Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale is a character study examining the life of a man desperate to connect with the few people in his life. Charlie (Brendan Fraser), affected by obesity, has mostly isolated himself from the world and never leaves his apartment. His only visitors are his best friend and caretaker, Liz (Hong Chau), and a religious missionary (Ty Simpkins) who’s trying to convert him. Knowing he may not have much time to live, he desperately tries to reconnect with his teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), whose mother Mary (Samantha Morton) has kept away from him since their divorce.
The film’s major task is extending empathy towards all of its characters despite the friction that their life choices cause among them. How they react to each is not always easy to watch. So how did The Whale’s storytellers bring to life these fraught familial relationships? The film’s cast and crew—including actors Fraser, Chau, Sink, and writer Samuel Hunter—talked to The A.V. Club about working together, finding their characters, and the Oscar buzz the film is receiving.
The A. V. Club: Sam, let’s talk about adapting your own play for the screen. What did you add or take out to make it fit into this different medium?
Samuel Hunter: Darren first approached me when he saw the play in 2012. So we’ve been talking about this project for the better part of a decade. I think, early on, we both realized that this didn’t really need to open up in the traditional way of finding different locations and adding characters. We really just want to be with this guy, much in the same way that we’re with him in the play. So it was challenging. It was the right decision, but a challenging decision, to find a cinematic language for this two-bedroom apartment. Over the years, we found that visual language for the film. Then Brendan’s performance comes in and it’s so deeply layered that he can tell so much of the story with his eyes. It was such a joy for me to be able to hand that over to him. I couldn’t be happier.
AVC: Brendan, can you talk about finding Charlie? How did you develop the specifics of this character?
Brendan Fraser: Every actor knows you’re only as good as the material that you’re given and the people you’re working with. So it’s an embarrassment of riches for me. Sam was there with us each day, which is very helpful. Sadie Sink is incredible in this role. She was winning the game ball every day, I would get lost in her eyes. The laser-sharp focus, the specific, beautiful rage that she played, that was born of the intense sadness that this girl had felt as a result of her father’s actions. She never fell into the trope of an angsty teenager. It’s exciting because I had a front-row seat to watch this kid. I mean she stared down Vecna in Stranger Things, okay? Respect.
Hong Chau, incredible. Somehow she elevates everything that she contributes to the scene. She makes the dialogue better and speaks so much more in the pauses and silences than any actress that I’ve worked with before. She just smacks of authenticity in everything she does. She’s compelling and lovely and we had excellent rapport with one another. Sam Morton, more of the same. Ty Simpkins really stepped up. This kid, I watched him grow up on this movie. And, gosh, I forgot what the question was, but I’m really happy to have worked with such talented people!
AVC: Hong, every time Liz looks at Charlie or interacts with him, we can really feel that empathy. Can you talk about being the audience’s surrogate into the story and into looking at Charlie differently?
Hong Chau: This is definitely not the traditional best friend role. There’s so much complicated history between Liz and Charlie and it was a real pleasure to get to calibrate that and play those different layers. She is his caretaker but she’s also incredibly blunt and sometimes caustic with him. And that’s accurate, that’s true of relationships like this. I think if it’s easy for you to say no to somebody or to cut them out of your life, because they’re not living the way that you think they should, then that relationship probably wasn’t very deep to begin with. It was just about coming up with that history between the two of them and showing the moments, the small, little glimmers of joy, and who Charlie was before we see him in the story.
AVC: Between this, The Menu, and Kelly Reichardt’s upcoming Showing Up, you’re having a fantastic year. How did these wonderful projects all happen at the same time?
HC: Definitely, 2021 was an amazing year. I got to work on four incredible movies with four incredible directors on amazing scripts. It was definitely not by design. I couldn’t have dreamed up that lineup. Every film that came my way, I was just dumbstruck by my good fortune. I never thought I would get an opportunity to work with Darren Aronofsky and I almost didn’t even throw my hat in the ring for it because I just didn’t think it was possible. I thought surely there’s gonna be somebody more famous than me who’s cast in this because, like, why me? The character wasn’t even written as Asian. There’s no way. It was really mind-boggling when Darren watched my audition tape and then I was on FaceTime with him a couple of hours later. And I was also holding a brand-new baby as I was talking to him! It was really wild. And again, with Kelly Reichardt and Showing Up, one of our great American directors, and we don’t talk about her enough. Then Mark Mylod with The Menu—everybody loves Succession, so I was curious to see what his journey as a feature filmmaker would be like, and he did not disappoint. And then of course, everybody knows Wes Anderson [for the upcoming Asteroid City], so I’m excited to see how that one comes out too.
AVC: Sadie, your character Ellie represents, we could say, the opposite of empathy. She says some cruel things to Charlie. Can you talk about finding your way into that?
Sadie Sink: There’s definitely some difficult moments there. But I think if you look beyond the outward cruelty you’ll find someone really intelligent and honest. That’s exactly what Charlie has been looking for, in his students and everywhere. He’s been craving this honesty and desperately wanting to reconnect with his daughter again. And for Ellie, I think she finds something that she desperately needed as well: unconditional love from a parent and someone to believe in her and see her in a way that I don’t think anyone else has had the patience for.
AVC: Brendan, there’s a lot of love coming your way from fans and audiences about this film, not to mention Oscar buzz. How does it feel?
BF: We’re all very pleased with the response that we’re getting from The Whale. Thank you.
AVC: Looking back at your long and varied career, which of the characters that you’ve played before would you want to revisit or reprise?
BF: I’m an actor, we’re always looking for a job! Are you kidding? I loved doing the action stuff in those Mummy movies. People seem to really have liked that. If you got a script or something hanging around, let us know.
AVC: I’ll send you my script of The Mummy 5.
BF: [Laughs] Please!