The director discusses his Oscar-nominated film about a morbidly obese online college professor and weighs in on the so-called ‘Brenaissance’
The day the Brenaissance came, Darren Aronofsky was woefully unprepared. “I did not know how much love there was out there for Brendan,” says the director of his decision to cast Brendan Fraser, former teen heartthrob and star of The Mummy, as a morbidly obese online college professor with days left to live in The Whale. “In many ways, I thought if anything people might have even looked down on him a bit.”
It’s a bracing admission from the director, who had been looking to adapt Samuel D Hunter’s play for almost ten years when he hit upon the idea to cast Fraser. He knew the success of his film, shot largely in the confines of one living room, would hinge on the actor’s performance as Charlie, a man with a binge-eating addiction seeking to reconcile with his daughter (Sadie Sink). But even then, it seems, he had doubts about his ability to pull it off. “It was kind of a clever idea, but there was something in it that was unknown,” he recalls of his initial feeling, before a read-through in February 2020 convinced him he had his man for the job.
Fast-forward three years and Fraser is in the running for best actor at next month’s Oscars, having earned a six-minute standing ovation at the film’s premiere in Venice that reduced the star to tears. As for Aronofsky, it’s great to see the director of celebrated mindfucks like The Black Swan and Requiem For a Dream working in a lower-key register, imparting an air of creeping dread to the drama with nothing but a muted palette of greys and browns, and some claustrophobic mise-en-scène that feels faintly triggering thanks to still-tender memories of the pandemic.
Below, AnOther spoke with Aronofsky about The Whale.
Alex Denney: You first saw Samuel’s play nearly ten years ago now, what is it that drew you to this story?
Darren Aronofsky: I just was so deeply moved by it. It was all these characters that on the surface I should have no connection to, but as the play unfolded, my heart opened and slowly broke. By the end, I was intrigued by the idea of taking this confined [story] and trying to make it big and cinematic. The beauty of cinema is you can transport people into a pair of shoes and have them walk in a character’s spirit and soul, and Charlie is such a beautiful human being in all his messed-up, confused, contradictory ways. At his core, there is this beautiful kernel and I just wanted to share that with everyone.
AD: You’ve said previously how you struggled for years to cast for the role. Were there other actors you approached before casting Brendan?
DA: No. There were many different actors I thought about, but nothing got me excited for several different reasons. When I stumbled on the idea of Brendan it was the first time I was like, ‘Oh wow.’ It was kind of a clever idea, but there was something in it that was unknown. But it was exciting.
I did not really understand all the love in the world for Brendan. In many ways I thought, if anything, people might have even looked down on him a bit. I didn’t understand his perception of the world. So it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I’ll bring back this forgotten star,’ like the Tarantino move to bring back Travolta – Travolta was a true god to me growing up in disco Brooklyn, the brilliance was obvious. So I didn’t know there was so much love for Brendan out there, and all this ‘Brenaissance’ stuff has been such a gift, but it really wasn’t part of my calculation. It was really about just making a small film during Covid, and five actors in a room felt like a reasonable risk to take to get everyone back to work. And Brendan was the actor to pull it off.
AD: What were the qualities you think he brought to the role?
DA: He definitely brought understanding. He also had a tremendous likability, which was interesting, because the guy who played Charlie in the play ten years ago didn’t play it in the same kind of way – it was much more gruff. But it still worked, which I think shows you there’s enough room in the material for actors to approach it in many different ways.
AD: Was there a lot of discussion with your team about how Brendan’s prosthetics should look?
DA: Oh yeah, that was probably the second phone call I made after Brendan’s. I called [prosthetic designer] Adrien Morot and asked him, ‘Is this possible?’, because no one had ever really tried to do this before. Sure, there had been ridiculous make-up in the past, but this film was all about authenticity and was not about making Charlie a joke in any way, but making him a real human being. And I didn’t know if the tech existed to do it.
“I did not really understand all the love in the world for Brendan. In many ways I thought, if anything, people might have even looked down on him a bit ... all this ‘Brenaissance’ stuff has been such a gift, but it really wasn’t part of my calculation” – Darren Aronofsky
AD: Charlie is someone who tries to see the good in everyone, but sometimes I wonder if he isn’t a bit delusional in putting Ellie on this pedestal.
DA: [Nods emphatically] It’s a big question. That’s called good writing; I don’t think things should be that simple.
AD: There’s a very heightened quality to the drama in the film – perhaps it’s the confined setting, which felt quite triggering after the pandemic. Was that intensity felt on set?
DA: It was there. I do think that experience of Covid did make the film more relatable, because so many of us were shut-ins for a couple of years. It was interesting how that connected. But I made it a period piece because I felt that, with Charlie’s health problems, everyone would be wearing masks if this was set during the pandemic, which would of course have caused all different types of problems.
AD: There are spiritual threads running through many of your films, from Pi all the way up to The Whale and Charlie’s quest for redemption. What’s the draw of these stories for you?
DA: Well, in the case of [Aronofsky’s 2014 film] Noah, it’s like I’m trying to make those religious stories more mythological, because if a story is a myth it has power. It can actually affect the world in the sense that, if I say ‘Icarus’ to you, you know what that metaphor is, but if I say ‘Noah’ it’s [more] complicated. Turning those old Bible stories into mythology makes them more powerful than fighting over if they really happened. Probably in Pi there were reflections of me trying to figure out my religious beliefs, but I’ve definitely landed squarely in the atheistic camp.
The Whale is out in UK cinemas from February 3.