Brendan Fraser’s Triumphant Comeback: How Playing a 600-Pound Gay Man in ‘The Whale’ Resurrected His Career

Photographs by Benedict Evans

Brendan Fraser fought armies of the undead in “The Mummy.” He swung from vines in “George of the Jungle.” He traveled around the world with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck in “Looney Toons: Back in Action.” He made a pact with Elizabeth Hurley as the Devil in “Bedazzled.” He partied with Pauly Shore as a reanimated Neanderthal in “Encino Man.” He even took a shower with Matt Damon in “School Ties.” And while those movies brought him fame, fortune and respect in Hollywood, rocketing Fraser to the top of the A-list in the 1990s and early aughts, they didn’t usually scream “Oscar-worthy.” He was always invited to the party, of course, but as a presenter, not a nominee.

Benedict Evans for Variety

“I give really good podium,” Fraser says. “I’m great at handing out awards. It’s easy. The pressure is off. You’re up on the stage, staring out at all these people biting their fingernails as you say nice things, and then you present a trophy.” He waits a beat, sounding like a character in a Brendan Fraser movie. “But now,” Fraser adds with prophetic gusto reminiscent of a camp villain, “the tables have turned!”

If the Oscar pundits are right, Fraser won’t just be in the auditorium when the best actor prize is handed out on March 12. He’s the early favorite to actually win the damn trophy, thanks to his wrenching performance in “The Whale.” Fraser’s unlikely comeback story is the kind of resurrection Hollywood relishes. With the help of prosthetics, he’s playing Charlie, a 600-pound gay man who is making a last-ditch effort to repair his relationship with his estranged daughter as his health deteriorates. The 53-year-old actor hadn’t played the lead in a major movie in 12 years, a gap on his résumé that has been attributed to a mixture of personal issues, health problems and a bombshell assault allegation against the former head of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., the group behind the Golden Globes. Then Darren Aronofsky came calling.

After spending a decade trying to bring Samuel D. Hunter’s play “The Whale” to the screen and meeting with nearly every actor of a certain age in Hollywood, Aronofsky feared he would never be able to find his Charlie. At times, he grew defeated, enlisting filmmakers like George Clooney, Tom Ford and Janicza Bravo to take over. It was only after he happened to see a trailer for a “low-budget Brazilian movie” Fraser appeared in that Aronofsky had the idea of casting the actor. There was a haunted, vulnerable quality to the man that the director thought would be perfect.

“As soon as he left my office after our first meeting, I felt it,” says Aronofsky, sitting next to Fraser in the baronial lobby of New York City’s Bowery Hotel on a crisp fall day. “I knew he could play someone who most people would start off by dismissing, but within five minutes they’d start to feel something for him. Then, within 20 minutes, they’re starting to fall in love with the character, because there’s just something about Brendan. Pretty soon, he starts to break your heart.”

Aronofsky has made a career out of taking established stars and toying with their personas. In “Requiem for a Dream,” he reminded audiences of Ellen Burstyn’s power by casting her as an elderly woman addicted to diet pills, and in “Black Swan,” he explored the darker side of Natalie Portman’s lacquered celebrity by tapping her to play a ruthlessly ambitious ballerina. And he’s shown a willingness to bet on talent that has been pushed aside by the entertainment business. After all, this is the same director who helped engineer Mickey Rourke’s comeback with “The Wrestler,” though he dismisses comparisons between Rourke’s situation and Fraser’s.

“With Mickey, there was a lot of negative energy around him because of the middle finger that he gave to the industry,” Aronofsky says. “Brendan was beloved, but he just didn’t have that opportunity to show all these sides. It’s about getting the right role in the right moment as an actor.”

With “The Whale,” Aronofsky found a performer in Fraser who was eager to push himself physically and emotionally. After sitting on the sidelines for years, Fraser was primed to remind Hollywood what it had been missing. “I was all-in,” he says. “If I’m not approaching each day’s work as if it’s the first and last time I ever act, then I’m not the man for the job. With this movie, everything I had to offer is everything that you see on the screen.”

Aronofsky demanded a lot from his star, asking him to show Charlie at his most desperate points, including a harrowing sequence in which he gorges himself on pizza, junk food and anything that he can find in his refrigerator. That scene, in which Charlie is losing control in a paroxysm of grief and self-loathing, is as hard to watch as the dramatic descent into addiction that takes up the final section of “Requiem for a Dream.” In order to capture that on-screen, Aronofsky and Fraser committed to pushing themselves to the breaking point. “We wouldn’t leave a scene unless we were spent,” Aronofsky says.

Brendan Fraser: “I’m in a place now where not only do I want to do the heavy lifting with my body, I also want to do it with my mind.” Benedict Evans for Variety

On the festival circuit, audiences have flipped for “The Whale,” showering Fraser with a boisterous six-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival, and then nearly exceeding that in Toronto, where organizers had to shush the crowd in order to begin a post-screening Q&A. Video of Fraser tearing up at the Venice Film Festival went viral on Twitter and TikTok (Aronofsky is quick to note that, headlines aside, Fraser was “choked up, not crying”). Dwayne Johnson, his “Mummy” co-star, even shared the footage on social media, causing a fresh wave of retweets and likes.

“It felt so affirming,” Fraser says. “I was emotional because it was acknowledgment that what we did is making an impact. And that kind of response feels completely new in my professional life.”

The Oscar buzz has continued to build with each screening, and festival crowds clearly love what Fraser and Aronofsky have done. But will the general public embrace “The Whale” when A24 opens it in December? After all, it’s been a rough period for adult dramas, with last year’s crop of awards contenders, such as “Belfast,” “Spencer” and “Licorice Pizza,” wilting at the box office. And most of those movies were a lot lighter than “The Whale,” a dark drama that asks audiences to confront their own prejudices about body image.

“There are people out there who are going to immediately shut down when they see a character like Charlie,” Aronofsky says. “I want people to connect to the film — I hope they do. But sometimes you just do what you need to do artistically and see what happens.”

When Aronofsky was putting the film together, he attracted interest from streaming services. Ultimately, however, he opted to partner with A24, the indie studio behind such edgy and eclectic fare as “Moonlight,” “Spring Breakers” and “Everything Everywhere All At Once.”  

“With those other companies, a theatrical release wasn’t a guarantee,” says Aronofsky. “But this film needs a theatrical platform. It benefits from a shared experience. It’s not as good when you watch it at home with the phone ringing or the dog barking or all the other distractions.” 

It’s easy to forget just how incandescently Fraser’s star once burned. For a good 15 years or so, his career seemed charmed, as he moved from bright young thing in films like “School Ties” and “Mrs. Winterbourne” to full-fledged matinee idol in “George of the Jungle,” “The Mummy” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” He was good-looking, charming and in demand because he had a particular set of skills. “He could throw a punch and take a punch, and he had a great sense of humor,” says Stephen Sommers, the director of “The Mummy.”

But Fraser was more than just a handsome face. He was also willing to offset those blockbusters with smaller personal projects that stretched him as an actor, such as “The Quiet American,” a drama about colonialism, and “Crash,” where he was only part of the sprawling cast of the Oscar-winning look at race relations. At times, Fraser even took on controversial films that other young stars refused to touch, such as “Gods and Monsters,” the story of gay filmmaker James Whale’s final days.

“That was a risky project at that time,” says Ian McKellen, Fraser’s co-star in “Gods and Monsters.” “It was a film about a gay man starring a gay man that was written and directed by a gay man. A lot of people probably told him not to do it. But even though Brendan is a resolutely straight young man, he didn’t care. He recognized the importance of the film and kept his mind on the job.”

But most of the time, Fraser has been asked to lead big, splashy franchise projects that didn’t really require much emoting, and the excitement of being a movie star curdled as the years went by. Over the past decade, Fraser has largely avoided the limelight. There wasn’t any career-annihilating catastrophe on his résumé — there were bombs, to be sure, like “Monkeybone,” or jobs beneath his talent (the less said of “Furry Vengeance,” the better). But for the public, it seemed as though Fraser was on the marquee one minute, and then he was gone. He moved to upstate New York, where he still resides, to raise his family, and that was mostly that. (Aronofsky, a New York City native, also steers clear of Hollywood, running his production company, Protozoa, out of Chinatown.)

Darren Aronofsky: “Brendan and I wouldn’t leave a scene unless we were spent.” Benedict Evans for Variety

In a GQ profile in 2018, Fraser said he stepped back to focus on his family during his divorce from Afton Smith and to deal with medical issues, many of which stemmed from his action-oriented roles. In our conversation at the Bowery, Fraser becomes more reserved when pressed on his long hiatus from major studio fare.

“Presently, Hollywood may be back in play, but I know that the time I needed to take for personal reasons and for family reasons was all time well spent,” he says. “And the industry changed a great deal from the time I stepped back in 2009 or 2010. It kind of went from analog to digital, so I had to adjust to that.”

But he notes that he never stopped working. He appeared on television shows like “The Affair” or the Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle miniseries “Trust,” and popped up in the odd action flick, usually one made far afield from the studio system. “I’ve always done something every year,” he says. “No matter what it was, I never thought about giving it up. I’m an actor. I don’t know what else I would do.”

There was another, darker reason that Fraser left the stage. In the GQ profile, the actor said he was groped by Philip Berk, the former head of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. Berk denied the allegation, but admitted to pinching Fraser’s behind, saying it was a joke.

The Globes and Berk have faced their own reckoning. In 2021, the Los Angeles Times reported that none of the group’s members was Black, leading to outrage throughout Hollywood that forced the Globes to cancel its broadcast last year. Berk was thrown out of the HFPA after he wrote in an email that Black Lives Matter was a “racist hate movement.” The HFPA has taken steps to diversify its membership, and the Globes announced a return in 2023. Nobody knows what that show will look like, but if the Golden Globes come back with a traditional ceremony, will Fraser attend if he’s nominated for “The Whale”?

“Nothing’s happened yet, so check in with me about that later, if something does,” he says.

As the buzz for “The Whale” has heated up, it’s almost as if the public has been reminded of just how much it once loved Fraser. With each viral video and rave review, we’ve all come to re-appreciate his talent and endurance.

“Brendan had a good long run, but anybody who has that kind of pop success or fame, it’s almost like the audience loves it, loves it, and then has its fill,” says Bill Condon, the director of “Gods and Monsters.” “Then they sort of force you to come back in a different form, which Brendan has done. And it’s not until then that they are willing to open themselves back up to you.”

As for Fraser, he’s made it clear that if he does return full time, he wants to work on projects that demand more from him than just fighting the bad guy and getting the girl.

“I’m in a place now where not only do I want to do the heavy lifting with my body, I also want to do it with my mind,” he says.

“The Whale” represents an emotional and physical high-wire act for Fraser. To become Charlie, he spent four hours each day in makeup and getting fitted with prosthetics that weighed up to 300 pounds. To prepare, he worked with a dance instructor for months before shooting started to figure out how his character would move with the excess weight. He also did exhaustive research, consulting with the Obesity Action Coalition, an advocacy group, and talking with numerous people who were struggling with eating issues.

“They let me know what their diet was and how obesity had affected their lives in terms of their relationships with loved ones,” Fraser says. “It was heartbreaking, because very often these people were mocked and made to feel awful about themselves. Vindictive speech is painful. And it does damage because it feeds into the cycle of overeating. I just left those conversations thinking, ‘Hey, this is not your fault. This is an illness. This is an addiction.’”

Historically, Hollywood hasn’t treated obesity with great sensitivity. In films like “Shallow Hal” and “Norbit,” characters who struggle with overeating and weight are treated like punchlines, not people. Remember “Fat Monica” from “Friends”? Or the time Julia Roberts wore sheets of prosthetics to play a heavier version of herself in “America’s Sweethearts”? In contrast to those broad caricatures, Aronofsky and Fraser wanted to make sure “The Whale” portrayed Charlie with empathy and understanding.

“I don’t want to call out colleagues by name,” says Fraser. “But a lot of those movies are one-note and depict obesity with crude jokes.”

Samuel D. Hunter: “The title deliberately pokes at some people’s prejudices.” Benedict Evans for Variety

After Fraser committed to making the film, Aronofsky’s next call was to Adrien Morot, a makeup artist he had collaborated with on “Mother!” and “The Fountain.” Morot used a 3D printer and digital sculpture to design the suit, which involved a set of intricate harnesses and padding. The goal was to create something that obeyed the laws of gravity and physics, so that Fraser could better convey the struggles that Charlie faced just walking across a room, getting out of a chair or taking a shower.

“I barely got to talk to Brendan when we were filming,” says Sadie Sink, who plays Charlie’s daughter, Ellie. “The prosthetics he was wearing were really hot, so between takes Brendan was always being whisked away to a cooling tent.” Other colleagues say that the hurdles Fraser faced impacted their own approach to the film. “Watching Brendan go through all that gave me energy and made me want to get every scene right, so he wouldn’t have to go through it all again,” says Hong Chau, who plays Charlie’s caretaker, Liz.

The fact remains that Fraser needed all the makeup and gadgetry for a simple reason: He’s not severely obese. Nor, for that matter, is he gay. And at a time when there’s a raging debate about on-screen representation of marginalized communities, some have wondered why Aronofsky didn’t cast an overweight actor to play the role.

“There was a chapter in the making of this film where we tried to research actors with obesity,” says Aronofsky. “Outside of not being able to find an actor who could pull off the emotions of the role, it just becomes a crazy chase. Like, if you can’t find a 600-pound actor, is a 300-pound actor or 400-pound actor enough?”

And Aronofsky worried that an actor with severe obesity would struggle with the demands of a grueling production schedule. “From a health perspective, it’s prohibitive,” says Aronofsky. “It’s an impossible role to fill with a real person dealing with those issues.”

Commentators worried, too, that the film’s title, “The Whale,” was a not-so-subtle dig at Charlie, rather than the extended literary metaphor it turns out to be — in the film, Charlie is an English professor who, for reasons that can’t be spoiled, is obsessed with a particular paper on “Moby Dick.”

“The title deliberately pokes at some people’s prejudices,” explains Hunter, who also wrote the screenplay. “I wasn’t surprised by the blowback, because of the history of the way that obesity is treated on film. And we live in cynical and reactionary times.”

Hunter understands that kind of prejudice intimately. To write “The Whale,” he mined his own experiences growing up gay in the Midwest and the solace he sought in overeating.

“To be clear, this is not a story about everybody who grapples with obesity,” says Hunter. “It’s how it presented in me. My depression manifested physically as I self-medicated with food. Fortunately, I had support in my life. I had parents who loved me, and I was able to deal with some of my demons and go to therapy and become a healthier person. But ‘The Whale’ is about a person who didn’t have that support system.”

Friends and colleagues keep returning to one adjective when they describe Fraser: gentle. He’s known for being generous and solicitous, buying breakfast for everyone on the set of “Gods and Monsters” or showing up to the first day of “The Whale” with a box of baby toys and a teddy bear to give Chau, a new mother.

“He’s an angel, really,” says Samantha Morton, who plays Charlie’s ex-wife in “The Whale.” Morton confessed she had difficulty with the scenes where her character had to rip into Fraser’s over the failure of their relationship. “Every time Darren would yell, ‘cut,’ I’d have to move away so I could do the scene again,” she says. “All I wanted to do was go and hug him.”

Fraser’s kindheartedness is certainly on display when he sits down for an interview. He speaks so quietly you strain to listen, expresses genuine mystification over the intense response “The Whale” received at screenings, and seems congenitally incapable of being an imposition. Even the way he asks the server for a drink seems like the antithesis of movie star entitlement: “Just some water. A small glass of water, if you could.”

There’s a shyness there, and you get the sense that Fraser wouldn’t mind disappearing, something that’s rather difficult to pull off, given his 6-foot-2 frame. Even here, in a celebrity haunt like the Bowery, Fraser stands out. People turn to stare at him, and one well-wisher sidles up to congratulate him on the buzz around “The Whale,” lightly punching his arm for emphasis. “I thought he was going to give me a noogie,” Fraser says after the man leaves.

Aronofsky admits to being surprised by the affection that Fraser still commands. “It definitely was not part of my calculation, how much goodwill and support there is out there for Brendan,” he says. “I just needed the right actor for the role. But it’s amazing to see how people respond to him. I think they’re going to be impressed by how the same actor who played all those honest, innocent characters back then is portraying this complicated, messed-up person.”

Now that he’s been granted that rarest of things, a second chance, how does Fraser plan to use it?

There’s more “Doom Patrol,” the cultish, HBO Max superhero show in which he plays a cyborg named Cliff Steele. Fraser teases that the upcoming season will include an entirely musical episode that’s “full production value, singing and dancing.” He’s also spent a month shooting Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” an adaptation of David Gann’s bestselling book, set in the 1920s, about a plot to kill Osage Native Americans to obtain rights to oil found on their land. Fraser, who appears in an ensemble that includes Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, plays an attorney. “It’s a remarkable piece of American history, with epic themes that Scorsese just latches on to,” he says.

Fraser’s return hasn’t been without a few setbacks. After shooting “The Whale,” the actor decamped for Glasgow to play a pyromaniac who faces off against Leslie Grace’s heroine in “Batgirl,” a comic book adaptation that had been slated to debut on HBO Max. The film, however, fell victim to the merger of Discovery and WarnerMedia, HBO’s parent company. With new bosses at the helm, the strategy of making a $90 million movie for streaming was reassessed and a decision was made that “Batgirl” wasn’t good enough to justify turning it into a theatrical release. Instead, the film was scrapped entirely so the company could get a tax write-off.

“It’s tragic,” Fraser says. “It doesn’t engender trust among filmmakers and the studio. Leslie Grace was fantastic. She’s a dynamo — just a spot-on performer. Everything we shot was real and exciting and just the antithesis of doing a straightforward digital, all-green-screen thing. They ran firetrucks around downtown Glasgow at 3 in the morning, and they had flamethrowers. It was a big-budget movie, but one that was just stripped down to the essentials.”

Fraser says he’s still considering his options and won’t decide on a follow-up project until later this year or early 2023. But he’s leaving the door open to films of varying genres and sizes. He doesn’t dismiss the idea of returning to his most popular role in “The Mummy.” “I don’t know how it would work,” he says. “But I’d be open to it, if someone came up with the right conceit.”

The actor also thinks he knows why the attempt to reboot the “Mummy” franchise in 2017 with Tom Cruise sputtered at the box office. “It is hard to make that movie,” he says. “The ingredient that we had going for our ‘Mummy,’ which I didn’t see in the new one, was fun. That was what was lacking in that incarnation. It was too much of a straight-ahead horror movie. ‘The Mummy’ should be a thrill ride, but not terrifying and scary.”

For now, Fraser says he’s enjoying being in demand again.

“I was never that far away,” he says. “You can’t get rid of me that easy. But I’m glad to have a job. I’m still expecting somebody to walk over to me, hand me a dish towel and say, ‘Fraser, get back in the kitchen.’”

Grooming (Brendan): Natasha Leibel; Grooming (Darren): Amy Komorowski/The Wall Group