NEW YORK (AP) — In a darkened hotel room in New York’s Soho neighborhood, Brendan Fraser kindly greets a reporter with an open plastic bag in hand. “Do you want a gummy bear?”
Fraser, the 54-year-old actor, is in many ways an extremely familiar face to encounter. Here’s the once ubiquitous presence and action star from ’90s ‘The Mummy’ and ‘George of the Jungle’ whose warm, sincere nature has still endeared him many years later.
But Fraser, who was little seen on the big screen for most of the past decade, isn’t quite as you might remember him either. His voice is softer. He is more sensitive, almost intense. He seems to be wearing some bruises from an up and down life. If Fraser looks both like he once was, but also someone who is distinctly different, then that’s appropriate. In Darren Aronofsky’s ‘The Whale’ he gives a performance like he has never given before. And maybe it will win him an Academy Award.
Fraser’s performance was hailed as his comeback – a word, he says, that “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 a chance to reintroduce myself to an industry that I don’t believe has forgotten about me as perpetrated. I’ve just never been this far away.”
Fraser is indeed very close in “The Whale”. In the adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s play, which A24 releases in theaters on Friday, Fraser appears in virtually every scene. He plays a reclusive, obese English teacher named Charlie whose overeating stems from a past trauma. As health problems shorten his time, the 600-pound Charlie struggles to reunite his estranged daughter (Sadie Sink). get to know.
Critically acclaimed since the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival, Fraser’s performance has two Oscar-friendly qualities: a comeback story and a physical metamorphosis. For the role, Fraser donned a massive bodysuit and prosthetics created by make-up artist Adrian Morot, requiring hours of makeup every morning.
But regardless of all the transformational trappings of the role, Fraser’s performance is in his sad, soulful eyes and compassionate interactions with the characters entering and exiting his home. (Hong Chau plays a friend and nurse.) It adds up to Fraser’s most empathetic performance, one that has propelled him back into the limelight after years of making quickly forgotten movies like “Hair Brained” (2013) and the straight-to-DVD released “Breakout” (2013). On stages now from London to Toronto, standing ovations have followed Fraser – a leading man reborn – everywhere he goes.
For Fraser, who spent much of his previous Hollywood heyday swinging from vines and racing through pyramids, playing Charlie in “The Whale” has cosmic symmetry. He could identify with him, says Fraser, “in a way that might surprise you.” In his late twenties and trying to be as fit as possible for “George of the Jungle,” Fraser ran into his own body image issues.
“All I knew was that I never felt like enough was enough. I asked myself. I felt scrutinized, judged, objectified, often humiliated,” says Fraser. “It played in my head. It played with my confidence.”
Some have questioned whether Fraser’s role in “The Whale” should have gone to someone really tough. But Fraser, who worked with the Obesity Action Coalition in building the performance, 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 that’s bimbo, which is a derogatory term, except it’s a dude. It just left me with a sense of deep insecurity. What should I do to please you?”
It didn’t really matter because life took over. I did other things. I am now getting to a place where I see the other side of the coin.”
After seeing the play 10 years ago in Playwrights Horizon, Aronofsky, the director of ‘Pi’, ‘Requiem for a Dream’ and ‘Black Swan’, spent years contemplating various actors who could play the protagonist of ‘The Whale’. ‘ could play without any success . Then he had Fraser come in and read the scroll.
“It wasn’t like I went into this with a calculation: oh, a forgotten American-Canadian treasure,” says Aronofsky. “He was the right guy for the right role at the right time. If anything, I wondered if people would think it was a silly choice or something. There wasn’t any cool factor I could see.
Aronofsky instead relied on his gut and an old axiom: “Once a movie star, always a movie star.” Besides, Fraser was hungry. He desperately wanted the part and was ready to do all the work, in the makeup chair all the time. Still, Aronofsky would later marvel, watching a clip of Fraser at an awards show, at the juxtaposition of “The Whale” with films like “Encino Man,” “Bedazzled,” and “Airheads.”
“He plays this kind of very present, truthful, innocent goofus-type dude,” says Aronofsky. ‘Then you alternate it with ‘The Whale’. It was a little overwhelming to me that this was a human being. There is a gap of many years in between.”
Fraser never stopped working, but his days as a movie star largely dried up in the years following his 2008 films “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” and the 3D film “Journey to the Center of the Earth”. Around that time, he and his wife Afton Smith, with whom he has three sons, divorced.
“I took some personal time. It was important,” says Fraser. “Mainly related to my life as a father. It made me appreciate my ability to love. What I learned now defines the second half of my professional life.
“Now I know my goal. Take everything I’ve learned. To own. And, if possible, let it fuel the work ahead,” Fraser added. “It’s a nice idea, but what work will I get?”
At a luncheon in Beverly Hills, California, in 2003, Fraser was groped by Philip Berk, a member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Fraser said in 2018. “taken from me” and “made me withdraw.”
Last month, Fraser announced he won’t be attending the Golden Globes in January, whether nominated or not. “My mother didn’t raise a hypocrite,” Fraser said. Still, the nature of awards campaigns will likely keep Fraser in the public eye at the Oscars in March. Is he afraid of being in the spotlight again?
“I think it will be for the rest of my career,” Fraser replies. “No. I have an obligation to do this. I feel obligated, as politely as I can, to use that casual bias to describe this character, to remind them there’s a better way to do that Obesity is the last realm of accepted, casual bigotry that we still cling to.”
While shooting on a sound stage in Newburgh, New York, Chau was often in awe of how Fraser worked steadily with a hundred pounds of cumbersome prosthetics on him and crew members buzzing around him for each take.
“I just thought Brendan was such an angel and so graceful in the way he pulled that off and pigeonholed everything that went on around him,” says Chau. “Of course I felt like taking care of him on set. Making sure his water bottle was somewhere nearby. Holding his hand and making sure he got up off the couch OK.
Little about the film, or Fraser’s journey with it, was unavoidable. His first meeting with Aronofsky was in February 2020. The pandemic almost led to the cancellation of the production.
“I gave everything I had every day,” he says. “We lived under the existential threat of COVID. It’s an actor’s job to approach everything like it’s the first time. I did that but also like it could be the last time.”
Instead, Fraser’s performance opened up a whole new chapter for him as an actor. He recently played a supporting role in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’. Thinking about what comes next, however, will have to wait until another day. When the time for the interview is up, Fraser stands up and gracefully pulls a bag from his pocket.
“Gummy bear for the road?” asks Fraser. “I recommend pineapple.”
Follow AP film writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP