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Darren Aronofsky on The Whale—and the musical he wants to direct next

The director of Black Swan and The Wrestler talks about the magic that comes from casting actors like Brendan Fraser, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jared Leto

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Darren Aronofsky
Darren Aronofsky at the premiere of The Whale
Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images (Getty Images)

Darren Aronofsky knows how to stir the pot. His movies, distinct for their striking visuals, uncompromising subject matter, and devastating performances from actors who end up in the awards conversation, always become topics of conversation. Among his creative preoccupations are people pushing themselves to their physical limits, like 2008’s The Wrestler or 2010’s Black Swan. Sometimes he’s more concerned with the spiritual, even the biblical, as with 2006’s The Fountain or 2014’s Noah. He might even combine those two themes like he did with his controversial Mother!, which was received with contempt and praise alike when released in 2017.

Aronofsky’s latest is an adaptation of Samuel Hunter’s play, The Whale, and a fascinating extension of all the above. Brendan Fraser plays an English professor who’s affected by obesity and seeking to reconnect with his estranged daughter. Like he did with Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler or Ellen Burstyn in 2000’s Requiem For A Dream, the director presents a challenging role to an actor seeking a second gear in mid-career. Aronofsky spoke to The A.V. Club about some of the well-known actors he has cast, whether he is conscious of the themes he repeatedly explores, and the musical—yes, you read that right—that he might bring to a stage near you soon.

The Whale Trailer #1 (2022)

The A.V. Club: A movie like this feels like a conversation starter. What conversations did you want to start with The Whale?

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Darren Aronofsky: I guess it’s all about connecting with people you wouldn’t normally connect with. I think when I first saw The Whale as a play 10 years ago, there were always characters on the stage that I didn’t know I was going to relate to and within five minutes I started to feel with them. And by the end of the play, I was sobbing. So that was really exciting as a potential for cinema because that’s when movies are the best, when you meet characters that are unexpected but you are completely connected. That’s a magic movie. So it felt like the work on stage would make an amazing experience for people to get to know Charlie.

AVC: Samuel Hunter told us that in adapting The Whale, you didn’t try to open it up by adding characters or locations. Can you talk about translating the play into this different medium and what cinematic language you sought to use?

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DA: When you watch a play, it’s just two-dimensional. But when you are making a movie, you can really get into the center of the action and move all around. And so I felt the play worked beautifully and was very effective, but being able to block the actors and move the camera with them would raise the level of the stakes to a different height. So I was excited to bring that to the show.

AVC: Can you tell me about casting Brendan Fraser as Charlie? Why did you think of him?

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DA: One of the major reasons I didn’t make the film earlier was there was another actor that really interested me but it didn’t work out. I think the whole reason to do that film was to bring Charlie to life, to share his experience, his empathy and his heart and his joy and his beauty with the world. And I stumbled on a small clip of Brendan and had never ever thought of him before and suddenly a light bulb went off. And I thought, that’s an interesting idea. And then when I met with him, he was just filled with so much light and life and such a desire to get back to work. That made a lot of sense.

AVC: What was the clip, if you remember?

DA: Oh, it was small, it was actually this supporting role in a Brazilian low-budget film [Journey To The End Of The Night]. It was the trailer for it and I remember sitting in my office being surprised to see him.

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AVC: Was there a moment in the trailer when you saw the character Charlie?

DA: Oh, no, it was more just the idea of Brendan being there and having not thought of him. We had thought of so many different actors for it. Nothing ever really clicked. But then that moment was big for me.

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AVC: There’s a lot happening in the first five minutes of The Whale: masturbation, then a heart attack, then a missionary appears out of nowhere. I thought, Okay, this is definitely a Darren Aronofsky film.

DA: [Laughs]

AVC: What state of mind did you want to put the audience in?

DA: Sam Hunter created this, it’s based on his play, and now it’s his screenplay. That’s the same way that his play started. I found that out when I saw it; it starts in a jolting, intense way. I think there is an effort for everything about Charlie to be a turn-off at the beginning. It’s all about the path we take from someone who we would judge right off the cuff to someone we learn to love. That journey the audience takes is the reason I wanted to make the film.

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Darren Aronofsky, Matthew Libatique filming The Whale
(L-R:) Darren Aronofsky and Matthew Libatique filming The Whale
Photo: Niko Tavernise

AVC: Body horror or characters going through physical hardship is something that we see in a lot of your films, from Black Swan to The Wrestler, even in Requiem For A Dream. Do you agree with that through-line?

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DA: I don’t really think about the connections in that way. It’s more that I get interested in the stories. I get interested in the characters. I get interested in their feelings. And that’s what pulls me into a project. But those kinds of themes that show up, I don’t know why they show up all the time.

AVC: Mother! is now being positively reappraised. That’s different than the reaction when it was released. How do you feel about that?

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DA: I know the work we did on the film. I was very proud of the movie. It was, at the time, the best thing I had ever done. And I just knew that it was going to be a bit difficult for some people. When we were making it we knew that it was going to scare people and shock people and piss people off. I didn’t realize how much it would do that, but it ended up doing a lot of that. But you’re right, the level of compliments I get from it is very similar to The Fountain, which was also derided when it came out. I’ve had incredible experiences with that one as well. Like when my dad was going through his cancer treatments, we were at Sloan Kettering hospital in the waiting room. And there was a 40-year-old guy in a wheelchair with his two teenage daughters and his wife and I got recognized. He said The Fountain gave him a religion to die. He started to cry and my parents started to cry, who never really understood that movie. And for me, that was 10 years after I made that film. To see that type of effect makes it all worth it. I think it just shows that you gotta do the work you believe in, then not really listen to the response. If you know the work you did, then people will find it. Maybe not everyone, but people will find it.

AVC: You ask a lot of your actors, including Natalie Portman in Black Swan, Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, and Brendan here. These are physically demanding roles. What’s that part of the collaborative process like?

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DA: I get excited by the challenging roles, and then I just look for actors that want to do that. I don’t think I really push actors or even pull actors. I just show actors opportunities, and I look for the actors who are looking for that opportunity. If you think about student actors in acting school, all they want to do is emote and go for it, to cry and to scream and do all that stuff. And I think a lot of working actors sometimes forget that that’s what the job is. And so I’m always looking for the ones that are excited by the challenging roles. And I think the challenging roles allow for lots of different emotions, lots of different feelings and then hopefully really good performances. So it’s more like, “Here’s a character. Are you interested?” There’s a new film I was thinking about doing and I went to a great actor. He came back and said, “Look, I have nothing to prove anymore. I don’t want to do this.” He also said, “I’m interested in money,” which is not one of my specialties! I’m more like, “Do this role. There’s no money because no one wants to make it. But it’s a great artistic opportunity, I hope.”

AVC: What has always struck me in your movies is that you cast well-known actors so differently. I’m always surprised by what I see from them in your movies. So I’ll throw out a few names and if you can say why you cast them, or how your experience was with them. Let’s start with Michelle Pfeiffer in Mother!

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DA: I don’t even know where to begin. Working with Michelle was a highlight of my career. I was a fan for so long. It’s rare, where such extreme beauty and extreme talent collide in one person. And she was so not vain and so brave to take on that role for me.

AVC: And of course, Jennifer Lawrence was the biggest movie star in the world when she worked with you in Mother! Can you talk about that collaboration and why you cast her?

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DA: Once again, I thought it was something very different than anything she’s done. And that was super exciting. But as far as raw talent, I’ve never seen talent like that where she just gets everything right. She’s completely always in the moment and reads a scene and how the other actors are performing exactly correctly, and then responds in a way that’s unexpected and unique. So really, just complete raw talent.

mother! movie (2017) - official trailer - paramount pictures

AVC: What about Jared Leto in Requiem For A Dream? 

DA: There’s a lot of retrospect because we’ve been friends for years since then. But at the time, I didn’t know him. He was very curious and very brave, really wants to lose himself inside roles. And hard working. I remember at the time, he was always talking about this rock band that he was making and I just thought it was never going to happen, but he proved everyone wrong.

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AVC: I remember you and Mickey Rourke had a tetchy relationship during the awards run for The Wrestler. That was fun to watch.

DA: [Laughs] I love Mickey, he’s a completely unique creature. I’ve never met another person like him, and what he does is always unexpected. He’s such a tough guy, but inside there is such innocence. And I think that’s a rare combination.

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AVC: I was reading what some of your actors have said about working with you, and one thing that struck me is Hugh Jackman mentioning that you love musicals. Is there a musical that you want to make?

DA: We’re trying to do the Black Swan musical.

AVC: Like on Broadway?

DA: We’ll see what happens. But we’re working on it.

AVC: What about a movie musical?

DA: I would love to and I’ve talked to many people about it. And I’ve come close to a few ideas. It’s a very tricky thing because music from musicals is not popular music anymore. So what do you do? I think Hamilton was brilliant because Lin-Manuel Miranda fused hip-hop with musical music. And so he had this breakthrough that was really brilliant. But figuring that angle of it, of what the music would be, where it comes from, is the big challenge. But I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. And hopefully one day I could figure something out.