in nothing is really easy. Having faith in people is hard. And I think that’s ultimately what this story is about is hard one faith in other people.”
Similarly, in the midst of its quest for hope, The Whale also highlights the power of ‘one true thing’. As a teacher, Charlie insists that the best thing that his students can do to contribute to mankind is to write something honest. This sentiment resonates with Hunter as well who argues that his film is an invitation of others to share their stories with the world as well.
“Weirdly, I think in 2022, more so than when I wrote the play, the idea of truth and honesty is becoming like really important,” Hunter concludes. “I think that we live in really cynical times. We live in a time where people are incredibly guarded. They don’t want to open up. They don’t want to be honest with each other. They stick to their sides or their patterns. And I think that this movie is just, in a very simple way, asking for people to walk in the door.”
“Just see it,” Fraser emphasizes. “And ask yourself that question too, because at the heart of it all is authenticity. From the creation of Charlie himself to what he says and what he feels and the hope that you attach that his journey will be complete and the breathlessness you have up until the last moment of this film, it’s powerful stuff.”
To hear full audio of our conversation with Brendan Fraser & Samuel Hunter*, click here.
The Whale is available in theatres on Wednesday, December 21, 2022.
*A special thanks to our friends at The Movie Podcast for helping us with our audio issues!