NEW YORK (AP) – In a darkened hotel room in New York’s Soho district, Brendan Fraser politely greets a reporter, holding an open plastic bag. “Would you like a jelly bean?”
Fraser, the 54-year-old actor, is in many ways an extremely familiar face. Here’s the once-ubiquitous ’90s presence and action star of ‘The Mummy’ and ‘George of the Jungle’ whose warm, serious nature has endeared him to years and years to come.
But Fraser, who has barely appeared on the big screen in the past decade, isn’t quite as you might remember him either. His voice is softer. He is more sensitive, almost intense. He appears to be bearing some bruises from an up and down life. If Fraser looks like he used to be but also someone who is markedly different, that’s appropriate. In Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale he gives a performance he has never given before. And it could well earn him an Oscar.
Fraser’s performance was hailed as his comeback — a word, he says, “doesn’t hurt my feelings.” But it’s not the one he would choose.
“If anything, this is more of a reintroduction than a comeback,” says Fraser. “It’s an opportunity to reintroduce myself to an industry that I don’t think has forgotten me while it’s celebrated. I’ve never been so far away.”
Fraser is actually very close in The Whale. Fraser can be seen in virtually every scene in the adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s play, which A24 releases in theaters on Friday. He plays a reclusive, overweight English teacher named Charlie whose overeating stems from past trauma. With health issues reducing the time remaining, 600-pound Charlie struggles to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Sadie Sink).
Fraser’s performance, which has been widely acclaimed since the film’s Venice premiere, has two Oscar-friendly traits to speak of: a comeback narrative and a physical metamorphosis. For the role, Fraser wore a massive body suit and prosthetics made by makeup artist Adrian Morot, which required hours of makeup every morning.
But for all the transformative traits of the role, Fraser’s accomplishment lies in his sad, soulful eyes and compassionate interactions with the characters who frequent his home. (Hong Chau plays a friend and a nurse.) It adds up to Fraser’s most insightful performance, one that has thrust him back into the limelight after years of making quickly forgotten films like 2013’s Hair Brained and the direct-to-DVD Breakout. filmed” (2013). On stages from London to Toronto, Fraser – a born-again leading man – has been followed by standing ovations wherever he goes.
For Fraser, who spent much of his early Hollywood heyday swinging on vines and hurtling through pyramids, the role of Charlie in The Whale has a cosmic symmetry. He can identify with him, Fraser says, “in a way that might surprise you.” In his late 20s trying to be as fit as possible for George of the Jungle, Fraser encountered his own body image issues.
“All I knew was that I never felt like it was enough. I questioned myself. I felt scrutinized, judged, objectified, and often humiliated,” says Fraser. “It played with my head. It played with my confidence.”
Some have questioned whether Fraser’s role in The Whale should have gone to someone authentically heavy. But Fraser, who worked with the Obesity Action Coalition to set up the show, says he understands a different kind of appearance-based judgment.
“The term was ‘himbo,'” he says. “I wasn’t sure if I appreciated it or not. I know this is Bimbo, which is a derogatory term, except it’s a guy. It just left me with a feeling of deep insecurity. What do I have to do to please you?”
“It didn’t really matter, because life took over. I have done other things. I’m getting to a point now where I see the other side of the coin.”
After seeing the play at Playwright’s Horizon 10 years ago, Aronofsky, the director of “Pi”, “Requiem for a Dream” and “Black Swan”, spent years thinking about different actors to play the protagonist of “The Whale”. could, to no avail. He then had Fraser come in and read for the role.
“It wasn’t like I went about it with a math: oh, a forgotten American-Canadian treasure,” says Aronofsky. “He was the right man for the right role at the right time. If anything, I wondered if people would think it was a stupid choice or something. There wasn’t a cool factor I could see.”
Aronofsky instead relied on gut instinct and an old axiom: “Once a movie star, always a movie star.” Also, Fraser was hungry. He really wanted the role and was willing to put in all the work, all the time in the makeup chair. Still, Aronofsky later marveled at the juxtaposition of The Whale with films like Encino Man, Bedazzled, and Airheads while watching a video clip of Fraser at an awards ceremony.
“He plays this very present, honest, innocent jerk,” says Aronofsky. “Then you cut it off with ‘The Whale.’ It was kind of stunning to me that this was a human being. There are many years in between.”
Fraser never stopped working, but his movie star days mostly dried up in the years following his 2008 films The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and the 3-D film Journey to the Center of the Earth. It was around this time that he and his wife Afton Smith, with whom he has three sons, divorced.
“I took my time. It was important,” says Fraser. “Mainly related to my life as a father. It gave me an appreciation of my ability to love. What I learned is now influencing the second half of my professional life.”
“Now I know my goal. Take everything I’ve learned own it And if possible, let it advance the work that lies ahead,” adds Fraser. “It’s a nice idea, but what work comes before me?”
At a luncheon in Beverly Hills, Calif. in 2003, Fraser was groped by Hollywood Foreign Press Association member Philip Berk, Fraser said in 2018. (Berk denied Fraser’s account.) The experience, Fraser told GQ, gave him that Feeling that “something had been taken from me” and “made me withdraw”.
Last month, Fraser announced that he would not be attending the Golden Globes in January, whether he was nominated or not. “My mother didn’t raise a hypocrite,” Fraser said. Still, the nature of the awards campaigns will likely keep Fraser in the public eye during March’s Oscars. Is he even scared of stepping back into the spotlight?
“I think it’s going to be like that for the rest of my career,” Fraser replies. “No. That’s what I’m obligated to do. I feel obligated to use, as politely as possible, this casual bias to describe this character, to remind them that there’s a better way to do it. Obesity is the last domain of accepted, casual bigotry that we still cling to.”
While filming on a sound stage in Newburgh, New York, Chau was often struck by how Fraser steadily worked on him and the crew members who hovered around him before each take, with hundred pounds of cumbersome prosthetics.
“I just thought Brendan was such an angel and so lovely in the way he was able to pull this off and compartmentalize everything that was going on around him,” says Chau. “Of course I felt like taking care of him on set. Make sure his water bottle was somewhere nearby. Hold his hand and make sure he got off the couch.
Little about the film, or Fraser’s path with it, was inevitable. His first meeting with Aronofsky took place in February 2020. The pandemic almost led to the cancellation of production.
“I gave everything I had every day,” he says. “We were living under an existential threat from COVID. An actor’s job is to approach everything as if it were the first time. But I also pretended it was the last time.”
Instead, Fraser’s performance opened up a whole new chapter for him as an actor. He recently landed a supporting role in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon. Thinking about what’s next, however, will have to wait for another day. When the time for the interview is up, Fraser stands up and graciously pulls a bag out of his pocket.
“Gummy bears on the go?” asks Fraser. “I recommend pineapple.”
Follow AP film writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP
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