"How did I wind up here?" is a question Brendan Fraser has been asking himself a lot lately.
It started, in some sense, in the '90s. Fraser was the ubiquitous leading man of some of the biggest blockbusters and hit comedies of the decade: Encino Man, School Ties, George of the Jungle, The Mummy, and so on. Around the same time, a young indie filmmaker named Darren Aronofsky was establishing himself as a director to watch with films like Pi and Requiem for a Dream, the latter of which earned Ellen Burstyn an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
"I won't suppose to say I'm his peer — I'm not — but we would be in the same class in high school, basically. Put it that way," Fraser tells A.frame good-naturedly. "Any actor wants to work with Darren. I mean, look at his body of work. Look at the type of filmmaker he is — unflinching. He asks all the thorny questions of his audience, to pay attention to the human condition in a way that maybe they haven't before, and he asks you to not look away. Don't flinch. It's brave. It's a take-no-prisoners attitude that I had admired when we both started coming up around the same time in the '90s."
MORE: Brendan Fraser: My Life in 10 Movies
Thirty years later, Fraser had stepped back from Hollywood. Aronofsky, meanwhile, had spent 10 years unsuccessfully searching for the right actor to star in his longtime passion project, The Whale. Adapted from the play by Samuel D. Hunter, the drama centers on a 600-pound recluse, Charlie, who is approaching the end of his life and desperate to find redemption before he dies. The filmmaker happened upon the trailer for the 2006 indie crime thriller, Journey to the End of the Night, and finally felt like he'd found his Charlie in Fraser.
"I did have some creative intimidation, I guess I could say, when I first met him. But that was dispelled quickly," Fraser says. "I knew that this was a role that I could only dare to hope to want to get. I was craving material like this — being so removed from anything that I've ever attempted before."
The Whale is something of a chamber piece, confined almost entirely to Charlie's apartment, as he's visited by his estranged daughter (Sadie Sink), an evangelical missionary (Ty Simpkins), and his best friend and caretaker (Hong Chau). Aronofsky approached rehearsing the film like a play, gathering his cast for three weeks of rehearsals on a soundstage in Newburgh, New York, where the apartment had been measured out to size.
"Darren declared us a theater company for three weeks, and we worked as you would do any equity rehearsal with a taped-out floor and standby props. We watched each other's scene work, we got to know each other, we made our mistakes, we made our discoveries, we bonded and did all the good actor stuff you do when you put a company together." Fraser chuckles, "It seems like a sort of simplistic kind of approach, but it works. Rehearsing, imagine that?"
The actor's own work began long before he arrived at rehearsals. He'd done his research with the Obesity Action Coalition. He watched every documentary he could find and worked with a movement instructor, Beth Lewis, a former dancer from the Pilobolus Dance Company, to find Charlie's physicality. He got used to wearing the 100-pound suit and prosthetic makeup made by Oscar-nominated makeup artist Adrien Morot, which would take up to four hours each day to transform Fraser's body.
"The body needed to be, I guess for lack of better words, authentic," Fraser says. "If he was created in the way that broad comedies in the last 20 years had been depicted, the audience is not going to go on this journey with you. And a lot of those makeups, I won't say traditionally, but habitually have been a mean joke or in service of vilifying a character in a cheap way. The rule was, 'Don't do that.'"
The other rule was that Fraser's face was to remain prosthetics-free.
"Brendan Fraser has amazing, expressive, soulful eyes," says Hong Chau. "Whenever people ask me how I felt about seeing him in his prosthetic suit for the first time, I honestly did not have a reaction to the suit. Adrien Morot's work is beautiful, but what transfixed me was the change in the light in Brendan's eyes. Something happened internally with him, and it was magic for me to witness as his scene partner."
When it came time to shoot the movie, "my job really was just to own it," Fraser says. "This is not a story about a man who is obese. This is the story of a man who is in search of salvation, who wants to reconnect with his daughter. He's a father, he's an educator, he's a husband, he's a man. He's so much more. And that was my job, which I had to be absolutely secure with before putting any of the makeup on. Because actors can cheat on the day, I know this, where they just sort of learned their lines that morning. Or they're looking at the sides and scratching their heads. This was not that movie."
"I'm telling you, I gave it everything that I had," he sighs. "When I finished this movie, I felt like, 'Okay, if it doesn't find an audience, then I really don't know what the hell I'm doing.' Because I had no moves left after this. It sounds braggadocious, but I can say that. Because I feel like the combination of this story, the filmmakers, the actors I was with, the performance that was asked of me, that after it was all said and done, I really had nothing left to prove."
Fraser saw The Whale for the first time alone, in a screening room, ahead of its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. "It made me think, 'This is going to have an impact,'" he remembers thinking after that initial viewing. "I don't know if it's positive or if it is negative, but it's a piece that you can't look away from." In Venice, the film received a six-minute standing ovation that left Fraser in tears. The Whale is now up for three Oscars, including a first nomination for Fraser.
"I'm humbled," the actors says. "In my professional life, this is a first, so I'm trying to enjoy all of it as much as possible. Because, well look, if this is as good as it gets, that's good for me."
Brendan Fraser: My Life in 10 Movies
Austin Butler Opens Up About 'Elvis': 'It Really Felt as Though My Life Was on the Line' (Exclusive)
'Aftersun's Paul Mescal Wants to Challenge Everything You Think You Know About Him (Exclusive)
Bill Nighy Reveals the 'Lucky' Way He Landed His Role in 'Living' | Academy Conversations
A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 95th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.
Editor's Note: For parity, A.frame reached out to every nominee in the Best Actor in a Leading Role category for an interview.