It would have been cool to catch Brendan Fraser right after he stood in the Venice Film Festival audience and wept during a raucous standing ovation for Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale.” He’s talked about it a lot in the last three months.
“It started off as being choked up,” he said on a recent Zoom call with IndieWire. “I was bowled over. I did not anticipate this small film, shot in a two-bedroom apartment set, with its five characters in search of salvation, to resonate with an international audience, to translate that way. The emotional reality of ‘The Whale’ plays so much more in the pauses and what’s in between the spoken dialogue as much as what is spoken. And that’s a testament to Darren Aronofsky’s directing.”
But what people are talking about is Fraser’s guileless, sad-eyed performance.
He cried again at a Toronto International Film Festival awards tribute. That’s why “Crying Brendan Fraser” became a meme for this awards season, but the reason it’s sticky is the 54-year-old’s so-called “Brendanaissance.” The combo of his sharp turn in Steven Soderbergh’s “No Sudden Move” and his moving performance in “The Whale” has not only given the actor back his career but also put him at the forefront of the Best Actor Oscar race.
This is why Fraser is doing so many interviews. He’s caught in the Oscar Wheel, pedaling valiantly — under direction by publicity handlers to punch the salient talking points that might elevate their cause — in an effort to keep the narrative fresh. That’s the nature of the Oscar game.
Adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his play of the same name, “The Whale” is a claustrophobic version of “Leaving Las Vegas” (which won Nicolas Cage an Oscar as a self-destructive alcoholic) in which the miserable protagonist, in this case Fraser’s shut-in Charlie, eats himself to death. That’s because Charlie is racked by guilt after leaving behind his daughter (Sadie Sink) when his marriage fell apart when he fell for another man. Now his lover is dead and he has become a recluse, teaching English online (audio only) and cared for by his best friend, a nurse (Hong Chau), who also happens to be his lover’s sister.
“He is harming himself,” said Fraser. “He is in textbook fashion — and this is coming straight from Dr. Rachael Goldman of the Obesity Action Coalition — using food to self-medicate and going even further than that, to feed and squash down the emotion that he has for his choices, which becomes trauma. The trauma is what he wears on his body. Clearly he’s hurting a great deal, given his obesity, so he is a man who is physically and emotionally burdened in a way that is obvious from the outside. From a dramatic standpoint, that gives substance to the pain that he finds himself in, and a strong starting point for us as an audience to see if he will at all succeed, given the short amount of time he has left — five days — on his journey of redemption.”
When Aronofsky reached out to Fraser in the early months of 2020, the actor understood immediately that if he delivered on its promise, this role would give him a serious career boost. He wasn’t sure he had the part until he’d done a table read at the St. Mark’s Theatre in the Village with theater actors in New York, including Sink, who costars as his angry daughter Ellie.
Afterward, Aronofsky gave him homework assignments. “I allowed myself to acknowledge the little voice inside you that says, ‘You must do this,'” Fraser said. “This is the role that made my teeth sweat, that I knew I wanted. It would be the hardest, most challenging thing I ever have seen come near my radar.”
Aronofsky spent 10 years developing the project and tried to find obese men who conformed to the physical reality of the leading role. “He was very candid about needing to create Charlie,” said Fraser. “But the practicality of hiring an actor who lives with obesity in the way that Charlie does would be prohibitive. So he had to find a way to combine an actor and prosthetic makeup. And in his collaborator Adrien Morot, he found a way to do a character makeup that was authentic for its obedience to gravity and physics.”
Photo by Elisabetta A. Villa/Getty Images
The prosthetics were heavy, but Fraser won’t specify the details. “Out of respect, we never weighed the components of it,” he said. “I didn’t want to know. All it was important to me was that yes, it was cumbersome, and understandably and rightfully so. That way it would differentiate itself, the look of Charlie’s body from what we’ve seen in films and forever years past, and believe me, we looked at everything. We looked at — I won’t name names — but we looked at all the films where actors were in similar attire and outfits and it was either just in service of a cheap joke, or a way to cast scorn or derision on a character for reasons that appeal to the bias that we hold against people who live with obesity. It always just seemed like a cheap shot.”
“To me, it’s not funny, and it’s not fair,” he added. “But this was not going to be that. So it was imperative and incumbent upon me to accept, frankly, the physical challenge to play the part. We had to look past just simply how Charlie presents in his physical being and see him for the very person whom he is.”
Fraser starred in career-maker “School Ties” and Oscar-winning dramas “Gods and Monsters” and “Crash,” proving that he had acting chops. He’s best known as the lean and muscled Adonis who carried “Encino Man,” “George of the Jungle,” and “The Mummy” trilogy.
But he doesn’t remember happy times. Robust box office returns gave him enormous clout, but did not bring a sense of security.
Walt Disney Studios
“Let me tell you: At that time in my life, I was around 28 years old,” he said, “I experienced what we know is a common term, but then wasn’t, and that is body dysmorphia. However people perceived me to appear as some sort of an archetype or ideal or, whatever they put on me, there was also no small measure of criticism and derision, maybe jealousy and feeling of ‘No, you can’t have it all. You can’t physically appear like that and be talented.’ It kept me, as a byproduct, humble because I had to put aside feelings of self doubt. Now I played the role of a man whose body is hundreds and hundreds of pounds. And our society still has that bias against people who are living with the disease of obesity, and dismisses them as being incapable, or at fault for their condition, or to be overlooked or maligned or not to be given attention.”
Since then, Fraser has recovered from a long depression stemming from his sexual assault complaint against the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s late Philip Berk, his 2008 divorce after 10 years of marriage, and his mother’s death in 2016. She died days before an infamous melancholy interview he gave for the Showtime series “The Affair.” And because he was eager to please his bosses and performed many of his own stunts over the years, he endured repeated surgeries to fix his battered body. He now lives on a farm in upstate New York, where he stays close to his three sons.
And he’s back to work, starring in upcoming Josh Brolin production “Brothers” and Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” playing a trial lawyer defending Robert De Niro.
“It’s invigorating knowing that there are far more options open to me now than I ever would have imagined,” Fraser said. “I regulated the choices to make sure that they were diverse because I know that range is important. And I can show that now, with a range of so-called ‘character roles,’ in a way that I did not anticipate. So the future is wide open.”
See you on Oscar night.
A24 releases “The Whale” in theaters on Friday, December 9.