Brendan Fraser Knows 'The Whale' Won't Please Everyone

"I do feel confident that, by story's end, some hearts and minds could be changed," he says

Photo courtesy of TIFF

BY Rachel HoPublished Nov 28, 2022

It was always going to be the case that Brendan Fraser's comeback (or the Brenaissance, if you will) would be mired in controversy, despite the praise he received at TIFF and the Venice Film Festival. 

Playing Charlie, a 600-pound gay man, in Darren Aronofsky's The Whale required Fraser to don a fatsuit and heavy prosthetics, prompting critics and audiences to question why a larger man couldn't have been cast instead. Then there was backlash about the film itself. In The Whale, it's explained that Charlie's weight gain was brought on by the death of his partner, a man Charlie left his wife and daughter for. Charlie confines himself to his apartment, teaching college classes online (with the camera turned off); although confident in his speech, his actions hint towards shame and self-loathing. 

On Fraser's part at least, he knew that the film wouldn't be to everyone's liking. "We're not going to please everyone. I don't anticipate it," the Canadian actor tells Exclaim! during a roundtable interview alongside the film's writer, Samuel D. Hunter, ahead of The Whale's premiere at TIFF. "But I do feel confident that, by story's end, some hearts and minds could be changed. Not everyone, but some. And I'm okay with that."

Given the critiques over Charlie's weight gain being a reaction to his guilt over being a gay man, it's noteworthy that The Whale is adapted from the award-winning play of the same name written by Hunter, who based the story on his own life. 

"I grew up gay in North Idaho and I went to a very religious school that taught that people like me shouldn't exist. Eventually, I started self-medicating with food, and that continued for a really long time," Hunter shares. "Of course, that's not everybody's story who's big. There's plenty of people out there who are big, happy and healthy. That wasn't my story, and that's not the story I decided to tell."

Hunter started writing the play in 2009 and began working with Aronofsky in 2012. During the development process, it was suggested to the film's producers at A24 that they reach out to the Obesity Action Coalition (OAC), an advocacy group that seeks to eliminate weight biases and discrimination and improve access to treatment. So, before shooting began, a group of OAC volunteers spoke with Aronofsky and Fraser about their experiences as individuals living with severe obesity, including the physical, emotional and social impact of the disease. 

"They gave me their stories and testimonials, and in the most candid way. It was moving. It was moving to learn [from them]," recalls Fraser. "I noticed from person to person who I spoke to, that their journey began with someone early in their life who was quite cruel to them verbally. Made them feel horrible about who they were. Words have meaning."

When I reached out to the OAC over email, they explained that, through their involvement, they were able to lend Aronofsky and Fraser an authentic voice to listen to, rather than the filmmakers resting on their assumptions. "Our goal was to make sure the representation of severe obesity was realistic and respectful — not the caricature we so often see in movies or television shows," the OAC wrote. "The reality is, there are people in the world with severe obesity. They have lives. They have purpose. They have struggles. They have STORIES. And those stories deserve to be told."

Hunter explains, when asked about OAC's involvement in the film, "It was just very important to us early on that we brought in the OAC as a partner, to make sure that we brought a level of authenticity to this, beyond my lived experience."

Adds Fraser, "Their concerns are legitimate: that we wouldn't be making a film that would compromise them. They were now [finally] seeing on the big screen the manifestation of the story of their lives that they've had to live."

There are many scenes in The Whale that can be difficult to watch. Hong Chau as Liz, Charlie's nurse and friend, delivers a gut-wrenching performance, as her frustrations with Charlie's seemingly uncaring attitude towards his health boils over. Charlie's daughter Ellie, played by Sadie Sink, has some choice words for her father and his appearance that will strike a chord with anyone who has dealt with body issues. Confined to his apartment, Charlie moves about gingerly, struggling to stand up or pick up things off the floor. 

"We [saw the] insight [provided by our volunteers] reflected in many of Charlie's movements, actions and emotions throughout the film," the OAC revealed. "Mr. Fraser has his own experiences with weight bias and stigma, and we found him highly receptive to our feedback. He did a remarkable job of portraying many of the most challenging aspects of living in a large body and of showing several ways people react to being negatively judged for their size."

Many of the uncomfortable moments in The Whale are rooted in these reactions from others, in turn making audiences confront their own prejudices and judgments towards individuals who are obese. The term "fatphobic" has been thrown around a lot about this movie, and while fatphobia does indeed exist within the film, that's the point.

When asked about this criticism, the OAC responded, "Charlie's story is a realistic one for someone dealing with severe obesity. Some will see Charlie's feelings of inadequacy, self-deprecating humour, and reclusiveness related to his weight, along with other characters' negative comments about his weight, as fatphobic. But these are all undeniably experiences many people with obesity have. That's why OAC fights so hard to eliminate weight bias and stigma. People of all sizes are worthy of dignity and respect."

Fraser is aware of the significance of the film — not just to his career but for the discourse that has emerged from it. An actor who has been working in Hollywood since 1991, he's aware of the rarity of a film like The Whale, and takes the responsibility of spreading its message and Charlie's experiences seriously. 

"The story itself struck all the notes in my heart and empathy about what it feels like to be overlooked, mocked, shut away and forgotten about, and the ramifications of how that affects your personal life," Fraser says with deep earnestness.

"I felt duty-bound to tell this story not in a Hollywood way," he says, noting that this subject matter is often treated as a "one-note joke."

It's clear that, from the outset, Aronofsky, Hunter and Fraser all knew that their film carried delicate subject matter that needed to be handled in a thoughtful and sensitive manner. Involving an organization like the OAC was a key move that benefited the film and, hopefully, those who see themselves in Charlie. 

While the film will continue to divide audiences and have its detractors, Fraser is adamant about the need to tell stories like Charlie's for the sake of representing a lost voice in society, and for art itself: "We needed to take a risk to do this. Art is about taking a risk."

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