There is a calm when Brendan Fraser walks into the room that is paradoxically unnerving. Here is an actor on the biggest comeback tour of the year, or perhaps any year, making the frenzied press rounds during this past September’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Thanks to his starring role in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, a dark and purposefully messy character study whose success rests entirely on the hefty shoulders of its leading man, the 54-year-old Fraser is currently in the true thick of a Hollywood resurgence. Playing a 600-pound literature professor named Charlie, who is trapped in a self-destructive cycle of binge-eating and self-loathing – and more literally trapped in his dank apartment – Fraser has commanded standing ovations after every festival screening. Adoring profiles in magazines. Social media posts that rocket into instant virality. There is something intimidating about being in the presence of a performer currently on top of the world, yet so dang relaxed about it all.
But, hey, to Brendan Fraser it is just “the job.” How could he not be happy to be back in the spotlight after a prolonged absence outside of Hollywood’s sights, for reasons both professional and personal, “public and private”? (The professional: His franchises mostly petered out. The personal: an allegation that Philip Berk, once the president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, had assaulted the actor in 2003, an account that Berk has disputed and which has never resulted in charges being filed.) How comfortable can an actor be to not only savour the moment, but to do it while also revisiting the lower points that led him to this place, over and over again in interview after interview?
“Well, let’s find out,” Fraser says in a surprisingly deep baritone, a wink of the eye implied but not exactly offered. “I still think that I’m the luckiest guy to have had the most diverse choices of film until I took a step back, and I don’t ever want to lose this.”
“This” being the fear that even with the accolades that The Whale is securing – for Fraser’s performance, if not perhaps the rest of Aronofsky’s challenging film – the actor could be pulled back into the margins.
“There is still that sense that someone is going to walk up to me, hand me a towel and say, ‘Fraser, get back in the dish pit!’” the actor says. “I don’t ever want to get too comfortable. I want to make sure that I can approach the work with an eager attitude. It is always going to be hard to believe the criticism, and you shouldn’t believe the praise, either. But it’s nice work if you can get it.”
For years, that work was elusive. After his 2008 would-be blockbuster Inkheart failed to ignite, Fraser scored some decent dramas (2010′s Extraordinary Measures), fun cameos (2009′s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra), and then a sporadic stream of lower-budget curiosities. Eventually making his way back to the mainstream through television – if you haven’t seen his supporting performance as Robotman on HBO Max/Crave’s Doom Patrol, you have three seasons to catch up on quickly – Fraser scored an unexpected turn as the heel in Steven Soderbergh’s No Sudden Move. It was either only a matter of time – or a matter of good timing –that another well-regarded auteur might recruit Fraser for some off-brand casting.
Which is how Aronofsky arrived in Fraser’s orbit. The filmmaker known for works both startling (Requiem for a Dream) and polarizing (Mother!) was a decade into trying to bring The Whale to life after acquiring the film rights to Samuel D. Hunter’s off-Broadway play in 2012.
“I was deeply moved by the play, but I didn’t know if there was a movie there. But I felt connected to it, and I took my time trying to cast the film,” Aronofsky said in an interview. “I had thought about every single movie star out there in the world and met countless actors, known and unknown. But nothing hit me in the heart and got me out of bed until I saw this trailer this small Brazilian movie [Journey to the End of the Night] that Brendan made, and a lightbulb went off in my head. He has this wide face in which you can see into his soul.”
A bonus point that perhaps remained unsaid was that Aronofsky was an old hand at delivering quote-unquote comeback vehicles, thanks to his work with Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. Finally, Fraser would have his spotlight back. The only catch: That spotlight would be felt while underneath layers of next-level metamorphic prosthetics, courtesy of Montreal costume designer Adrien Morot.
“The nuts and bolts of creating Charlie meant that there were five to seven people on-set helping me move. The makeup studio was 70 steps away and I had to be wheeled there back and forth. It was like having a pit crew at a NASCAR race,” Fraser recalls. “I had tubes running cold water to my body to regulate the temperature. It was a lot to deal with, but it was as close as I could get to being someone who carries that much body weight. It was carefully done to create a sense of authenticity.”
Working with the Obesity Action Coalition to ensure that the story was told with sensitivity, Fraser and Aronofsky formed a unique bond during extensive rehearsals and then on set – a relationship that was collaborative and dependent, intense and respectful. So while it is easy for performers to lose their cool while undergoing overwhelming makeup and costume routines each and every day for a month, Aronofsky insists that Fraser was the portrait of grace under pounds and pounds of pressure.
“It was extremely exhausting, but he was able to hold on,” the director recalls. “The hardest parts were the food scenes, and we’re moving the camera and everything has to be perfect. We did a few too many takes, it can get upsetting and emotional. But he was a complete gentleman.” (As for himself, Aronofsky says Fraser’s lengthy makeup regimen allowed the director to “sleep in for once, because for the four hours that Brendan is in the makeup chair, for half of that I can be dreamland.”)
With the hard work of playing Charlie now behind him and the energizing Oscar buzz ahead, Fraser could theoretically spend the next while coasting. Or slipping back into an easy franchise. But that’s not quite what he has in mind.
“I’m a firm believer that in this art there must be risk. Pop culture or easily digestible fare has served me very well in the previous years of my career. But I still think there’s something to learning and growing,” he says. “I know how to do the job. I just want to learn how to do it better.”
The Whale opens in theatres Dec. 21