With 'The Whale,' Brendan Fraser wants to change 'hearts and minds' about people living with obesity

Brian Truitt

MIDDLEBURG, Va. – The first time Brendan Fraser watched “The Whale,” alone in a screening room, he had a new first-time experience in his 30-year movie career.

“I didn't recognize myself. I didn't know what the man on the screen was going to say next,” the actor says. And it was more because of the emotions left on screen than the transformation of Fraser, 54, into a middle-aged, 600-pound man. "I felt that I had accomplished what I set out to, which is to give it everything I had like it's the first and last time I ever will.

"There's nothing else I can prove because I don't have any other moves left," Fraser adds with a laugh. "That's all I got."

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Brendan Fraser stars as an obese writing teacher who wants to reconnect with his teenage daughter in Darren Aronofsky's "The Whale."

Director Darren Aronofsky’s drama (in select theaters now, nationwide Wednesday) stars Fraser as Charlie, a dangerously obese gay writing instructor with congestive heart failure who reaches out to his estranged teen daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), in a quest to redeem himself in her eyes. The role’s won him rave reviews, scoring best actor nominations from the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Association and putting him in the pole position for an Academy Award.

An essay about “Moby-Dick” is a significant narrative element in the film, writer Samuel D. Hunter's adaptation of his 2012 play. So is winning an Oscar the actor's great white whale? The soft-spoken Fraser chuckles before, fittingly, quoting Herman Melville. “I know not all that may be coming but come what will, I will go to it laughing,” he says during an interview with Hunter at the Middleburg Film Festival. “He said it best. That and he said, ‘Ignorance is the father of fear.’ ”

For Fraser, who came up in 1990s comedies like "Encino Man" and "Airheads" and found blockbuster fame with “The Mummy” movies, being a dad to three sons was integral for his performance. “To have a 20-year-old with special needs, an 18-year-old who's a senior, and a 16-year-old who's picked up a guitar and can thrash now, I need only shudder to imagine if I had made life choices that Charlie had done, how I would feel at that time in my life. Which is foreign to me but it fueled my performance absolutely. That's all fair game in the weird alchemy of acting.”

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Brendan Fraser is earning career-best accolades and award nominations for his role in "The Whale."

Hunter saw an important ingredient in Fraser: kindness. “I don't know if a cynical actor could pull off this role. It would be a very different performance,” the writer says. 

Filming “The Whale” was a physically and emotionally taxing 32 days for Fraser. His actual “great white whale,” in fact, was the concluding scene, Charlie’s contrition to Ellie, and Fraser had to film it over two days because, on the first, “I was all pedal and no gas.” Comparatively, the “heavy cumbersome stuff” was a piece of cake: On set, there were 70 steps from the chair in the makeup room to Charlie's couch, and clad in a mass of prosthetics, “I needed to be wheeled there by a team of five people who were like a pit crew with water (and) constant touchups,” Fraser says.

He wore a cooling suit similar to what race car drivers use, “which was a challenge in itself because once you start to overheat, the cold sensation of the water creates like a weather system: The cold front and the hot front collide, and then you've got a storm going on,” Fraser adds with a chuckle. “But I just dealt with it. It worked because Charlie is not comfortable. Any way he sits, he has such difficulty taking to his feet, which is a major plot point.”

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Fraser would feel vertigo when he removed the suit at the end of a day. “I felt this undulation that stayed with me for days after we wrapped,” he says. And although he could take it off, “I had a pretty close sensory understanding of what it is like to live with obesity. It did change me and it did make me feel for those who live in that body that they need to be incredibly strong. I learned a respect I was not anticipating."

Most importantly for the actor, "The Whale" needed to avoid what has happened in the past with portrayals of obese people in movies: “One-note, butt-of-the-joke characters who wore silly costumes filled with cotton batting that we use in stuffed animals so that an athletic performance could be given,” he says. “Whatever neurological reason, our brain goes, ‘Oh, dichotomy, hilarious.’ But it doesn't sustain. What we did is the absolute opposite of that.”

Preparing to play Charlie, Fraser had Zoom calls with almost a dozen people who gave him testimonials about their lives: “Some spoke about food as it was their addiction. Some spoke of food that it was a genetic disorder that brought them to where they were. Some spoke of food that it is still their love and they don't want to give it up.” Filmmakers also worked with Rachel Goldman, a mental health expert for the Obesity Action Coalition, who helped with sensitivity issues and also gave notes on makeup and the screenplay.

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Brendan Fraser (center) reads through a scene with director Darren Aronofsky and co-star Ty Simpkins on the set of "The Whale."

That education was key when Fraser performed one haunting scene where Charlie’s binge eating veers scarily out of control. “It drives home the point that he is not eating for pleasure or because he is hungry,” he says. “This is an act of self-harm."

Fraser realizes “The Whale” is a polarizing film that will “command attention” and “ask the thorny questions, and it's been the subject of backlash: People online labeled the movie “fat-phobic,” and New York Times writer Roxane Gay called it “an inhumane film about a very human being.”

Asked about the criticism, Fraser says he’d be “more concerned with those opinions if they were prevalent after actually having seen the film."

Brendan Fraser (left), director Darren Aronofsky and writer Sam Hunter attend the New York premiere of "The Whale."

Hunter acknowledges that his plays have often drawn mixed reactions. "I have very little interest in writing something that is just a crowd-pleaser. I want my writing to have utility for people and that means going to some difficult places with it emotionally.”

Fraser hopes that “not only can we maybe amend or change the dialogue surrounding how we discuss and how we refer to people who live with obesity, it could send someone to a place where they could get help. It's not a film that's a public service announcement, but it is a film that does challenge us to change our hearts and minds.”