Brendan Fraser (‘The Whale’): ‘I needed only to look into Hong’s eyes’ to ‘reflect the authenticity’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Best Actor Oscar nominee Brendan Fraser (“The Whale”) recently had a candid chat with Gold Derby’s Christopher Rosen about his character of Charlie who, despite being a 600-pound-man, still finds beauty in life. During the interview he heaped praises on his Oscar-nominated co-star Hong Chau, claiming at one point, “I needed only to look into Hong’s eyes and just try and reflect the authenticity she has on board to work with. Hong has an uncanny ability to say more in between lines of dialogue, in the pauses. You can read her mind.”

Fraser goes into depth conversation with Rosen on the three-week rehearsal process on the A24 film, including a snippet of the costume and make-up process, and how, “I’m 53 years old. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I still don’t know the components of the voodoo alchemy that goes into giving an actor’s performance and what makes it.”

Watch the full video above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Christopher Rosen: Welcome back to Gold Derby. I’m Christopher Rosen. I’m so pleased to be joined by Brendan Fraser, whose acclaimed performance in The Whale has left audiences in tears and giving standing ovations, so far (laughs) this season. The film comes out, later in December. Brendan, congratulations on this performance. I wanted to start, with you talking about how you prepared physically and mentally to play Charlie cause I feel like it’s such an incredible undertaking and how you kind of started when you were in your prep?

Brendan Fraser: Um, to physically play the role, clearly Charlie had to be created from the outside in. He’s a man whose, body on paper is hundreds and hundreds of pounds. And to create that, a great deal of, costuming, shaped wardrobe, and prosthetic makeup were needed to give a reality and authenticity to the way he moves, the way his body moves. And the, mandate on that was that it always observed gravity and physics, unlike so many, weight-gain costumes we’ve seen in films in previous years, which are normally in service of a one-note, mean joke or they just are inauthentic.

You know, an athletic actor in, a sort of costume that’s a silhouette and filled with, you know, batting from a stuffed animal or something like that. And this is not that. And to do that, simply put, in a cyber model, a mold was made to have absolute control over the shape, the size of the placement of even the pores of Charlie’s skin. And then just all the traditional methods of putting applications to the face.

And, wearing the components of his body, his arms and legs, as being attached to an elaborate harness with, a modular bodysuit and then costuming to cover it. It was a process that took hours and hours to get into and an hour to get out of. But the, sense of authenticity that you see when watching Charlie is eye-opening and I attest that this is not a CGI creation with the exception of perhaps if, you know, the piece of fabric on the shirt was in its own movie that morning in, you know, doing what.

CR: Right.

BF: It was really like working, sort of in an analog way. And then forgetting all that and just playing the part of who he is as a varied human being.

CR: I’m struck by the performance because you could feel him as like a real person and you are able to shine so much humanity through the character as well. I mean, the amount of prep that you had to do physically every day, does that help, did that help you like kind of get into the mindset of playing him?

BF: Well, the screenplay by Sam D. Hunter who also wrote the stage play, and adapted his own work for his own first-time screenplay. And he, it sounds like a joke, but he got Pro Tools to figure out (laughs) how to write a screenplay for, (laughs) for what he did. And Sam Hunter was an English teacher. And Sam Hunter also did live the circumstances of Charlie’s life for some time. So, it comes from a place of personal authenticity. Um, he knows what he’s writing about and the reason why.

Um, our rehearsal process was three weeks. A24 gave us that amount of time to learn how to do this and Darren declared us a theater company. And we worked in a rehearsal hall that was taped down on the floor one-to-one with standby props and furniture. We made all our mistakes out loud there. They learned where to place their cameras in this small two-bedroom apartment because that’s the world of the film.

And by the time we got to the actual built set, imagine that, we knew, we knew our job. We knew how to perform because, you know, there’s a lot of time when you’re making movies, you know, actors stand around with their sides and, “You know it would be cool if we …” No, that, none of that happened. We, we already had it all planned out cause there are always going to be factors that are challenging, or extraneous, or getting in the way.

I should mention that one big one was clearly that this was a film that was made at the pinnacle of the pandemic and just as we all … I mean, everyone in the whole world, we were there, lived under existential threat. Something about, about doing that I, I know it for myself, for us as a cast, it made us feel like, “There may be no tomorrow. You know, so we may never be al- able or allowed to, to do this again.” If those are the circumstances, you’re going to put everything you’ve got into it. And lose all the flourishes and curlicues that you would decorate a performance with.

And just go straight to the heart of all the matter. And I could see it when I see this film. And I can see the care that we had for one another. It’s, it’s, it’s, uh, it’s a unique period to see the films that were made under these circumstances. All the films that are in consideration this year that were made at that time, they all share that common denominator.

CR: Yeah, for sure. Uh, you mentioned like obviously this great cast that you were with, and I know that you’ve been so gracious like giving props to Sadie Sink and Hong Chau and Samantha Morton. I want to ask you when you were playing those scenes with them, and Ty as well, how did their performances help you understand Charlie further or did that happen? Or like how did you kind of like figure out Charlie from them, I guess?

BF: We found it together. I mean, everything you need to know is really on the page but again, like I said, we rehearsed it so we knew the one, two, threes. But you could put that aside. But never overlook the … I’m still, I’m 53 years old. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I still don’t know the components of the voodoo alchemy that goes into giving an actor’s performance and what makes it, I don’t know, so-called work or not work.

What I do know is, is the relationships that you build with the people that you’re working with and the trust that you put in one another. And also, in this case, I needed only to look into Hong’s eyes and just try and reflect the authenticity she has on board to work with. Hong has an uncanny ability to say more in between lines of dialogue, in the pauses. You can read her mind.

She’s missing a layer or something, uh, that makes her transparent that way. And she’s so good that … And Darren likes to shoot a lot. Take after take and I’m cool with that, but he’d go, “All right, well, we got it. He’s like, “Hey, you know we’re here. You might as well.” The same goes with Sadie Sink. I watched Sadie Sink, this young actress, not bloom, but come of age before my very eyes and I had a front-row seat.

Watched that happen. I got lost in those emerald-green eyes (laughs) of hers every day. I would go up on my lines, uh, because I, I, I would become mesmerized just, just looking at her. She’s, she’s, she’s a jewel. You can look at this finely cut jewel and then turn it that way and you see another facet, again, again, again. Sadie’s like that and, it’s thrilling to behold. Ty Simpkins earned his stripes on this movie.

He really did. I, saw him grow up on it. And it’s exciting to see a young actor come to … Sam Morton, she was there for two days. She was I think directing in the UK. Well, for the time that we had her, she came in. Had like a 30-year relationship already in place to play Charlie’s ex-wife, whom he hasn’t seen for a long, long time, on top of her just basically being brilliant. So we, we were very fortunate and to have everyone together in the same place, at the same time to shoot this intimate play about five characters on a quest in search for salvation.

CR: I read a quote I think that you, guys had done. And he, he’s obviously, and he, you had said like he wanted maybe to reintroduce, uh, someone for the role and you were looking to be reintroduced, I think, is what, how you kind of like put it. And I, I guess like, uh, why, I mean, obviously like you’re saying like it’s on the page and all these things, but like what was it about Charlie for you that felt like this was the right role for you to want to be reintroduced with, I guess?

BF: Well, it moved me deeply, uh, to grow to learn the material. When I was allowed to have sight of it after, you know, the process of meeting Darren. And for, for what it stood for is what really got my engine going and, and gave me a sense of, um, purpose. And I’ll just say it gave me a sense of moral obligation. I want to play Charlie with the dignity that he deserves. He is not the physical manifestation of how he presents in his corporal being. He is a human with his conflict, his darker shades, his mistakes, his hopes, his desires, all of that. All of that’s there. To come into the possibility of seeing a role like that available, or under contention you can’t just fill out a form and say, “Yeah. I’ll take the job.”

It doesn’t work that way. And to put my faith in Darren, it ticks all the boxes that say, “Yes, I want to be a part of this.” And it was, it wasn’t a reintroduction or something, to specify that is … The best I could do is say that I was never that far away. An actor’s got to work. I always have done. You know, I had plenty of reasons, I needed to take some personal time in my career and life.

But memories are, you know, varied to short (laughs) depending on this supersaturated world of personalities that we live in right now. It was just practically, I think, a good choice to step into a role that would, play counterpoint to whatever the expectations would have been for what people believed me to be capable of.

I’ve always felt earlier in my career in life that diversity was key. And so, I’d always try and, you know, make something wildly different. But in this case, yeah. I didn’t want to take the obvious choice. This was one that was more eye-opening and so, yeah. That’s a good way to put that.

CR: And we have to wrap up here, but I just wanted to say, like you mentioned like you’re taking from the beginning, I feel like I went, when just thinking about prepping for this it’s like your breakout year was like ’92. You had Encino Man and School Ties, which are vastly different but obviously very memorable movies.  And I was thinking like those characters were both outsiders in their own way. And obviously I think you could see that through-line with Charlie too, as an outsider and kind of like I don’t know. You just have a way of … I think you really are great at playing those kinds of characters no matter what the scale is, not to compare (laughs) like the work you’re doing in The Whale to maybe (laughs) what you did in Encino Man or School Ties though, I, like, I think those movies are great too. Um, yeah. I just find that really key. You have a real capacity for that kind of character. I think like this is another great part. I mean, did you feel, like do you think of that like playing outsiders or, am I just like reading too much into it at all, (laughs) I guess?

BF: I hear that. Uh, we’ve been around campus clearly you and I. (laughs) Those characters are, essentially, they’re us. They’re the people who have felt like they want to belong. They want to fit in. Charlie wants to be accepted by his daughter and he doesn’t know if or not he can be, but for those watching who want to see the film, answer that question, um, I think we did it.

CR: Yeah. Absolutely. Well, great place to wrap up. Brendan Fraser an acclaimed performance in The Whale. Will be talked about a lot throughout award (laughs) season. Thank you so much, Brendan. I really appreciate it.

BF: Be well.

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