NEW YORK (AP) – In a darkened hotel room in New York’s Soho neighbourhood, Brendan Fraser kindly greets a reporter with an open plastic bag in his hand. “Would you like a gummy bear?”
Fraser, the 54-year-old actor, is in many ways an extremely familiar face to encounter. Here is the once ubiquitous ‘90s presence and action star of The Mummy and George of the Jungle, whose warm, earnest disposition has made him beloved, still, many years later.
But Fraser, little seen on the big screen for much of the last decade, is also not quite as you might remember him. His voice is softer. He’s more sensitive, almost intensely so. He seems to bear some bruises from an up-and-down life.
If Fraser seems both as he was once was but also someone markedly different, that’s appropriate. In Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, he gives a performance unlike any he’s given before. And it may well win him an Academy Award.
Fraser’s performance been hailed as his comeback – a word, he said, that “doesn’t hurt my feelings”. But it’s not the one he’d choose.
“If anything, this is a reintroduction more than a comeback,” Fraser said. “It’s an opportunity to reintroduce myself to an industry, who I do not believe forgot me as is being perpetrated. I’ve just never been that far away.”
Fraser is very close at hand, indeed, in The Whale. In the adaptation of Samuel D Hunter’s play, Fraser is in virtually every scene. He plays a reclusive, obese English teacher named Charlie whose overeating stems from past trauma.
As health woes shrink the time he has left, the 600-pound Charlie struggles to reacquaint himself to his estranged daughter (Sadie Sink).
Fraser’s performance, widely celebrated since the film’s Venice Film Festival premiere, has two Oscar-friendly traits going it for: A comeback narrative and a physical metamorphosis.
For the role, Fraser wore a massive body suit and prosthetics crafted by makeup artist Adrian Morot that required hours in makeup each morning.
But regardless of all the role’s transformation trappings, Fraser’s performance resides in his sad, soulful eyes and compassionate interactions with the characters that come in and out of his home. (Hong Chau plays a friend and nurse.)
It adds up to Fraser’s most empathetic performance, one that has returned him to the spotlight after years making quickly forgotten films like Hair Brained (2013) and the straight-to-DVD Breakout (2013).
On stages now from London to Toronto, standing ovations have trailed Fraser – a leading man reborn – wherever he goes.
For Fraser, who spent much of his previous heyday in Hollywood swinging on vines and racing through pyramids, playing Charlie in The Whale has a cosmic symmetry. He could identify with him, Fraser said, “in ways that might surprise you”.
When he was in his late 20s trying to be as fit as he could be for George of the Jungle, Fraser encountered his own body-image issues.
“All I knew is that I never felt like it was enough. I questioned myself. I felt scrutinised, judged, objectified, often humiliated,” Fraser said. “It did play with my head. It did play with my confidence.”
Some have questioned whether Fraser’s role in The Whale ought to have gone to someone who was authentically heavy. But Fraser, who collaborated with the Obesity Action Coalition in building the performance, said he intimately understands a different kind of appearance-based judgement.
“The term was ‘himbo’,” he said. “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 feeling of profound insecurity. What do I have to do to please you?
“It didn’t matter, really, because life took over. I did other things. I now arrive at a place where I see the flip side of the coin.”
After seeing the play 10 years ago at Playwrights Horizon, the director of Pi, Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan Aronofsky spent years contemplating different actors who could play the protagonist of The Whale without success. Then he had Fraser come in and read for the part.
“It wasn’t like I went into this with a calculation: Oh, a forgotten American-Canadian treasure,” said Aronofsky. “He was the right guy for the right role at the right time. If anything, I was wondering would people think it was a silly choice or something. There wasn’t any cool factor that I could see.”
Aronofsky instead depended on his gut and an old axiom: “Once a movie star, always a movie star.” Plus, Fraser was hungry. He wanted the part desperately and was ready to put in all the work, all the time in the make-up chair. Still, Aronofsky would later marvel, watching a clip reel of Fraser at an awards ceremony, at the juxtaposition of The Whale with movies like Encino Man, Bedazzled and Airheads.
“He plays this kind of very present, truthful, innocent goofus kind of guy,” said Aronofsky.
“Then you intercut it with The Whale. It was kind of jaw-dropping to me that this was one human being. There’s a gap in between of a lot of years.”