The actor Brendan Fraser has said playing the role of a severely obese man has taught him that those with similar bodies are “incredibly” strong people, both mentally and physically.
The Whale, which premieres in competition at the Venice film festival on Sunday, has already generated buzz with speculation that it could be on the road to Oscar success.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky, who won the festival’s Golden Lion in 2008 for The Wrestler, and based on the Samuel D Hunter play of the same name, it follows the story of Charlie – a reclusive English teacher near the end of his life who attempts to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter for one last chance at redemption.
Speaking at a press conference on Sunday, Fraser – a megastar of the 90s and early noughties who has been largely absent from major projects for the best part of two decades – said the role was a learning curve for him. “It gave me an appreciation for those whose bodies are similar. I learned that you need to be an incredibly strong person, physically, mentally, to inhabit that being,” he said.
“Charlie’s physical mobility is limited to his home space, which is his couch. His story is told behind closed doors. He’s a light in a dark space. I think it’s poetic that the trauma he carries is manifest in the physical weight of his body.
“I needed to learn to absolutely move in a new way. I developed muscles I didn’t know I had. I even felt a sense of vertigo at the end of the day when all the appliances were removed, as you’d feel stepping off a boat on to the dock here in Venice.”
The film also stars Stranger Things’ Sadie Sink and Ty Simpkins, Hong Chau and Samantha Morton. Aronofsky said he felt “deeply moved” when he first watched Hunter’s play in New York. But it took the director a further 10 years to make the film, “because it took me about 10 years to cast [it],” he said.
“Casting Charlie was a huge challenge for many different reasons. I considered everyone, all different types of actors. Every single movie star on the planet. But none of it ever really clicked, it just didn’t move me, it didn’t feel right. A couple of years ago I caught a trailer from a low-budget Brazilian movie, I saw Brendan in it and a lightbulb went off.”
Speaking about his career, Fraser, best known for roles in The Mummy, George of the Jungle and Gods and Monsters, said this role presented his biggest challenge.
“I looked different in those [George of the Jungle] 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.
“By far I think that Charlie is the most heroic man I have ever played, because his superpower is to see the good in others, and bring that out in him. In that process he’s on his journey of salvation.”
Hunter, who adapted the screenplay, recalled that when he originally wrote the play 12 years ago he was a university teacher who was begging his students to write something truthful and honest. “Out of this I was getting these amazing, gorgeous things. I was like, I want to write a story about an English teacher who is desperately seeking to connect with a younger person… I think literature was always imbued in it, I wanted Charlie to be a man of letters, a voracious reader.”
Added Aronofsky: “The last few years, so many of us have lost so much. There’s been such a separation of human connection. Cinema is about the human connection. It’s about the chance to slide into someone else’s shoes and to have two hours of empathy and someone else’s mind, and I think it’s exactly what the world needs.”