Brendan Fraser is out of his seat, blue eyes bulging, gesticulating wildly with his arms. At one point, they’re parallel to his head, as if he’s vogueing (thanks Madonna). He looks quite as cartoon-like as his animated co-stars in 2003’s Looney Tunes: Back In Action. But then awards season will do that to a person. Especially if, like Fraser, you’ve been absent from major movies for the past decade or so, left to wander the Hollywood wilderness. How is he coping being back in the spotlight? “Under the circumstances, I think I’m coping with it pretty well!” he giggles. “I’m pretty happy.”
It’s Thursday in London, and the BAFTA nominations have just been released. Fraser’s up for Best Actor for The Whale, the searing new film from Darren Aronofsky. It’s hardly a surprise. Ever since the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year, his performance as a morbidly obese literature teacher has been hailed across the board. Going on the awards trail, though? That’s like an Olympic sport. “It’s new for me. So I’m learning on the fly. But I’m also taking the advice of people I’ve talked to who’ve been nominees and winners.”
“I keep expecting someone to hand me a dish-towel and I’ll have to get back to work”
A fortnight ago, he won Best Actor at the Critics Choice Awards in the US, adding to Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations. Just a few days after we meet, he’ll be nominated for an Oscar – the first in a career that stretches back to 1992’s School Ties with Matt Damon and Chris O’Donnell (remember him?). Like O’Donnell, who lest we forget played Robin to George Clooney’s Batman, Fraser experienced the white heat of a Hollywood career in the late 1990s – until it fizzled. The genial actor, who led The Mummy franchise as the intrepid, square-jawed Rick O’Connell and played leads in comedies George Of The Jungle and Dudley Do-Right, was deemed surplus to requirements. After 2010’s Extraordinary Measures, with Harrison Ford, Fraser slipped into a spiral of forgettable roles – albeit finding salvation on the small screen, with parts in The Affair and Danny Boyle-directed true crime series Trust. But movies? Movies that mattered? The phone stopped ringing.
There were extenuating circumstances, from injuries sustained during 2008’s The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor to his divorce from former actress Afton Smith, the mother of his three boys. He backed away from the limelight. “I just felt I couldn’t be a part of it. I didn’t feel that I belonged,” he told GQ in 2018. But not everyone forgot. Steven Soderbergh hired him for 2021’s punchy thriller No Sudden Move. Then came Aronofsky, the director of Requiem For A Dream and Black Swan, with the role of a lifetime.
Adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his own play, Fraser is Charlie, a compulsive eater confined to his apartment, barely able to haul himself up from his sofa. Teaching an English Literature course online, his webcam turned off for fear he’ll repulse his students, he’s heading for oblivion. His vital organs are failing, his life slipping away – and all he really wants to do is make it up with his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), torn up after Charlie left her and her mother to begin a relationship with a man years earlier.
Just the opening scene, which sees a naked Charlie caught masturbating to porn in his living room, would be enough to send most actors scuttling away in terror. So was he afraid of taking this on? “Like, appropriately. You should get a little bit challenged by material if you want to do the good stuff, I think. You take risks in art, not life. I mean, that was the adage that was drummed into us in the academy [he attended Seattle’s Cornish College Of The Arts in 1990, and did a brief stint in a New York acting school]. But also it seems that’s where the most growth can come from, or you can find something really interesting that way. And that’s the hope… not always the result!”
“I knew there would be controversy with The Whale“
Allowing himself to play a morbidly obese 600lb recluse, swathed under mountains of makeup, was going to take huge willpower. “I knew that it would be… a challenge. I knew there would be controversy, I knew there would be pushback, all of that, and I accepted that early on.” Was he concerned that, as is so often the case on the internet these days, he’d be lambasted for playing a guy far heavier than himself? “I wasn’t aware of that,” he says.
At this point, Aronofsky joins for our chat, the bespectacled director wrapped in a scarf to guard against the January cold. There’s just two months in age between them – Aronofsky, the younger of the two, turns 54 this month – although they couldn’t appear more different. Aronofsky is thin, balding, a Harvard grad with a nasal Brooklyn accent. Fraser is 6ft 3in, thick-set, wearing all black denim. So what did Aronofsky see in Fraser that made him think he was right for Charlie?
“It literally was a leap of faith,” he replies. “I didn’t really know that much of the work. And it was really about… I just kind of felt it. It really was a kind of blind jab. And then we ended up doing a reading in New York City of the whole script. And that was the thing that proved it to me.” Aronofsky turns to Fraser. “And I don’t know how much of your work would have shown me that you were ready for this anyway, because it was such a different role.” Fraser grins. “It would’ve thrown you off the trail!”
The truth is, Fraser has always had it in him. The youngest of four boys, he was born in Indianapolis to Canadian parents during the late 1960s. His mum Mary worked as a sales counsellor, while his dad Peter, a former journalist, became a foreign-service officer for the Canadian government’s Office of Tourism. It meant a childhood living in multiple cities in the U.S., Canada and Europe, a lifestyle that gave him “tolerance”, he says. “The ability to be comfortable in my skin wherever I am. It gave me a sense of probably not irony but an arched eyebrow about things. It does the soul good.”
It was during a stay in London, when he saw a production of West End musical Oliver!, that he became entranced with acting. After pursuing it through various courses, he broke away from his studies to head to Hollywood in his very early twenties. His easy-going, affable persona saw him wind up in comedies like California Man (as a caveman unfrozen from a block of ice) and Blast From The Past (same role, just swap the ice for a nuclear fallout shelter). Perhaps these were the sort of films that would’ve put Aronofsky off the scent.
In truth, Fraser was occasionally able to prove his dramatic chops in films like 1998’s Gods And Monsters, playing the straight, handsome gardener who bonds with James Whale, the ailing, openly gay director of 1931’s Frankenstein. Four years later, there was The Quiet American, a sturdy Graham Greene adaptation with Michael Caine. Yet after that? “It wasn’t asked of me,” he shrugs. Material like The Whale “just wasn’t really in my purview”.
“I feel a great deal of empathy for Charlie”
Now that it is, Fraser poured his entire soul into making the film. Initially, he was spending six hours a day in makeup, as heavy prosthetics were painstakingly applied. Underneath, Fraser was clad in a suit that pumped cold water around his body to keep him cool. “I had many people to help build Charlie from the outside in. Adrien Morot, makeup artist, who has worked with Darren many times. And his goal was to not have you ever notice the makeup. If you did, then the movie doesn’t work.” So how tough was it to wear? “The answer is, yeah, I burned a lot of calories.”
Aronofsky interrupts. “I’m gonna answer the question for him because he’s talking about giving credit to other people, and he won’t say it. But it was incredibly challenging,” he says. “Just imagine: to bring up the emotions he has to do, bring up the length of dialogue he has to do, while all this crap is glued to your body, and you’re just covered in every way possible. It was an incredible mental feat to be able to perform emotively with that much equipment on him. He won’t say it but that’s the reality of what’s going on.”
A film about characters searching for salvation – all set around Charlie’s apartment – The Whale may not entirely shake off its stage origins. But your eyes will be so glued to Fraser, it barely matters. With Charlie seeking forgiveness from his spiky daughter, was it the notion of being a parent that drew Fraser to the role? “There’s no direct mirroring incident in my life as a father that mirrors Charlie’s with the exception of absolutely understanding the same things that that man does, which is you have a child and you’re more in love with anything you ever possibly could be.”
When we meet Charlie, he’s suffering, in an emotional tailspin, burnt-out by the loss of the man he left his wife and child for. Binge-eating is all he has left, slowly destroying himself calorie by calorie, weaponising food like you’ve never seen. “He’s in bad shape,” nods Fraser. “And comparing that to myself, yes. I feel a great deal of empathy for somebody who would be going through that. So it’s a little woo-woo. But to put myself in that man’s shoes… I understand how he feels.”
“The promise of my future is exciting”
Since The Whale, Fraser landed a role in Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming period drama Killers Of The Flower Moon alongside Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio – the ultimate reward, perhaps, for a lifetime of Hollywood grind. Is he now in the golden, gilded age of his career? “The golden period hasn’t started,” says Aronofsky. “We’re moving from copper to silver right now.” Fraser is simply too modest, or perhaps too cautious, to get too excited. “How does it feel?” he says, quietly. “The promise is exciting.”
Does he feel like this is his time? “I’m never gonna get that comfortable,” he replies. “And when I do that, I think it’s time to rethink my approach, because I’m always… I can’t get rid of the feeling that someone’s gonna walk in the room and tell me that I’m a fraud, or that I have impostor syndrome. They’re gonna hand me a dish-towel and I’ll have to go get back to work. But I hope I never lose that. In a way. Because I’m still not done proving myself yet. And to do that, I need bigger and greater challenges.”
There have been bumps, even recently – he filmed a role as the villainous Firefly in the now-notorious, never-to-be-seen Batgirl, a $90million blockbuster that Warner Bros. decided to shelve indefinitely, reportedly for tax write-off reasons. But whether he wants to admit it or not, Fraser is on a roll. He recently shot Brothers, a comedy with Josh Brolin, Peter Dinklage and Glenn Close. And then there’s the Scorsese of it all – “a masterful filmmaker”, sighs Fraser. “He loves the craft. He moves furniture around himself and picks up pieces. He loves to rehearse. He wants people’s ideas.”
He looks almost sheepish, still bamboozled by all the attention after years away from the spotlight. Our time almost at an end, NME asks Fraser what the biggest lesson he’s learned in Hollywood over the years. There’s no axe to grind, it seems. “Now with all the different mediums and ways to get content to everyone, the consumer, I think it just comes down to the basics of wanting to tell a story that people want to see,” he says. “That hasn’t changed.” Brendan Fraser’s story is far from being over.
‘The Whale’ is in cinemas from February 3