Though Fraser has long said he approached portraying Charlie — a reclusive, gay college professor struggling to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Sadie Sink) in the final days of his life — from a place of empathy and love, some critics have labeled the film as "abhorrent" for its presentation of Charlie's physicality. Writer Roxane Gay even published a full New York Times opinion piece on the project, in which she called the film an "exploitative" and "sometimes cruel" spectacle.
"Actors have been using makeup since the beginning of acting — that's one of their tools," Aronofsky told Yahoo! Entertainment when asked about anticipating that reaction when casting Fraser in the role. "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."
Taylor Hill/WireImage; A24 Darren Aronofsky says 'The Whale' controversy 'makes no sense' to him.
While Morot has an Oscar nomination for his work on 2010's Barney's Version, and seemingly applied the same prowess to the digitally crafted prosthetics fitted to Fraser's body, many still took issue with the way the film handles Charlie's humanity.
"People with obesity are generally written as bad guys or as punchlines," Aronofsky continued. "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."
Speaking to EW, Fraser also stressed that his portrayal came from a place of respect: "This is one man's story. It's not representative of everyone who lives with a body such as Charlie's," he said of writer Samuel D. Hunter's adaptation of his own stage play, which he wrote with inspiration from personal experience.
A24 Brendan Fraser makes an emotional comeback in 'The Whale'
"What we've seen with body types in films prior to this one — I looked at a lot of them. I think that those costumes, whether they were ill-intentioned or otherwise, they put quotation marks around a person who lives with obesity. And it might just be because it [was] an athletic actor inside a silhouette of a costume that was filled with cotton padding, and there's a disconnect. That didn't exist in the design of Charlie," Fraser continued. "He does have a mobility issue, he does perspire profusely, he doesn't look well, he doesn't eat for pleasure, he has flaws, he's someone who's still, despite all of these things, somehow, eternally optimistic. He needed to make a decision about whether to just not exist or to lean into what he knew he cared about books, literature, teaching, and being an educator and drawing out truth and honesty from people as a way to their redemption."
The Whale is now playing in limited theatrical release via A24. Watch EW's Awardist interview with Fraser above.
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