Fraser takes on his most substantial role in a number of years with Darren Aronofsky’s latest, in which Charlie is slowly eating himself to death while struggling with congestive heart failure. An English teacher who holds online courses (with the camera off), Charlie eats to escape the pain of losing the love of his life, his former night-school student Alan, with whom he began a relationship after leaving his wife and then eight-year-old daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink). Over the course of a week, he tries to reconnect with Ellie.
“I developed muscles I did not know I had,” Fraser told journalists at a press conference in Venice on Sunday, ahead of the movie’s world premiere.
“I even felt a sense of vertigo at the end of the day when all the appliances were removed; it was like stepping off the dock onto a boat in Venice. That [sense of] undulating. It gave me appreciation for those whose bodies are similar. You need to be an incredibly strong person, mentally and physically, to inhabit that physical being.”
Fraser donned a prosthetic suit for the role, which was also aided by a small amount of CGI. As he moves around the apartment, always helped by a walker or a wheelchair, the actor’s transformation is stunning. A recent Vanity Fair article reported that Fraser carried an extra 50 lbs. to 300 lbs. during filming. However, the film will likely stir controversy for casting a slimmer, well-known star over a potentially less recognizable actor whose physique is more closely aligned with Charlie’s.
Asked by Variety why he chose to “reintroduce” an actor like Fraser, who had been largely out of the public eye, rather than hire an actor who is of a similar stature to the character, Aronofsky said he took 10 years to cast the movie, but didn’t directly answer the question about his casting choice.
“It took me 10 years to make the movie and that’s because it took me 10 years to cast the film. Casting Charlie was a huge challenge for many different reasons,” said Aronofsky.
“I considered everyone — all types of different actors, every single movie star on the planet. But none of them ever really clicked. It just didn’t move me, or feel right. A couple years ago, I caught a trailer from a Brazilian movie, a low-budget [movie], and I saw Brendan in the trailer and a lightbulb went off. I hadn’t seen ‘Gods and Monsters’ or ‘George of the Jungle.’ Seeing him in there, it just clicked. I asked Brendan to come meet me…it just kept clicking.”
Elsewhere in the press conference, when Fraser was asked about early roles such as “George of the Jungle,” he said: “I looked different in those days. My journey to where I am now has been to explore as many characters as I can. And this presented the biggest challenge to me that I wanted. By far and away I think Charlie is the most heroic man I’ve ever played because his superpower is to see the good in others and bring that out in them.”
The movie’s title has also been criticized. While certainly provocative, it’s actually a reference to Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” which is a motif throughout the film. (Melville’s book is also known as “The Whale.”)
“The Whale” is based on a 2012 play by Samuel D. Hunter, who wrote the screenplay for the movie. Hunter, who was also at the press conference, said he based the character on his own personal experiences with weight gain and depression earlier in his life.
“I wrote this character from a pretty personal place,” said Hunter. “I have a history of self-medicating with food and a history depression. I used to be a lot bigger than I am now. I also went to a fundamentalist religious high school. I was a gay kid in a fundamentalist religious high school, which was not easy…This might be my most personal [play]. I was afraid to write it. When I actually did write it, I thought the only way I can write it is to write it from a profound place of love and faith. I wanted to render someone who had an unwavering faith in the goodness of human beings, despite everything that happened in his life.”
“The Whale” is Aronofsky’s latest feature film since “Mother!” (2017). Set entirely in Charlie’s dingy apartment, it’s the most stripped back effort we’ve seen for some time — if ever — from the director.
“The saying that you can’t judge a book by its cover is a really big theme in this film,” said Aronofsky. “You can’t judge any of these characters by their first impressions. The way that Charlie the English teacher is constantly pushing his students to find honesty and truth to get beyond the cover, I found very inspiring.”