It’s good to see Brendan Fraser again. Not that he ever went anywhere — not really. Still, his latest film, The Whale, is being positioned as the actor’s big comeback. There are admittedly few glaring gaps on Fraser’s IMDb. He’s been working steadily in recent years, showing up in DC’s cult hit Doom Patrol, on season three of The Affair, and playing against type in Steven Soderbergh’s 2021 crime drama No Sudden Move.
It’s only compared to his ten-year run from the mid-’90s to the early 2000s — when Fraser was seemingly everywhere, leveraging his action-hero looks and good-natured charm to become one of Hollywood’s go-to leading men — that the absence seems more pointed. All those stunt-heavy blockbusters, as well as a traumatic encounter with the former head of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, exacted a toll, leading Fraser to retreat from the spotlight.
He’s firmly back in it now, thanks to The Whale, Darren Aronofsky’s adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s off-Broadway play. It has Fraser in the thick of the Oscar hunt, and on the receiving end of an outpouring of love from all corners of the industry. In the film, Fraser plays Charlie, a reclusive English teacher struggling with obesity and attempting to reconnect with his estranged daughter.
After the film’s Venice premiere, footage of a teary-eyed Fraser receiving a six-minute standing ovation went viral. At one point, he’s shown trying to leave, overwhelmed, which only makes the crowd cheer harder. Fraser calls the ensuing response – not just from the media and fans, but his industry peers as well — supportive. His Mummy Returns co-star Dwayne Johnson tweeted heartfelt congratulations. So did Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who’d worked with Fraser on a 2015 History Channel mini-series.
“My phone had green smoke coming out the side of it after the screening in Venice,” Fraser says, speaking in Toronto a few days later. “I’m pleased now that I can get back in touch with people who I haven’t been in touch with for so long. And for such a happy, good reason.” Another lengthy ovation in Toronto followed soon after, along with a TIFF Tribute Award — his first, but assuredly not last, trophy for The Whale.
It’s hard not to root for the 53-year-old actor, who doesn’t seem too far off from the sincere, kind-hearted nice guy he’d made a living out of playing on-screen. He’s thoughtful with his answers, choosing his words with care as he absent-mindedly plays with the ring on his pinky finger.
Frasers recalls being asked in 2020 to meet with Aronofsky, who’d been looking to adapt Hunter’s play for years, but was struggling to find the right lead. “The answer is yes, you want to. He’s a world-class filmmaker and auteur,” Fraser says. He remembers attending the premiere of Aronofsky’s Pi at Sundance in 1998, and says he has been a “deep admirer” of the director’s work ever since. “I liked that it challenged me. I liked that I did not agree with all of it, but I respected the bold choices that he makes.”
In that initial meeting, Fraser says Aronofsky didn’t give him a script to read, or even walk him through the plot. He simply told him about the character, Charlie, “a man who has been slowly overeating and has grown his body to such an extent that his time is limited to probably a week tops,” Fraser explains. “He’s having some regrets about the life he led that brought him to that place, and he wants to let his daughter know that he loves her.”
Fraser was told about the prosthetic suit he would wear to play the 600-pound Charlie, which would be created by Aronofsky’s frequent collaborator Adrien Morot. “The rule, hard and fast, was that it would obey gravity and physics. And that it would never be depicted in a way to make a mockery of him,” he remembers. “It would be the antithesis of the weight gain suits that had been used in pretty much everything that I could go back to YouTube and look for.”
Aronofsky rented a theater, where Fraser read with his future co-star, Stranger Things’s Sadie Sink. Things were moving. Everyone was excited. And then the pandemic hit. “We met. And probably two weeks later was March 13th, that fateful day when we all stayed at home.”
The following October, Fraser was in Detroit filming No Sudden Move, frantically racing to get his absentee ballot to a dropbox, when he got a text from Aronofsky, picking up the thread as if the past seven months never happened. “He started the conversation in the middle, like, ‘OK, so when you do this…’ And I’m like, ‘Wait, wait, wait. Are we on? Did I get the job?’ ”
He certainly did. And Fraser was eager to get to work, diving into Hunter’s script. (He admits he didn’t go back and reread Melville, whose Moby Dick gives the movie its title: “But I did go back to read the high school Coles Notes,” he says with a laugh.)
He also sought out “probably a dozen” members of the Obesity Action Coalition, “to hear their concerns, take their notes, and make a bid for their trust that we’re not going to be sending anyone up. Which were their fears, and they’re well-founded,” says Fraser. “Obesity and weight gain are the last domains of accepted prejudice in our society.”
Over Zoom, Coalition members talked about “their journeys, about food addiction, the beginnings of it,” Fraser recalls, as well as “the quagmire of the American health system” and countless indignities that made the actor gnash his teeth. “It’s as if they’re being forgotten, for being human beings,” he recalls. Still, Fraser says, the goal wasn’t to make a PSA, but to simply give an honest performance, and to portray a complete, complex individual.
“I’ve seen a lot of different actors do this role, and the thing it lives or dies by is Charlie’s optimism,” says Hunter. “His humour and his love of other people needs to shine through the pain.” And even from that initial read-through, it was clear to the playwright that Fraser embodied those qualities completely. “What he brought to the role is so genuine,” he explains. “Brendan knew exactly what this story was, and exactly who this guy was.
“He needs to be a lighthouse in an incredibly dark sea,” Hunter recalls. “A lot of our discussions were in line with that. How can we access the dark without forgetting about the light, because they exist simultaneously, and in real life.”
It’s a balance Fraser knows too well, and thanks to The Whale, he’s finding his way back to that light. “There’s a lot of cynicism in our world,” he says, leaning back. “This is something that we could all use a little bit more of.”