A visibly emotional Brendan Fraser fought back tears as “The Whale” received a passionate standing ovation at its Toronto International Film Festival premiere on Sunday. The crowd stood for five minutes until festival organizers roughly quieted the applause to begin a question and answer session with Fraser, director Darren Aronofsky, writer Samuel D. Hunter and cast members Sadie Sink and Ty Simpkins. The reception was one of the strongest yet at this year’s festival, a gathering that has already included the premieres of Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” and “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.”
“The Whale” stars Fraser as Charlie, a man living with severe obesity who struggles to reconnect with his 17-year-old daughter. Fraser told the crowd at TIFF that he hopes the film will inspire more compassion in the people who watch it.
“You need to be an incredibly strong individual to be that man,” Fraser said. “Because at the end of the day, I could take the apparatus off and, while I felt dizziness, something about that stayed with me… I learned that when you just invest everything you can and give it what you’ve got as if it’s the first and last time you ever will, something important can come of that. And I think that with your help we might be able to change some hearts and minds.”
TIFF was set to be a big festival for Fraser even before “The Whale” screened to huge acclaim. The actor is receiving the TIFF Tribute Award for Performance at the 2022 festival, with TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey saying, “Brendan Fraser gives a performance of staggering depth, power and nuance in ‘The Whale.’ This former Torontonian has been an action star, a screen comic, and a romantic lead. We’re thrilled to welcome him home as the actor behind one of the finest performances of the year.”
The supporting cast also includes Hong Chau and Samantha Morton. The movie is based on the play of the same name by Hunter, who adapted the stage script into Aronofsky’s feature. The director labored for a decade to make the movie, but he couldn’t find the right person to bring Charlie to life.
“It’s such a demanding role emotionally and technically, and I considered pretty much every single actor on the planet and nothing clicked,” Aronofsky said. That changed after he saw a trailer to a low-budget film that Fraser appeared in, a chance encounter that sparked something profound in the filmmaker.
“From that moment on I knew we had found Charlie, and I never doubted him for a second,” he added.
Fraser, a major star in the 1990s and early aughts, had moved away from the studio system in recent years. “The Whale” could revitalize his career, just as another Aronofsky film, 2008’s “The Wrestler,” led to a resurgence for Mickey Rourke. Aronofsky was asked about the similarities.
“Actors that are hungry is a super important thing, because these roles are really difficult,” he said. “You just have to find the actor at the right time in their career who is ready to work hard.”
The film got its start the Venice Film Festival, where it was met with a huge six-minute standing ovation that left Fraser in tears. The actor even tried to leave the Venice theater at one point, but the outpouring of clapping was so loud that he stayed longer and took a bow. Variety wrote out of Venice that “The Whale” will “likely put Fraser at the forefront of this year’s best actor Oscars race.”
To play the lead character in the film, Fraser relied on prosthetics and spent up to six hours in the makeup chair each day to fully transform into the character.
“I developed muscles I did not know I had,” Fraser told journalists at the Venice press conference about wearing the prosthetic suit. “I even felt a sense of vertigo at the end of the day when all the appliances were removed; it was like stepping off the dock onto a boat in Venice. that [sense of] undulating. It gave me appreciation for those whose bodies are similar. You need to be an incredibly strong person, mentally and physically, to inhabit that physical being.”
In his review of “The Whale” out of Venice, Variety chief film critic Owen Gleiberman called Fraser “slyer, subtler, more haunting than he has ever been,” adding that he gives an “intensely lived-in and touching performance.”
A24 will release “The Whale” in theaters Dec. 9.