VENICE — For someone who became famous for playing the titular lunkheads in 1990s movies like “Encino Man” and “George of the Jungle,” Brendan Fraser speaks with a surprising delicacy.
At the Venice Film Festival on Sunday to discuss his new film “The Whale,” the 53-year-old actor answered news-conference questions with a quaver in his voice and the director Darren Aronofsky’s steadying hand on his shoulder. And whenever the clearly emotional Fraser managed to make it to the end of a statement without his eyes filling with tears, the room full of journalists burst into encouraging applause.
“Thank you for the warm reception,” Fraser said. “I’m looking forward to how this film makes a deep impression on everyone as much as it has on me.”
Though his career faltered in the years after “The Mummy” (1999) made him a bankable leading man, “The Whale” offers Fraser a showy comeback role unlike anything he’s ever played. In Aronofsky’s film, adapted from the play by Samuel D. Hunter, Fraser dons a prosthetic bodysuit to play Charlie, a 600-pound gay man who lives in unhappy isolation following the death of his lover. Whether he’s grabbing a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken or two double-stacked slices of pizza piled with American cheese, Charlie eats so self-destructively that he doesn’t even bother to chew his food; he inhales each piece, as if hoping to choke on it.
His caregiver (Hong Chau) warns Charlie that his blood pressure is so severe that if he doesn’t change his ways or go to a hospital, he’ll almost certainly die. But in the meantime, Charlie tries to draw his estranged daughter (Sadie Sink) back into his orbit, attempting to make things right with her before the ending he appears to be hurtling headlong toward.
Aronofsky wanted to mount the movie for years but could never land on the right lead. “I considered everyone — all different types of actors, every single movie star on the planet — but none of it really ever clicked,” the director said. “It just didn’t move me, it didn’t feel right.”
A light bulb went off when he chanced upon a trailer for “Journey to the End of the Night,” a low-budget 2006 film starring Fraser: Perhaps, like Mickey Rourke in Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” Fraser was ripe for reclamation.
And, for that matter, transformation. Fraser wears prosthetic appliances to play Charlie that sometimes weighed up to 300 extra pounds. “I needed to learn to move in a new way,” Fraser said. “I developed muscles that I did not know that I had. I even felt a sense of vertigo at the end of the day when all the appliances were removed, just as you would feel stepping off the boat onto the dock here in Venice.”
Oscar voters love a contender who undergoes a physical transformation, but not everybody is pleased about his movie metamorphosis: In the last year alone, actors like Sarah Paulson, Colin Farrell, Jared Leto, Emma Thompson and Renée Zellweger have all donned fat suits to play overweight characters, a practice some argue is fatphobic and exploitative.
For his part, Fraser said that spending time in Charlie’s skin gave me “an appreciation for those whose bodies are similar because I learned that you need to be an incredibly strong person physically, mentally, to inhabit that physical being. And I think that is Charlie.”
Many of Fraser’s early roles banked on his physical beauty and muscular frame, and one journalist recalled watching “George of the Jungle” with her children, noting, “Being very beautiful can isolate you, because people don’t see you.” Fraser, who is long past his loincloth era, nodded.
“I looked different in those days,” he said. “My journey to where I am now has been to explore as many characters as I can, and this presented the biggest challenge to me.”
Will that challenge lead to Fraser’s first Oscar nomination? It was clear from the supportive applause at the news conference that people were rooting for the actor, and that personal narrative of a career comeback combined with a showy role could take Fraser to the front of the pack. But when he was asked about that buzz and what it meant for the future of his career, Fraser said softly that it remained to be seen.
“My crystal ball is broken,” Fraser told the journalist. “I don’t know if yours works, but meet me after the show, and we’ll take a peek together.”