Darren Aronofksy’s The Whale (and more specifically its lead actor Brendan Fraser) has been an early favorite in awards season conversations ahead of its December 9 premiere. However, it has also sparked heavy criticism for its depiction of obesity, with some who have already seen the film taking issue with the main character’s pitiable portrayal.
Aronofsky defends the character and the story in a new Variety profile, saying, “There are people out there who are going to immediately shut down when they see a character like Charlie. I want people to connect to the film—I hope they do. But sometimes you just do what you need to do artistically and see what happens.”
Even beyond the content of the film, fat suits in general are being re-examined in Hollywood. Fraser wore elaborate prosthetics to portray the 600-pound character, rather than casting someone of a similar body type. “There was a chapter in the making of this film where we tried to research obese actors,” Aronofsky tells Variety. “Outside of not being able to find an actor who could pull off the emotions of the role, it just becomes a crazy chase. Like, if you can’t find a 600-pound actor, is a 300-pound actor or 400-pound actor enough?”
Making a point that may not soften critics’ views of the situation, the controversial filmmaker adds that someone closer to Charlie’s actual size may not have been able to perform at the level required of the role. “From a health perspective, it’s prohibitive. It’s an impossible role to fill with a real person dealing with those issues,” he argues.
In Fraser’s view, “I’m not a small man. And I don’t know what the metric is to qualify to play the role. I only know that I had to give as honest a performance as I can,” the actor tells Newsweek. The Variety piece notes that he “did exhaustive research, consulting with the Obesity Action Coalition, an advocacy group, and talking with numerous people who were struggling with eating issues.”
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“They let me know what their diet was and how obesity had affected their lives in terms of their relationships with loved ones. It was heartbreaking, because very often these people were mocked and made to feel awful about themselves,” says Fraser, who criticizes previous Hollywood depictions of obesity as “one-note” and filled with “crude jokes.” “Vindictive speech is painful. And it does damage because it feeds into the cycle of overeating. I just left those conversations thinking, ‘Hey, this is not your fault. This is an illness. This is an addiction.’”
There is also the argument that the story sprung from the personal experience of Samuel D. Hunter, who wrote the screenplay as well as the play the film is based on. “To be clear, this is not a story about everybody who grapples with obesity. It’s how it presented in me,” says Hunter, who, as Variety notes, grew up “gay in the Midwest and the solace he sought in overeating.”
He continues, “My depression manifested physically as I self-medicated with food. Fortunately, I had support in my life. I had parents who loved me, and I was able to deal with some of my demons and go to therapy and become a healthier person. But The Whale is about a person who didn’t have that support system.”
While none of this completely absolves The Whale of criticism (and indeed, Aronofsky’s remarks may fuel further scrutiny), it does provide valuable context for a film that has thus far only been seen on the festival circuit. Audiences can decide for themselves how they feel about the subject when the film premieres in December.