OPINION: The weight of “The Whale” may be too much for some

Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale is definitely a film many should see. 

This may sound a bit surprising come from a gay man of size who has expressed annoyance with the entertainment industry in the past for not casting enough gay or large people in roles, but in the case of The Whale, there’s more to explore here. 

In The Whale, directed by Darren Aronofsky, Brendan Fraser plays Charlie, a 600-pound English professor who attempts to reconnect with his teenage daughter, played by Stranger Things‘ Sadie Sink. Cared for by his best friend and nurse, Liz, played by Hong Chau, Charlie became severely obese as a result of dealing with the suicide of his male partner.

I first heard about The Whale back in 2012, when Samuel D. Hunter’s play of the same name won critical acclaim after an Off-Broadway run at Playwrights Horizons and won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play. However, the idea of an actor on stage in a “fat suit” playing a morbidly obese character in a play written by someone who is not large or obese just didn’t sit right with me. In the play, just as in the movie, Charlie’s character is also queer. I’m not sure if the actor, Shuler Hensley, who played Charlie in the Playwrights Horizons production identifies as queer, but to be honest I probably didn’t even question this in 2012.

I didn’t go to see The Whale at Playwrights Horizons, and I never read the script. Not only because the play’s themes didn’t sit right with me, but even more so because, well… I wasn’t really that interested in it at the time. Nothing about the production grabbed me and said, “You have to see this show!” 

Cut to 2023, more than a decade after the original stage production was produced, and I’m now saying, “Oh, my God! I have to see this film!” So, what changed? Why was I all of sudden so moved to see this film after years of virtually ignoring the play?

I think I’m able to answer this question more clearly after watching the film: Viewing The Whale takes a level of maturity and self-awareness that I had not yet reached. And though I’m referring to myself with this statement, I would even go so far as to say that this is probably the case for many people. The Whale is not a pretty film, and Brendan Fraser is no longer young, thin and conventionally “handsome” to most. And for people who go to see films for action, or to see pretty people on film doing glamorous things, this is definitely a hard watch. 

Now, to be fair, I was never a vapid movie-goer. At the expense of sounding a bit like a movie snob, I don’t always watch films merely to just be entertained. But there was something about the stage version of The Whale back in 2012 that didn’t strike a chord in me. Maybe it was the fact that, as an aspiring actor, I had experienced my share of sizeism and fatphobia in the industry, and I just didn’t want to focus on the sorrows of being a fat person. I wanted something to drive me, not make me feel sorry for myself and people in similar or far worse situations than me.

But there was also a side of me that wasn’t as kind to myself about my size as I needed to be. There was still a deep-seated belief that I needed to lose weight in order to be accepted, appreciated and loved, not only in the industry but also in my personal life. But now, since I have learned to love and appreciate myself more, I actually wanted to see The Whale because I was able to extend a greater level of empathy toward the character in the film. 

And I think this is the same for many people. The Whale requires you to go beyond your idea of what people who experience that level of obesity go through. It requires you to empathize with whatever lead them to this point, and to understand the toll these circumstances takes on not only their physical well-being, but their emotional and mental well-being, as well. The type of pain and trauma that lies beneath the surface in situations similar to that in The Whale are never easily digested, and people feel the need to enjoy what they consume. Though there is nothing wrong with that, the tendency to shy away from that which makes us uncomfortable is what drives misunderstanding and a lack of empathy in our society.

The final reason I wanted to see The Whale, quite honestly, was because of Brendan Fraser. The casting of Fraser was met with its fair share of criticism, primarily because Fraser, who is not severely obese, was put into a 300 pound body suit to portray the character, even after putting on over 100 pounds. Though Fraser has not been large in the past, it’s no secret that his appearance has changed drastically since his The Mummy days. With age comes a changing physical appearance, and Fraser began this weight transition even before taking on the role in The Whale

I was never particularly upset about Fraser being cast as an obese character because I feel that Fraser probably now has more of a connection to the character after going through such a dramatic physical transformation in the public eye from “it guy” to “dad bod”. And yes, it’s not quite the same thing as being 600 pounds and severely obese, but I’m not quite sure there are many people who have experienced weight gain to that degree, let alone many working actors who have experienced what it’s like to be that large. 

When it comes to Fraser portraying a queer character while not being queer himself, I’m almost ashamed to say that it doesn’t bother me one bit. While it’s true that not enough queer actors are given roles and opportunities in Hollywood, my personal issue has never been with straight actors portraying queer characters, but rather with straight actors portraying queer characters while queer actors are not given enough opportunities across the board. If a straight actor approaches a queer role with honesty and an unbiased perspective, I don’t have a problem with them portraying a queer character. The only thing I would like Hollywood to do is just give more queer actors opportunities, whether they are playing queer or non-queer characters.

Furthermore, the casting of Fraser was extremely smart – Brendan Fraser is literally one of the most likeable people in the entertainment industry. There isn’t one person that has anything bad to say about him. And if you weren’t convinced of how great a guy he is, watching him genuinely tear up after a fan expresses their love for him should. And if that isn’t enough to convince you, then watching him sob during all the standing ovations he’s been receiving for his performance in The Whale at various screenings and festivals should

What I’m saying is, whether or not Brendan Fraser is actually obese or queer in this instance is besides the point. The truth of the matter is that people love Brendan Fraser. And it just goes to show how far a smart casting decision can get you, regardless of the appearance, sexual orientation or gender identity of the actor. For instance, I don’t think many people would have had an issue with the queer character in The Prom being played by a straight actor had it not been James Corden, who seems to be somewhat of a polarizing figure in Hollywood. And ironically, numerous outlets have stated that James Corden was reportedly offered the role of Charlie in The Whale before it was given to Fraser. If this is true, this will probably go down as one of the best “on second thought” casting decisions in Hollywood history.

Needless to say, I believe the reception for The Whale would have been very different had Corden taken the role.

Kyle Jackson

Kyle Jackson (He/Him) is Senior Staff Writer at Gray Jones Media, and additionally works as a writer, editor and theatre artist/actor. A native of New Orleans, Louisiana, he studied at Dillard University, received a BA in Theatre from Morgan State University, an MS in Arts Administration from Drexel University, and completed the British American Drama Academy’s Midsummer in Oxford Programme in 2017. Having lived in Baltimore, the Washington, DC area, Philadelphia and New York City, he now resides and works in London, United Kingdom.