Interview: Actor Brendan Fraser and writer Samuel D. Hunter talk the challenges and journey of ‘The Whale’
The Whale has taken a long time to get to the silver screen. This story started back in 2012 as a play, in which renowned writer Samuel D. Hunter crafted a story about Charlie, 600-pound gay man who, on the verge of death, tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter. The play won Hunter accolades and garnered a lot of praise, most notably from Academy Award-nominated director Darren Aronofsky. When the two met, it was clear that this was going to be one of Aronofsky’s next films, and the search was on for ten years to find their Charlie. After many auditioned, no one felt right for the part, and the project was put to the side, till the director saw a clip of a trailer on YouTube and he instantly had his Charlie, and that actor was Brendan Fraser.
Fraser broke into the spotlight in the 1990s with films like School Ties, Encino Man, George of the Jungle, and most notably, 1999’s The Mummy. His comic timing, mixed with physical performances made for perfect blockbuster performances, while he also showcases his vulnerability and dramatic versatility in films like Gods and Monsters and The Quiet American. He has been a steady actor over the course of the last three decades, but his performance as Charlie is rightfully being hailed as the best performance of his career. Beyond the screen, Fraser is a humble, decent man, which should come as no surprise.
From the moment I walked into The Hamilton Room at the Salamander Resort at the 2022 Middleburg Film Festival, I learned first-hand how kind Fraser is in person. As I was rushing in to speak to him after seeing another film at the festival, he said “hey Ryan, how are you doing?” I looked around to see if he was talking to someone else, but when I looked at him, he said “Yes, you sir. How are you?” I said I was good and we proceeded to chat for a couple of moments about the festival and the films we had seen so far. About that time, Hunter walked in the door, but before we officially began, Fraser asked us if either of us wanted some water before we started. I declined, but small gestures like that can tell you everything you want to know about a person, and this told me Brendan Fraser was someone you couldn’t help but root for.
Over the course of the interview, we talked about Hunter’s process adapting the script to the screen, what it meant for Fraser to play Charlie, what it was like working with the tight ensemble in the film, and what they want audiences to take away when seeing The Whale.
RM: I’m going to start with you, Sam. This has been a long time coming to get this from the stage to the screen. Can you talk a little bit about your process and trying to put it up on the big screen for Darren to adapt?
Samuel D. Hunter: Yeah, yeah. I started working on the play about 13 years ago, right as I was finishing up grad school and was teaching expository writing at the time at Rutgers. And I was really struggling to connect with my students in a meaningful way given the course was so dry. And so I found myself doing what Charlie does in the film is begging my students to write something authentic and honest and not worrying about whether or not it’s good writing, whatever that means. And out of that experience, I realized I wanted to write something about an expository writing teacher, which is a bit esoteric. And I wrote a few early versions of a play about an expository writing teacher and a student that just kind of felt dry and a little distanced. And so it wasn’t until I made the decision to, kind of for the first time, put some really personal stuff on the line.
I think up until The Whale, my writing had been kind of student writing, if that makes sense. I was figuring out plot and structure and character, but it was all very early and was fussy with the rules and trying to dazzle or whatever. But with The Whale, I kind of felt like I forgot all that stuff and just tried to write from a much more personal place of this gay person in Idaho where I grew up who was self-medicating with food like I did for a very long time in my life. And it was difficult. It felt very vulnerable. I’m glad I wrote it when I wrote it because my plays weren’t really getting produced yet. They were just starting to get produced. So I felt like I could be vulnerable and write from that scary place. So it felt like a miracle when it got staged, period.
And now when Darren approached me, I was just gobsmacked. And I’m glad it took 10 years to do it because we needed to do it the right way. If that would’ve been a rush job, it would’ve fallen really flat. And so much of that 10 years was like, who is going to be our Charlie? And actually, I know that Darren had looked at 1,000 different actors, but I wasn’t involved with that at all. And so the first name that he ever brought to me was Brendan eight years later. And so, I remember being like, oh, okay, if he’s actually naming somebody and setting up a reading and everything, then this is serious. And golly was it.
RM: Curious with you, Brendan. You’re brought the script and you read it and it’s a wonderful part to play. What was your thought process after reading it? Were you nervous? Were you excited? Were you terrified to go on this journey? Because it is quite a journey.
Brendan Fraser: Some of all of those things, but it was actually the other way around. Darren was going to make a movie and that’s the word that came was he wants to meet you. Answered yes so we did. We discussed what he intended to make. I had not had sight of a screenplay at that point. He told me, a man has been living alone for a considerable amount of time. He has been harming himself by overeating. His life choices are such that he lives with certain deeper regrets. He has very little time, five days maybe. And he wants nothing more but to reconnect with his estranged daughter if he can.
He talked about how he would be a role that for, and he was big. He wasn’t saying, you will be doing this. I didn’t know if I had the job or not. The actor will have to wear prosthetic and apparatus to create the character look. All the challenges that would go with that. We left it, forgive me, we left it with the pleasantries, a polite conversation. Then I got a call that he wanted to do a reading because he still didn’t know it or not. It was right. Respecting his process. Absolutely, yes.
We staged it at St. Mark’s Theater. Is that what it was called? In the East Village. On a stage with music stands, three or four other actors who came in. Among them was Sadie Sink. So like the good students we were, we read the play aloud to just hear it, hear the sheet music played for the house, see what we could do with it. It was a discovery experiment almost of sorts. It wasn’t about selling yourself, it was about the emotional reality of the screenplay. And then March, 2020 rolled around and we all retreated, put on our sweat pants for a while. So we didn’t have a movie to make, although, the unions, everybody got protocols in place, safety measures, et cetera, so that we could get back to work, the industry could get back to work. And I was with Steven Soderbergh in Detroit at the time that fall. I remember because I was panicked to find a drop box to submit my ballot. Anyway, it was in November. And I got a text message from Darren pretty much typically just starting the conversation right in the middle. All right, so after you get the body scan, here’s documentary footage I want you to read. Here’s some material. I’m like, wait, am I hired? I don’t know if I had the job.
He said, “Yes, you’re hired now. Anyway, as I said, we got to go to work here.” And it began from there just as one plodding step after the next to do a test to see if we can create this man’s body. And then we settled in with the rehearsal period for three weeks so that we would know the piece, chapter and verse, forwards and backwards, as best we could by the time we arrived on the build in Newberg, New York on a set that was a two-bedroom apartment found anywhere in USA America, Idaho in this case, to tell the story of this man who’d been shut in and his hopes and dreams and desires to redeem himself in his daughter’s eyes.
RM: Sam, you didn’t have a say in the process of casting Brendan finally, but when you were in the collaboration process with Darren, obviously as the film finally got to start shooting and everything, when you knew that he was cast, did you and Darren go back to the texts, make any adjustments? Did you both talk about changes, maybe things that you saw in Charlie as well that Brendan brought?
BF: That is so not my department to change dialogue. (laughs)
SDH: Oh, and just to be clear too. Darren would not have cast Brandon if I wasn’t on board with him. Yeah, I mean I was.
RM: Yeah, yeah. I wasn’t saying they ignored you.
SDH: No, no, no. Yeah, I just wanted to make sure I got that out there. But no, so I was developing the script a lot with Darren. We had a couple Zoom calls where we talked about stuff, but then we had this three-week rehearsal process beforehand where we really got dialed in.
BF: If any changes were made, it was really to make the translation from a stage play to a screenplay adaptation. There’s a certain degree of expository you might not need, or just to dig deeper on the layers of the meanings of lines and also backing it up with research period. All of that that goes into cinema language. I mean that’s really-
SDH: There were moments where your performance was so deep and lush that I was like, wow, can we give him some words to scaffold what he’s already doing? I mean, he did inspire day of changes now and again.
BF: He wrote about after the sandwich.
SDH: Yes. Yeah. There was, we did a take, if I remember right, and I was watching the monitor and you just had this brightness and love and it was this incredible victory that Ellie had offered to make you a sandwich, a healthy sandwich, turkey, no mayonnaise. And you saw your daughter maybe for the first time in the movie.
BF: This is the way it could have been.
SDH: Exactly. And so I wrote you that line too, something that I couldn’t ask for a better daughter, because it was just, I was seeing, I mean, it was so evident in his performance that that’s what he was saying. That’s what he believed in his bones.
BF: But then the beauty of that is next thing you see is her scraping the knife on the counter.
BF: Because it just inspires in her, you’re so much, too little, too late. And that’s their relationship until stories end.
RM: This is a movie that you have to dance a fine line with what you’re trying to say and how you’re trying to convey it to the audience, one that will evoke conversation but also deep thought. What do you hope people take away from it?
SDH: This is a movie about hard won hope because that’s the kind of hope that has value in my opinion. I’m not interested in giving people platitudes. And I think faith in other people is hard. I think having faith, especially now, I think, but I think it is so essential. And I think we have to go through things together in order to have faith in other people. We can’t just take it for granted. I think optimism takes work. Cynicism is easy and destructive and masquerades as being smart and sophisticated, but it’s not. It’s unintelligent and its morally bankrupt I think. But optimism now is really hard. And I think that’s what the movie is. It is hard won optimism and hard won faith in other people.
BF: We can change a dialogue about how we refer to one another, we can change the vernacular used in so far as how we speak about people who live with obesity. It’s, I think, the last domain of accepted bigotry or prejudice that we abide. And during this time where we’re going down and ticking off all the boxes of, “we don’t do that anymore.” This is on the list. And I think that this is a film, while it’s not a public service message, it is capable of changing hearts and minds, of shaping the dialogue that we have with this. Whatever you thought you knew when you walk into the movie, whatever you thought, you know now after you go out, I challenge the viewer to not feel that they need to gather and reorient their perceptions of it after having seen this film.
RM: Brendan, you’ve been getting so much praise for the film, Venice and Toronto and Mill Valley and here [Middleburg], these prizes and these ovations and everything because of this wonderful performance. How are you taking it all in? How are you doing receiving all this love right now?
BF: That’s kind of you to say and I’m committed to staying in today. The response of those instances of ovation are new to me in my professional life. It’s humbling. I think of Herman Melville who wrote, “I know not all that may be coming, but come what will, I will go to it laughing.” That’s from Moby Dick. 1851. I think those are words that have resonated with me a lot lately. If this is as good as it gets, I’m okay.
RM: You have this ensemble that you worked with, that you wrote these beautiful words for, that Darren obviously crafted alongside y’all. Could you speak a little bit about your cast mates, working with them, and sharing this journey alongside?
BF: Sadie Sink is incredible. She’s on her way. I’m so excited to see this young actress emerging right now. I had a front-row seat to see how good she is. She was sharp as a tack, always prepared, always knew, energetic, and a fierce beauty to behold. She does not fall into the trappings and tropes of the angsty teenager. She’s a little girl who is very badly hurt by what her father did. And that manifests itself in the rage that we see her at this time during the story of the film.
Charlie sees in her how intelligent and clever and crisp she is for knowing how to express herself that way. And those are the building blocks of what he is all about given that he’s a man of letters, he’s an educator, he’s a writer. She could be the next Joyce Carol Oates for the discovery he makes when he asks her to put something, anything, in a notebook. She writes a haiku spontaneously. He has absolute belief in her. His secret power is to bring the best out in others, especially when they can’t see that in themselves.
SDH: It’s been an embarrassment of riches for me. I mean, I feel like the luckiest writer on earth. I mean the five characters; these are difficult characters. I mean is it five people who are desperately trying to save one another in very complicated and flawed ways? And it’s a dance of these five people for nearly two hours. And I also just would say, Hong (Chau) is one of the best actresses I’ve ever worked with.
BF: She makes everyone around them better. She makes the material better.
SDH: She challenges, she discovers. We could have let her go for five months. She would still be finding new things.
BF: Darren would be like, “just show off for us. We got it.”
SDH: Ty (Simpkins), I worked with very closely. Actually, we went, like I would sit down with Ty and read through the scenes together and we talked about our own experiences with religion and he brought a ton of personal stuff to the table in that character, which is a really hard character to play because it’s a character with a big secret.
BF: He authenticated it that way. And Sam Morton, I mean the practicality of that role is it’s just a couple of days. Or the actress who plays it on stage comes in for 12 minutes, 20 minutes, whatever. And that often is one of the biggest responsibilities. That’s the punter at the Super Bowl. It’s a very important member of the team here. And she arrived with a history in place that we believed one another, that we were formerly married, that we had a history and a relationship. And the tragedy was what could have been that never was. And there’s something about Sam too. She came, I believe she was directing her own work. For other reasons, it was tricky to get there, but it was so valuable to have her, and I’ve felt this way since I would see her in stuff in 20, even in the ’90s when I was coming up.
She’s one of those rare actors. She’s missing a layer of something, the coding. There’s a transparency to her and there’s an authenticity that everything has to be with her. The choices she makes, you just believe they’re real. They come from an internal engine. It’s motivated.
RM: Great job all around. And thank you so much for your time.
BF: Thank you. Thank you.
SDH: Thanks a lot.
A24 will release The Whale only in theaters on December 9, 2022.