Brendan Fraser didn’t feel like he belonged. Now he’s up for an Oscar
Without a doubt, the biggest story of this year’s awards season is the resurgence of Brendan Fraser. The ’90s action star lovably meandering through Encino man, George from the jungle and the Mummy franchise, which has disappeared from the movies and been relegated to minor television roles for years over the past decade. Now he is considered the favorite for the Oscar for best actor. It’s the kind of comeback story that gets any movie fan pumping.
Fraser, who once described his muscle-bound younger self as “like a walking steak,” portrays his life as an extremely obese binge eater struggling to reconcile with his daughter The whale, directed by Darren Aronofsky. After showing up to a huge stir at the Venice Film Festival in September, The whale has since garnered awards, accolades and some backlash from bold-positive commentators – arguably an advantage in a media world increasingly fueled by flash in the pan controversy.
The whale is based on a play by Samuel D. Hunter that drew heavily on the playwright’s life. Like Hunter’s younger self, Fraser’s Charlie is a gay creative writing teacher living in Idaho. Like the younger hunter, he is addicted to food.
“I really struggled with obesity in my 20s,” says Hunter. “At some point I was able to turn the corner, mainly because I met my then-boyfriend and now-husband. I wanted to tell the story of someone who wasn’t as lucky as I was.” He also wanted to show a fat person who wasn’t ridiculous or just grotesque, but “a deep and complicated person”.
Eventually, that character became Charlie, who fell in love with a man, left his wife and daughter with all the selfishness of a new passion, and was left alone when his lover died. Grieving and guilty, Charlie has been trying to bury his insecurities and worries under a flood of food ever since. His only support is his dead lover’s sister, played in the film by Hong Chau – effectively his enabler – who brings him the family-sized buckets of fried chicken, which he devours without relish. His former wife, Mary (Samantha Morton), and daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), treat him with a furious disdain that he shares to some degree.
Aronofsky, whose credits include Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler and Black Swan, settled on the play 10 years ago but told both budding actors and Hunter – who would later co-write the screenplay with him – that he didn’t know if he’d ever make it into a movie. It all depended on finding the right Charlie.
“I ran through all sorts of ideas,” says Aronofsky. He met people who had Charlie’s body shape but weren’t actors; he made drawings of every actor he could remember and transformed into Charlie. “Nothing made sense to me.” Then he saw one of yesterday’s men appearing in a cooking film from Brazil. Brendan Fraser. “And a lightbulb went out.” Faced with skepticism, he organized a reading. Fraser read Charlie. “Right away we all had chills.”
“They knew what to do. I could even take a nap if I need to.”
Brendan Fraser talks about the people who groomed him to play a morbidly obese man on The Whale
The production had advice and help from doctors, exercise specialists, and the Obesity Action Coalition, whose members helped with personal testimonies. The goal, says Aronofsky, was to have people forget the prosthetic fat within the first 10 minutes and end up seeing just a human being with their own dignity, someone to love. At the same time, that dignity depended on getting his physicality right.
“Charlie’s body had to obey the laws of physics and gravity,” says Fraser. “To differentiate it from other costumes and makeup that we’ve seen before.”
The start of pre-production coincided with the lockdown. A producer went to Fraser’s country house; They both stood in the driveway while he scanned the actor’s body with an iPad. This was the blueprint for Charlie’s body – never called a fatsuit – to be constructed by effects expert Adrien Morot.
When they first attempted to trap Fraser in it, the process took six hours. The team narrowed it down to two. “Adrien had an assistant and they worked like a Formula 1 pit crew,” says Fraser. “They knew what to do. I could even take a nap if I need to.”
Meanwhile, Fraser was watching a reality TV show called My 600 pound life which has been running since 2012, each episode is dedicated to a fat person trying to lose weight. “It was important to learn how to walk, how to move and how not to move,” he says with his characteristic seriousness. “I always turned the volume down, I wanted to observe the body and the movement. And then when I listened to it, it made me aware of the severity, the seriousness of the condition.”
What happened to Brendan Fraser? He was ubiquitous in his mummy heyday, a muscle-bound, wide-eyed hero who acted as a GQ profile put it in 2018, “had the unique quality of a man seeing the world for the first time”.
That inherent innocence was brought into play in some key dramatic roles – in school ties (1992), gods and monsters (1998) and The Quiet American (2002) directed by Australian Phillip Noyce – but completely defined the more famous blockbusters that in turn shaped it. Fraser did a lot of his own stunt work which destroyed his body. At the time he came to make The Mummy: The Tomb of the Dragon Emperor In 2008, he was practically held together with ice packs in China. He had to undergo repeated surgery on worn vertebrae and a partial knee replacement; he had even damaged his vocal cords.
But Fraser was weakened in other ways too. In 2003, then-President of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association Philip Berk fondled him in a way that Berk later described as a joke but which Fraser found invasive and humiliating. The experience, he would say later, eroded his confidence and self-esteem. The work “withered on the vine for me,” he later said when the rise of #MeToo encouraged him to speak out. “In my mind, at least, something had been taken from me.” He withdrew because he felt he “didn’t belong.”
At least some of Fraser’s own struggles with his body – and perhaps his mind – carry over to Charlie’s struggle. “I think we’re the sum of our experiences, right?” Frazer says. “I had some creaking hinges that I had to take care of for several years. I’ve reduced my workload to be with my family so I feel empowered now – how’s it going? – work smart, not hard.” And it was that trying time, he thinks now, that brought him to the point where he was able to play Charlie with “the dignity, honesty and authenticity” he deserved.
Maybe it’s an inheritance from his vocal cord damage, but Fraser speaks very softly; his interview voice is little more than a whisper. Those wide-set eyes seem poised to instantly fill with tears, an impression borne out by his response to the standing ovation that greeted him The whalePremiere in Venice. He says the business he chose when he was a boy enchanted by musicals calls for a thick skin, which he didn’t have. Maybe so, but here he is in line to win the Oscar. Brendan Fraser is one of them, after all. The question now is where will he go next?
The whale will be in cinemas from February 2nd.
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https://www.smh.com.au/culture/movies/brendan-fraser-felt-he-didn-t-belong-now-he-s-in-line-for-an-oscar-20230124-p5cf2b.html?ref=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss_culture Brendan Fraser didn’t feel like he belonged. Now he’s up for an Oscar