The transformation of Brendan Fraser into The Whale: “we all have something good to contribute”

When the movie The Whale begins , the voice of Brendan Fraser is heard. He teaches a class on Zoom. The camera is off. His voice is calm and kind. The student boxes fill the rest of the screen, but the teacher’s box remains dark. 

The juxtaposition between voice and reality is deliberate. When the professor—named Charlie—can finally be seen, he is shocking, since he is an obese man, with alopecia and about to fall off his seat. Throughout the story you can see why he got to this point.

In The Whale , Brendan Fraser plays a lonely English teacher who is morbidly obese (he weighs over 550 pounds). Seeking redemption from him, he tries to reconnect with his teenage daughter played by Sadie Sink (Max in Stranger Things ), from whom he has been estranged for many years. 

 The film , directed by New Yorker Darren Aronofsky ( Requiem for a Dream and The Black Swan ), has generated positive reviews at festivals in Venice, where it received a seven-minute standing ovation, and in Toronto, a five-minute standing ovation, thanks to the performance by Brendan Fraser, a 53-year-old actor who knows how to win over the audience precisely by handling a subject that is not alien to many in modern life. 

Based on a play of the same name, written by playwright Samuel D. Hunter, this is a story in which anyone who spends time with Charlie has to overcome society’s prejudice against the obese. 

“I think Charlie is the most heroic man I’ve ever played,” says the Indiana-native actor, rejecting the view of a person based on appearance. “His superpower is to see the good in others and bring it out in them. In that process, he is on his salvation journey.”

Brendan Fraser’s Journey

The Whale star explained the appeal of the role to his career, which was, in a way, on hiatus. Fraser’s good looks and physique had been the focus of his early roles, from The Man from California to George of the Jungle to the famous The Mummy trilogy and many more. Now, as an obese professor struggling with the decisions that have brought him to this place in his life, Brendan Fraser is aware of the sensitivity of the subject. He tackles him head on. “I looked different in those days. My journey to where I am now has been to explore as many characters as I can. This role represented the biggest challenge for me.”

The film also explores friendship and the paths people take in the name of love. Who do you sacrifice yourself for? Are you doing it yourself? For your children? What does religion contribute when they tell you that there is no salvation for having a certain sexual orientation? Is it okay to leave your family when you find love elsewhere? Or do you stay and endure?

The Whale asks a lot of its audience. The characters are complex. Each of them has an unpleasant appearance, and not necessarily related to their physical appearance. Sadie Sink, who plays Fraser’s estranged daughter Ellie, for example, “is someone who hasn’t experienced any kind of parental care from her, or love from her, in a long time; she also doesn’t expect it from her father who left her, and who she believes cares about everything but her,” Fraser says. 

That endearment, Charlie’s choice to take the kinder path in the face of a brutal world, sure struck a chord with the film’s theme. Diners chatted with Fraser about it.

What was it like dealing with the space of your body? When you go to brush your teeth or get on a bike, he knows what that space is, but when he has to put on a special suit, that space becomes something totally different…

It’s important to note that Charlie’s physical mobility is limited to the space in his home, which is his couch. His story is told behind closed doors, and he is a light in a dark space. I find it poetic that the trauma he carries is manifested in the physical weight of his body. But, equally, he needed to learn to move in a new way. He developed muscles that he didn’t know he had. I even felt a dizzy feeling at the end of the day, when he took my braces off, that same undulating feeling you would get getting off a boat in Venice. And I say this because I’ve learned to appreciate those whose bodies are similar, because I’ve learned that you need to be an incredibly strong person, physically and mentally, to inhabit that being. And I think that’s also Charlie, a character that took me a couple of years to develop.

What does this role mean to you and your professional career?

It is one of those to count. My crystal ball is broken. I don’t know if yours works, but find me after all this and we’ll take a look together. What can I say? It was a great opportunity to get inside the physical being of another man and tell the rich internal life story that goes with it. Also, I don’t know a worthwhile actor in my peer group who doesn’t want to work with Darren. And I am very lucky to have had this opportunity.

You were out of the Hollywood studios for several years. Was it difficult for you to take on this difficult role? What was your process for making this decision? 

I heard that Darren was going to direct a movie, and the casting director, Mary Vernieu, spread the word. She said to me: “Would you know Darren?” and I: “Of course”. So that’s what I did. I went to his office, it was a freezing January afternoon, and we talked about the project. There was no script available to me at the time. He told me that it was about a man who lives with a load of regret and has been hurting himself by overeating. And he wants to reconnect with his daughter, to let her know how much he loves her, but she’s running out of time. Those were the only things he knew about it, that I already knew. Those were the big goals to develop, the obstacles and the essence of something that I know Darren would embrace and make an amazing piece of cinema. So he wanted to be a part of it. And it was worth it.

 How was the experience of playing a character on set, which requires so much makeup and prosthetics?

Adrien Morot’s design was my working canvas and Charlie’s body is exact, right down to the size of the pores and the placement of each hand-brushed hair. The first time I walked on set and saw his torso on a mannequin, I thought someone had ripped off a real man or something. There was a lot of art in front of me. It is a great satisfaction to have had the privilege of using Morot’s work, because without it I could not have done this at all.

It is a body that impacts…

Charlie’s body obeyed gravity and physics. Maybe a slight but minimal special effects heal that could have been used if some cloth failed one morning, or something. To not stop thinking that this is a creation. And I don’t think a makeup or wardrobe combination of this authenticity has ever been put on the big screen like that before.

How was the level of confidence that Darren Aronofsky imposed on the set?

We had the luxury of rehearsing for three weeks before we started. From the day we arrived at the flat, Darren said: “We’re here to show something credible.” So, we read the script well. We rehearsed with support in accessories. We even had to obey the painting on the floor as if there was a wall there, and we were not allowed to go through it. We had to move around the imaginary lines to turn around if necessary. And it worked!

Did you discover something of Brendan Fraser in this project?

I learned that to play a person, a corporeal being, like Charlie, you need to be an incredibly strong individual, to be that man. Because, at the end of the day, I had to take that mask off. And I felt dizzy. Something about it stayed with me, until we came back and did it the next day, and maybe even for a while after we finished the movie. I learned that when you invest everything you can and give what you have, as if it were the first and last time you do it again, something important can come out of it. And I think with his help we could change some hearts and minds.

“People are incapable of not worrying,” a line from the play that has found its way into the script, is ultimately an optimistic message, right?

I think, as Darren says, the reason he wanted to make the film was to send that message, which is so necessary in the world today. Everyone leans towards cynicism and darkness and losing hope, when exactly that is what we don’t need right now. We have to lean on the idea that, deep down, we care about each other. We have to cling to that, that even in the toughest moments, we all have something good to contribute deep down.