I’m with Brendan Fraser – Oscar nominee for his brutal, beautiful, poignant lead role as the morbidly obese Charlie in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale. Ever since the footage of him crying during the film’s six-minute standing ovation in Venice went viral, I’ve wanted to give this man a hug.
We are in LA, a town Brendan hasn’t been around much over the past few years. He lives in upstate New York now – not quite a pariah, but he has not been headline news for a very long time. This year, though, he has come back to Hollywood. The Whale sees him in conversations about roles and major awards that he has not been in for a very long time. There is flesh to press. He has an awards campaign to run. Brendan is back, with a return to the glory days of the 1990s on the cards. Back then, he was very much the next big thing – an all-out comedy-action movie star mostly. This time? He is an Oscar-worthy actor.
I suggested we go for a drive and Brendan has brought along an interesting car. It belongs to his friend Brett. As metaphors go, the car is tough to beat. Brendan, 54, driving around LA in a ’71 Chevy pickup – it’s three years younger than he is, white with a turquoise roof. The vehicle is gorgeous, but it, also, has not been seen around town much recently.
“Oh this is so much fun!” Brendan is at the massive wheel. “Oh my God,” he gasps. “Where’s my gear stick? Here we go… I haven’t done this in a long time.” The Chevy rattles off. I think we feel safe. “Woo. You feel the road? Where’s my indicator? This baby has suspension like a shopping cart. It’s not like you can’t see it coming…”
It is also raining. It is only meant to rain 36 days a year here, but today it is pouring. Non-stop.
I’m surprised by how much trimmer he is than when I saw him just four months ago at the Venice Film Festival, the day after the premiere of The Whale.
Brendan was born in Indianapolis, Indiana in December 1968, the youngest of four boys. Their family shifted about a lot: California, Washington, Ottawa, Ontario, the Netherlands, Switzerland. But it was Hollywood where he settled, after graduating from college in 1990. He was handsome, with an inviting but unusual charisma and these amazing eyes. Back in the 1990s, they were all wide-eyed wonder and innocence – kind of his selling point to the blockbuster masses. Now, though, they are a window into his soul, still as curious, a little weary perhaps, and packed full of empathy.
We drive down Sunset Boulevard. He points out, through the rain, the Rocky and Bullwinkle statue on the corner of Holloway. “Hey Bullwinkle! Rocky! Looking good brother!” he calls with the window wound down.
Brendan’s in LA for the Critics’ Choice Awards – where the very next day after we meet, I photograph him highly emotional, gripping his award, having won for Best Actor. The part really is that much of a boon for him, and as we drive on, hitting Sunset Plaza, memories poke out that remind him just how far he has come.
“I was once splat into this piece of real estate,” he points out, recalling 1997 – the George of the Jungle year when Brendan would make his name as a sort of more buoyant Harrison Ford. A swashbuckling and suave matinée idol you would take home to meet your mother, but who, unlike Ford, would not break your heart. “It was my back and ass,” he cackles of the ginormous poster that wrapped the building. “I was in a loincloth.”
George of the Jungle, in which he played a man raised in the jungle who has to fit into Western society, came after Encino Man, in which he played a man frozen for centuries who has to fit into Western society. It must have been odd for the two biggest films of his career – before The Mummy – to parade him as a fish out of water. When I tell him George of the Jungle is a great film, one that my children adore, he shrugs and says, “It’s a piece of cinema.”
Then Brendan moves on, pointing out the Chateau Marmont, a place that he would stay at after he moved out of LA.
He gets out of the truck, the rain is still pouring and the pavement is lined with puddles. He spins a large black-and- white umbrella on the wet ground, seemingly lost in his own world. Then he is splashing in the rain, I’m humming the big song, encouraging him to mimic Gene Kelly – which he does.
In George of the Jungle, he was all pecs and muscle. In The Whale, he is so large that he is dying. He is a star in both.
By the time The Mummy 3 came out (2008), Fraser had multiple injuries from stunts – which required a lumbar laminectomy, a surgery that removes the back portion of a vertebra in the lower back. He got divorced in 2009 – from the actor Afton Smith. They have three sons. Seven years later, Fraser’s mother died. His work had effectively gone on the back burner until Aronofsky – who famously resurrected the career of Mickey Rourke with The Wrestler – came calling.
So, I say, as he climbs back into the dry of the driver’s seat, we won’t call it a comeback, but… Well, what do we call it? What is different this time? It was not as if he vanished after the rush of success he found with The Mummy – Brendan has worked consistently. But it has been a while since he had attention. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot,” he says. “And, yes, I have been off the welltrod path. Perception in Hollywood of others has the attention span of a clownfish. If you’re out of sight you’re out of mind. And Hollywood is also a heat-seeking missile – if you’ve got a signature out behind you, you will be chased. Otherwise, you do not show up on the radar. Every actor goes through a variation of that, and I haven’t been lost in the wilderness, but I probably would’ve done well to leave a trail of breadcrumbs to find my way back. But I was always still there.
“And so, I don’t know if I went away,” he continues, “or it went away from me, but when I first met Darren and read The Whale I knew it would change everything. I read it and I went, ‘OK, this is a game changer.’ I mean, it’s a big risk, as it should be. In art, you should take risks. You should go towards the danger, because that’s where growth will come from. And The Whale is ultimately about changing hearts and minds. That’s the hope. The aspiration.”
As we drive through the city Fraser talks about how, when he was in George of the Jungle, he was his own wardrobe – “I looked like a Weetabix… a walking steak which I wanted to eat but I couldn’t because my body weight would change.
“I mean, I was the archetype,” he says of his late 20s. “The iconography of male physique out in Hollywood is such that you maintain that look because it’s money. And, if that goes away, guess what else goes away? All the attention and currency attached to it. I know about this. I have been someone who lived the full spectrum of being a fit young guy who is an object of desire, and that is a standard that’s hard to keep as your body inevitably changes. It gave me body dysmorphia.”
What is amazing to me – and should be pointed out – is that while, I think, on paper this sounds like Brendan having a rant, he is absolutely not. He has that calmness that often comes with experience of life’s trials.
The city is his own museum. He talks about 1994’s Airheads, the daft, fun, rock’n’roll romp about a band who hold a radio station hostage until they play their demo tape. He points out Whiskey a Go Go, where he did “research” for Airheads. He was not, he says, a club guy then. “I was so boring – I wouldn’t go to parties; I was too busy trying to get a good sleep.” But he enjoyed going around the clubs with the Airheads lot, and that is the thing with Brendan. He has issues with the business, sure, and how it rushes in and churns people out. But he loves it. He is clearly pleased to be back.
“Oh, the Directors Guild,” he pivots. “I’ve been to many a screening there… That was a car wash. What’s going on? Oh no, all right. Not anymore. Oh jeez, I’ve been out of town for a while…”
We move on. He points out a building where he used to live, an old-style one with a little archway and balcony. It was around the time of George of the Jungle, but some of the planters he bought back in 1997 are still there. He gets out to have a look. The ceiling once fell down into the bath. It was a rickety old place and he left when the blockbuster cash came in. He strolls back to the car.
“Good to go.” He is thriving. “People have respect for this car,” he smiles. “They’re like, ‘Oh, here’s an old buddy on the road today. Be careful…’” He stops in a slight panic. “I’m not in gear. Son of a gun…” He fiddles with the stick. “There it is. How accustomed we are to all those digital screens. This is fun. Screens almost make driving too easy, too safe.”
We pass In-N-Out, California’s legendary burger chain. I ask if he was an In-N-Out man? “I was a devotee once. If I still ate that stuff, I’d say we need to get a Double-Double.”
Which brings us neatly to Charlie in The Whale. The film is part family drama and part siren call to pay much more attention to how we treat those with obesity – it is about what is inside that actually counts and what caused the pain that leads one to become obese. Casually, I say that I think the fat suit he wears for the role is remarkable.
“With respect,” he interrupts. “I got to stop you. You’ll never hear me call it a fat suit.” I apologise, head hung; I am a chunky 260lb myself and immediately the penny drops. He remains gracious. “That terminology is prevalent in the world – it’s how we speak, and we haven’t yet assigned new names to words that we can retire. And the way we refer to people who live in obesity should be amended, because that kind of prejudice is the last shelter or domain of bigotry that we still give a pass to. That is not necessary, because we all know better than to treat one another with disdain for how we present to the world. Slim or large-bodied people – I’ve been both – so I have a frame of reference.
“People who live with extreme obesity all say someone in their youth, when they were very small, spoke to them in a way that was recriminating. The mean words find a home in their psyche and their neurology forms around that. There are real health consequences as a result. It is not fair that the permeating attitude is that being complacent or lazy is a cause of the state of your body mass index. I mean, there’s science to back this up.”
He pulls over next to the now permanently closed ArcLight on Sunset. This subject is his passion, and he is a little feisty now; he clearly cares.
He spent time in obesity clinics to prepare for the part.
As we sit by the side of the road, with sodden car after soaked truck skirting past, he stares out the front into the middle distance. A twinkle of a smile from the old movies is still there, but Brendan is burdened and flawed much like all of us.
We get out and I take some photos against the stark white boards that now cover the cinema’s frontage. The rain is kicking up a level. “I just remembered,” he laughs. “I’m from Seattle. This is good.” Then, a little later, “Yeah. We’re getting soaked.” The returning actor, the veteran car, the unusual rain, even the boarded-up iconic Cinerama Dome, all complement the day’s narrative. He’s been away a long time and it’s clear a lot has changed.
He is sad about the ArcLight. He wants to get people away from streaming devices and back to the cinemas. He thinks of the magic of Star Wars – queuing around the block. He first saw Star Wars in London, on a family trip, and he enjoys diversions in our conversation like this. He tells me how he fell in love with London, and how there was a time he wanted to speak in a British accent, and wonders whether that, possibly, led to him wanting to do funny voices as characters in the movies.
The rain intensifies and we get back into the Chevy. The windows steam up and the truck feels increasingly like a cocoon. It feels very private.
I note that he has lost a lot of weight since I last saw him, in Venice when he received that memorable standing ovation. Is that because he is a happier man, or because he thought he should as part of this year’s awards campaign?
“Well, more on one and less on two,” he says. “I never gave myself a hard time for whatever weight I was – there are plenty of other people in the world to do that for me, and I know a lot about that shit. Plastered across every British skuzz tabloid, I said skuzz tabloid, who make money from snapping people when they have a reasonable expectation of privacy on the beach with their kids, so they can sell their fucking rag.”
We are approaching the end stretch and head for his hotel. Brendan has a Zoom he needs to get back for.
Could he, I ask, have made The Whale without experiencing the difficult years that he did? “Hell no,” he says without pause. “The fuel that makes that engine go is love. I know what that is now. I know how deeply I love my kids.
“[My character] Charlie is a recluse. He retreated into himself with dire consequences. He’s lonely. He misses his partner. He misses what his life could have been. And the secret superpower Charlie has, is he can see the good in others, when they can’t see that in themselves…
“And I’ve certainly known people like that,” he continues, smiling. “There are people who I’ve met who aren’t with us anymore, without whom this role would not have been possible for me to perform. If I’d not felt like there’s somebody out there with a bigger brain who’s always in my corner and who I can ask any question to. And now, when those people are gone. And some are gone from my life now. Well, I’m realising now, aged 54, that it’s my turn to be that guy. I’ve got to step up now. You know, I have three kids, and they’re really fine young men, and I don’t worry about them when I am gone, but I do want them to uphold those principles.”
We pull up to his hotel. The locks on the Chevy doors are stuck. We try, but it is impossible to shift them. He’s on the phone now, “Hey, can you ask Brett to come down?” He’s dangerously close to missing his Zoom. “Funnily enough, we are locked in the car.” And there we are, prisoners of the Chevy. And that could stress someone out.
Once again, he’s incredibly gracious. I have read that random people come up to Brendan and tell him their troubles. I wonder, does he, like Charlie perhaps, also see the good in others they can’t see in themselves. I ask: why does he think people feel they can open up to him. “I don’t know. Maybe because they feel they know me. It’s either that or my wide-set eyes.”
I’m not having that; I explain that it seems to me that he’s an incredibly empathetic person, and empathetic people often get that. Is that fair? And all of a sudden, there is George of the Jungle talking in his trademark style: “I like this thought – thank you for that.”
The Whale, for which Brendan Fraser earned his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor, is out now