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Back in the ’90s, Brendan Fraser starred in a bunch of very famous movies, from School Ties to The Mummy. Even though he had the chiseled physique of an action hero, there was always something about the Indianapolis-born actor that set him apart from other leading men of that era. It was all in the eyes: Fraser's expressive gaze carried a level of vulnerability that encouraged audiences to root for him to escape from the most perilous circumstances, be it boarding school prejudice or centuries-old monsters.
That vulnerability takes on a new form in The Whale, the Darren Aronofsky-helmed drama that's been attracting acclaim and controversy since it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September. Based on the play by Samuel D. Hunter, the movie casts Fraser as a 600-pound English teacher named Charlie, whose world has shrunk to the size of the dingy apartment where he's literally eating himself to death. It's one of the most challenging performances of his career, and the actor tells Yahoo Entertainment that he took most of his inspiration from a very personal source.
"A lot of it had to do with the love that I feel for my kids," he reveals, referring to the three sons he shares with ex-wife, Afton Smith: Griffin, Holden and Leland. (In 2018, Fraser revealed that Leland, 16, is on the autism spectrum.)
Watch our interview with the cast of The Whale on YouTube
Fraser wears extensive body and facial prosthetics for his role in The Whale, and while those additions transform his physical appearance, they also draw renewed attention to the emotive eyes that powered his vintage grunge-decade performances. "He has such an innocence and beautiful charm in those ’90s films," agrees Aronofsky, who admits in a separate interview that he hadn't even seen School Ties until after collaborating with Fraser on The Whale. "And here, he's doing much more complicated character work. It's very moving to me."
For better and for worse, much of the pre-release publicity around The Whale has focused on Fraser's transformed appearance. Not coincidentally, that reflects the way that Charlie himself is viewed by others in the film, and the actor is intensely aware of how audiences may be quick to judge his character by his size. "Charlie is not the person he presents," Fraser says intently. "He's not the person who we so often dismiss. He's a man who lives with obesity, but he's also a father and he's also a teacher. He's someone who can bring out the best in others even when they can't see that in themselves. Tragically, he can't do that for himself."
"It's well-rounded character," Fraser continues. "The empathy that I think we all felt shooting this movie and telling Sam Hunter's story is something that's intensely personal to all of us."
Despite Fraser's sentiments, The Whale has already divided critics and audiences, with one camp calling the movie's portrayal of Charlie's plight "wrenching," and the other describing it as "abhorrent." Many of its detractors also accuse Aronofsky of trafficking in "fatphobia" in the way it presents a person affected by obesity. It's a debate the director insists he didn't see coming when he first cast Fraser in the part.
"Actors have been using makeup since the beginning of acting — that's one of their tools," Aronofsky says. "And the lengths we went to to portray the realism of the make-up has never been done before. One of my first calls after casting Brendan was to my makeup artist, Adrien Morot. I asked him, 'Can we do something that's realistic?' Because if it's going to look like a joke, then we shouldn't do it."
"People with obesity are generally written as bad guys or as punchlines," Aronofsky continues. "We wanted to create a fully worked-out character who has bad parts about him and good parts about him; Charlie is very selfish, but he's also full of love and is seeking forgiveness. So [the controversy] makes no sense to me. Brendan Fraser is the right actor to play this role, and the film is an exercise in empathy."
Watch a clip from The Whale below
In the film, it's revealed that the roots of Charlie's self-destructive habits trace back to the passing of his lover, Andy, who starved himself to death. That's when he retreated from the world — including his ex-wife, Mary (Samantha Morton) and their angry teen daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink) — and started down the path to his current state. As with many of Aronofsky's movies, there's a pronounced spiritual dimension to The Whale, and Charlie's actions could be read as atoning for his perceived sin of letting Andy die by becoming his own scapegoat as per Jewish tradition in the Torah.
"I hadn't thought of it that way, but I think that's beautiful," the director says when this interpretation of the movie's Biblical themes is offered to him. "One of the great things about Sam's play is that it's so layered, and there's always more meaning to it. I think the film is very grounded and real, but a lot of the ideas and emotions push towards a love that's very pure and simple. And that's something you can relate to the word 'spiritual,' but it's also coming from an emotional place. I would say that's something for each viewer to decide for themselves."
One of Charlie's few remaining connections to the outside world is Andy's sister, Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse who serves as his unwilling accomplice in his own destruction. Chau says that Liz's desire to take care of Charlier impacted her own real-life relationship with Fraser on set. "I did find myself naturally wanting to take care of Brendan," she says, smiling. "You know, just making sure that his water bottle was somewhere close by so he could stay hydrated. Listen, I don't know how anybody could talk to Brendan Fraser for five minutes and not wanna hug him! He's just a lovable human being."
Sink, meanwhile, had the unenviable task of having to be mean to Fraser day after day on set. When Ellie re-enters Charlie's life, she makes it clear she's not willing to let her father off the hook for abandoning her, no matter the state he's in. Asked whether she sometimes felt like she had to apologize to her co-star after delivering one of Ellie's vicious put-downs, the Stranger Things star looks over at him and laughs.
"Deep down, yes, I think I did," Sinks says. "But just thinking about it from Ellie's perspective, Charlie's really challenging her because it's the first time she's really like met her match in a sense. She could tell him anything and he's seemingly unaffected by it — he even sees it as honest or smart. I don't think she's ever faced faced someone who can like really see through this armor that she's done a really impressive job of crafting. But those words weren't Sadie's though! Not at all."
Fraser has clearly forgiven Sink for any and all teenage snark. "Sadie's Ellie has a focused, beautiful rage," he raves of his co-star's performance. "She's right to fell the way she does, and she appropriately advocates for herself. But Sadie also never fell into the trappings of an angsty teenager. She brought a focus to this performance that, when I watch it, I find something new every time."
"And Hong has an ability that is uncanny," Fraser continues, keeping the compliments flowing. "If you could put it in a bottle, you'd be a billionaire. She could say more in the pauses and the silences … than when she's speaking. Darren likes to shoot a lot of takes, and he'd say to Hong, 'Well, we're here anyway. What else you got? Show off for us.' And she would! I was there for it every single time for what she brought."
The Whale is playing in theaters now