How Brendan Fraser was transformed for The Whale
Brendan Fraser plays a 600lb recluse in this award-winning movie
There’s nothing quite like a shocking movie role body transformation to get Tinseltown talking and the nominations rolling in, and Brendan Fraser’s comeback role in The Whale has managed both.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky, The Whale follows the story of Charlie, a reclusive and chronically obese online English teacher, who is desperately trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter, as he teeters towards death.
Charlie has ended up as a 600 lb recluse through catastrophic binge eating to cope with the guilt and pain of leaving his family and also with the death of his lover.
Read more: Brendan Fraser says 'cumbersome' fatsuit helped on The Whale
Despite his poor prognosis, Charlie seeks redemption by attempting to establish a relationship with his 17-year-old daughter Ellie, played by Stranger Things star Sadie Sink.
Watch a trailer for The Whale
Adapted from playwright Samuel D. Hunter's award-winning Broadway play, The Whale has garnered both praise and criticism, along with a splashy awards buzz as we enter Oscar season.
The challenging film marks Fraser’s first-ever Oscar nomination in the Best Actor category, with two other nominations including the Supporting Actress category for Hong Chau (who plays Charlie’s friend Liz), and Best Makeup and Hairstyling.
One of the biggest talking points around the film is of course Fraser's dramatic body transformation.
For the physical portrayal of Charlie, a combination of heavy prosthetics, CGI and makeup were used on Fraser, which renders The Mummy star utterly unrecognisable.
The 54-year-old told audiences at GalaxyCon Raleigh last year, “The real task was to authentically create this character with all the tools we have with makeup, prosthetics, suit building, and a little bit of CGI to ensure that the shape of this man’s body obeys the laws of physics and gravity.”
Read more: The best Hollywood comebacks
The shift from muscular movie heartthrob in the 90s to morbidly obese Charlie in 2023, certainly feels a tad uncomfortable and has sparked much discourse around fatphobia. Roxane Gay wrote a New York Times opinion piece titled 'The Cruel Spectacle of The Whale’.
In the piece, Gay writes, “The Whale claims to have been told with care and grace, but it is just as exploitative as any episode of TLC’s My 600-lb Life.”
Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson wrote in his review that Charlie’s current existence is told with “a kind of leering horror”.
Despite some negative reviews, Fraser insists that we “need to see the work” before passing judgement on his portrayal. Speaking with the Telegraph, Fraser explained that he “knew it had to be done with sensitivity and honesty".
Director Darren Aronofsky has also addressed the controversy over how obesity is addressed in the film.
"People with obesity are generally written as bad guys or as punchlines," Aronofsky told Yahoo Entertainment last year.
"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."
Aronofsky also spoke with The Los Angeles Times’ The Envelope podcast on how he collaborated with the Obesity Action Coalition (OAC).
“They really feel this is going to open up people’s eyes,” Aronofsky said. “You gotta remember, people in this community, they get judged by doctors when they go to get medical help. They get judged everywhere they go on the planet, by most people.”
“This film shows that, like everyone, we are all human and that we are all good and bad and flawed and hopeful and joyful and sorrowful, and there’s all different colours inside of us.”
Read more: Why is everyone talking about Brendan Fraser?
So how exactly did The Whale create an accurate and empathetic portrayal of a morbidly obese individual?
Fraser’s complicated prosthetics were created by renowned prosthetics designer Adrien Morot, who also worked on The Revenant and X-Men: Days of Future Past.
Morot experimented with digital sculpture and a 3D printer for the body suit, as he was unable to make moulds of Fraser’s face and body because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so the designer had to get extremely creative.
With the help of an iPad, the Whale's producer managed to get a scan of Brendan in his garage and Morot used this date, along with Zoom calls, to design the suit remotely.
“That was the biggest challenge I’ve ever had in my career. Morot told Vanity Fair about designing prosthetics for the Whale. “I always try to do makeups that are subtle and unnoticeable…it should be like, ‘What? This actor was wearing prosthetics? I just thought I hadn’t seen him in a few years.”
For the movements to be realistic, a full-body artificial skin suit was created using 3D printing and filled with sacks of “gelatinous water beads”, to get the movement of Fraser’s limbs right.
“I looked at other body suits that had been used in comedies over the years, usually for a one-note joke,” Fraser told Vanity Fair about the suit. “Whether intended or not, the joke is, it defies gravity. This was not that.”
Fraser also added that transforming into his The Whale character was “cumbersome, not exactly comfortable".
At the start of production, Fraser would spend a gruelling five to six hours in a makeup chair, each day, to become Charlie, with the hour count down to two to three by the end of filming. The advanced prosthetics were so heavy that several people also had to be hand to assist Fraser in moving between the studio and the makeup room.
Read more: Ke Huy Quan and Brendan Fraser have emotional Encino Man reunion
Fraser went on the describe the struggle of getting into the heavy, yet intricately designed suit to Vanity Fair, “The torso piece was almost like a straight jacket with sleeves that went on, airbrushed by hand, to look identical as would human skin, right down to the hand-punched hair.”
Along with the physical transformation, Fraser also wanted to mentally and emotionally prepare for his role in The Whale and worked with the Obesity Action Coalition.
He consulted with people who had undergone bariatric surgeries to learn more about their lives and struggles, “I learned quickly that it takes an incredibly strong person inside that body to be that person,” the actor said. “That seemed fitting and poetic and practical to me, all at once.”
Read more: Brendan Fraser transforms into 42-stone man
After a long Hollywood hiatus, it’s certainly wonderful to see Fraser back on the big screen delivering one of his most powerful and emotive performances to date.
The Whale is out in UK cinemas now.