Once upon a time, when a gigantic Marlboro Man was perched in front of the Chateau Marmont and a three-course meal for two still cost well under a hundred bucks at Spago, Brendan Fraser arrived in Hollywood ready to conquer it and found, with some surprise, that the place didn’t put up a fight. Movie stardom came a little too easily to the young, strapping Canadian, and he knows that now, because he’s since been through passages of life that proved much harder.
“I’ve been driving around, looking at this town I used to live in,” Fraser, now 54, told me recently in Los Angeles, “and it’s like seeing ghosts of myself, the recollections that come back.”
He remembers the excitement of the 1990s, when he hit it big with lead roles in films like “Encino Man” and “School Ties,” swung through the trees as the amiably hunky “George of the Jungle,” and engaged in dashing feats of derring-do in “The Mummy.” But he was perceived less as a serious actor and more as a handsome goof. And as Fraser’s big-screen comedies began to pay fewer dividends in the 2000s, he contended with a series of offscreen difficulties, including a costly divorce, injuries incurred from years of grueling stunt work, and a sexual assault that he said was committed by the former Golden Globes boss Philip Berk and that caused him to withdraw from the spotlight. (Berk has denied the accusation.)
In 2020, the director Darren Aronofsky stumbled upon an old movie trailer featuring Fraser and felt the actor was ripe for reclamation: He offered Fraser the lead role in “The Whale,” based on the play by Samuel D. Hunter, about Charlie, an obese professor who has withdrawn from the world but is trying to make things right with his estranged daughter (Sadie Sink). To play Charlie, Fraser consulted with the Obesity Action Coalition and donned a prosthetic suit so heavy that it had to be filled with tubes of cold water to regulate his body temperature. “It was a fusion of man and machine, in a way,” he said.
Fraser’s performance in “The Whale” has earned him an Oscar nomination and a Screen Actors Guild Award for best actor, and later this year, he’ll be seen in Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” proving his prestige comeback is no one-off. “If directors are painters and actors are the different colors, there hasn’t been a color like Brendan on the palette for a very long time,” Aronofsky said. “I’m really, really proud that he’s getting what he deserved.”
In person, Fraser is so courtly and soft-spoken that simply munching on a salad opposite him can make you feel as if you’re crashing cymbals together. When I met him at a West Hollywood hotel restaurant in mid-February, he spoke with humility about the awards-season arc that has made him a Hollywood star again: “I’ll take nothing for granted, knowing how far-reaching this journey has been.”
The Run-Up to the 2023 Oscars
The 95th Academy Awards will be presented on March 12 in Los Angeles.
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
As this awards season goes on, have you gotten to know your fellow nominees?
Yeah, and to have a profound respect for one another, too, knowing that we’re all sort of on the same gantlet course or boot camp: Jump, crawl, swim, sharks, barbed wire, do it again! I feel a camaraderie, and I was delighted to see Ke [Huy Quan] again because the last time I saw him was many years ago and we worked together on “Encino Man.” I was effusive and I said, “We’re still here.” He said, “That’s right, we are.” I’m so pleased to see his resurgence.
How does it feel to be making these acceptance speeches and bear witness to so many tributes?
I’m having a repetition of out-of-body experiences, pinching myself: Is this really happening to me? My obligation is to take ownership of this wave of generosity and support. It’s really boggling my mind and I’m so grateful for it, but I’d be remiss to not acknowledge it properly.
In what way do you need to take ownership of all these events?
I just need to be worthy of them because I’m aware of where I was, where I went and where I am now. At the same time, I’m reticent to become overconfident about anything because I’ve been on the merry-go-round a number of times, and I know that if you’re too comfortable, you can become complacent. That’s when you get into trouble and let your standards lower and let things slide that otherwise would be really concerning to you.
“The Whale” required you to wear extensive prosthetics. How does that affect the way you give a performance?
I knew it’s essentially mask work. I knew that it would be uncomfortable. So what? I knew that I would need to be really patient to stay hooked into the scenes that we were playing while they made adjustments between takes. And Darren likes to shoot a lot of takes. So I had to be like a horse I used to have that was just so sanguine. You could tack him up, brush him, smack the flies on him, and he would never jump. You’ve got to stand still and just take it, be patient and don’t bite or kick anyone because they’re there to help you. Then you let that all go and do what you need to.
How did you prepare for the film?
The Obesity Action Coalition gave me access to many people, so I could ask them their story on Zoom calls. I talked to maybe eight or 10 people — some bedridden, some perfectly mobile — and asked them, “Walk me through your diet for a day.” And they would describe it to me in [the] way a person drinks, a person uses substances, sex, gambling addiction. Self-medicating by eating is all in the same wheelhouse of that behavior, a cycle of risk, reward, risk, reward, pleasure me, pleasure me. We humans, shaved apes, can’t not press the button. That happens in the same way neurologically as it does for people who have those other vices as a crutch in their life, so if they deserve your sympathy, so does a person who has the temerity to just exist in a body that’s enormous. I say that cynically.
What of yourself did you bring to Charlie?
I know what it feels like to be the brunt of a joke that’s mean. You’re looking at a guy who has been compared against an example of myself from 25 years ago in a loincloth. That’s salacious and sells copies of the Daily Mail, but to hell with the consequences of who might be the human being on the receiving end of that kind of scorn and derision. Guess what? It’s not nice. I have feelings. I can identify with the constant harangue that people who live in oversized bodies have to endure in their daily life. They become overlooked by doctors, they don’t get the same attention. That really does play at your confidence, and it can lead to more harmful behavior. It’s a health consequence that is essentially eradicated if we just stop being mean to one another.
How did you feel on the final day of filming?
The last time I took this makeup off, I became really emotional. I know it’s a little woo-woo actor-y, but it wasn’t lost on me that I could remove the costuming and the people who live in that body can’t. I felt hopeful that I hadn’t cheated them by pretending to be who they were in a way that wasn’t helpful, but I really did feel like I was saying goodbye to a guy I knew in a very personal way.
Also, after having played this part, I felt like it gave me a salvation. It let me present myself again to an industry that, if you’re out of sight, you’re out of mind. We all grow older, we all change — less hair, different body. I wanted to play Charlie so that I could lean into all of that and embrace it, to suck the oxygen out of the bullying voices that maybe I imagined would disapprove. I’ll be honest with you, I do feel a sense of redeeming myself for being able to deliver a performance that both reinvents who I am and pays tribute to everything that was overlooked about how I formerly existed professionally.
You said you don’t want to take this current moment for granted. Did you used to?
I’m sure I became complacent. That’s what I mean when I say I don’t want to become too comfortable with this.
You were landing lead roles pretty much as soon as you got to Hollywood. I can see how you would have gotten comfortable.
I know, and I was ignorant. I felt like Chauncey Gardiner: I didn’t know I couldn’t walk on the water, why did someone not tell me? Funny, because those are the kind of roles I was playing, too: They were fish out of water, they were babes in the woods, and that was me.
What did acting mean to you in your early 20s? Does it mean something different to you now?
Back then, it was life and death. Those are the stakes of a young person’s ambition. But at the moment, I feel like I got nothing to prove. For everything that I did to create this character, I’m all out of moves. If it didn’t land, then I seriously don’t know what I’m doing — that’s how I felt at the end of it.
So how does it feel to know that it landed?
Gratifying, and it feels like it’s doing some good. After Toronto [the September film festival], one of the guys from the O.A.C. wrote to me and said the film moved him and he firmly believes that this character will save someone’s life, if not many. I know the response has been varied — pro, con, all of that, and I embrace the controversy — but in the press, a man who hadn’t even seen the film yet said, “That’s my story.” [Like Charlie], he does hide from his co-workers and students with the computer. He does have a strained relationship with his child. He can’t leave his house for fear of ridicule, and he can’t breathe properly for the weight that his body carries.
To have that acknowledgment and to have this guy say something to the effect of, “I am inspired now to change my ways,” I mean, what do you say to that other than, Mission accomplished? We make movies to entertain and to enlighten, but every now and then, maybe one of them comes along and can actually do something to change the culture or to change the way we think, if only for a little while. And I’m lucky to be in this one.