When visionary filmmaker Darren Aronofsky saw lauded dramaturge Sam D. Hunter’s celebrated play The Whale, he knew that he found his next project. “I connected with the themes and ideas, and the way it found beauty in things our prejudices too often make inhuman,” says Aronofsky.
When the original stage version of The Whale premiered in 2012, there was some initial concern. Even on the compact landscape of a stage, would theater audiences show up to see a show where the protagonist is marooned on the couch the entire runtime? And what about that title?
As it turned out, all the worrying was for naught. Hunter’s play was a hit. Instead of feeling overly confined, audiences praised it for its expansive, panoramic interrogation of the human spirit, for the authenticity and humor of its characters, and its profoundly moving meditation on grief, compulsion,
and redemption. Any concern about the possible insensitivity of the title was quickly dispelled as well, once it was understood that Moby-Dick factored prominently into the show, both literally and thematically. Charlie and Ahab were not so unlike, underneath it all; both men caught up in the pursuit of a dream, intoxicated with the could-have-been, obsessed with the fantasy of another future.
In Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, Brendan Fraser gives a virtuosic performance as Charlie, an English teacher living with severe obesity whose time is running out. As he makes a last bold attempt to reconcile with his broken family, Charlie must confront, with his full heart and fierce wit, long-buried traumas and unspoken love that have haunted him for decades.
But The Whale offers much more than just darkness. It’s a soaring character study of a man wrestling with the enormity of his regret, the duty of fatherhood, and the feasibility of goodness itself. At its core, The Whale is a story about transformation and transcendence, one man’s odyssey into himself and out of his body, a journey through the depths of grief towards the possibility of salvation. Through Charlie, the film gives us access to a life that is rarely portrayed with tenderness or intelligence on the big screen.
Fraser pours himself into the kaleidoscope of Charlie’s inner world, all of its contradictions and longings and fears, with a twinkling, almost-mischievous wit. It’s a brilliant, deeply warm performance; one that crucially does not see empathy as the enemy of honesty, but rather as two sides of the same coin.
Darren Aronofsky has wanted to adapt Sam D. Hunter’s The Whale as a film ever since he first saw the play a decade ago
Aronofsky was immediately struck by its intelligence, and the fearless way it interrogates the human condition without offering an easy answer.
Says Aronofsky, “What I love about The Whale is that it invites you to see the humanity of characters who are not all good or all bad, who truly live in grey tones the way people do, and who have extremely rich, intricate inner lives. They’ve all made mistakes, but what they share are immense hearts and the desire to love even when others are seemingly unlovable. It’s a story that asks a simple but essential question: can we save each other? That feels important in the world right now, especially when people seem more than ever to be turning their backs on one another.”
For Aronofsky, this is what cinema is all about. “Through the power of emotion, a story like this can put us into the shoes of a man we might otherwise never even wonder about, and remind us that all the promise of love and redemption is there in every human existence.”
In some ways, The Whale is a hunt, a search to grasp the slippery nature of compassion—why we need it and why we push it away, when we can give it and when we can’t. But the audience also experience the thrill of it blooming in the course of the story’s construction. In the midst of re-examining trust and its boundaries, Charlie breaks down his own borderlines. He has come through weariness to a palpable optimism that lights up these urgent days.
Charlie asks what Aronofsky sees as one of the story’s most profound questions “Do you ever get the feeling that people are incapable of not caring?”
Adapting the play
“Sam D. Hunter’s play made my heart ache, it made me laugh, and I felt inspired by the bravery and grace each character finds,” says Aronofsky. “It took on a question I like to explore in my own work: how do you transport audiences inside of characters they never could imagine being? I didn’t know then if it could be a movie, but I met with Sam and connected with him immediately.”
The instant bond between Aronofsky and Hunter set things into motion. Both agreed that Hunter should adapt his own work—the only problem was that Hunter had never written a screenplay.
But encouraged by Aronofsky and his receipt of a MacArthur Genius grant, Hunter began to teach himself the form from scratch, studying cinematic language and working out how to transform his work from stage to screen.
“Sam is so incredibly gifted, I knew he’d find his way,” says Aronofsky.
As an avid lover of learning, Hunter savored the challenge. “It was a chance to look at the story again with fresh eyes and to grow as a person as the story grew,” he says.
It also meant diving back into some of the darkest days of his life. The impetus for writing The Whale had come in part from Hunter’s own experience with obesity in college. Though he’d since lost much of that weight, he knew first-hand what people like Charlie go through physically and socially. And while there
are many causes of obesity, a multifactorial disease affecting over 40% of Americans, Hunter drew a direct link in his case between his excess weight and unaddressed feelings.
“I know many people who are big, happy, and healthy, but I wasn’t,” Hunter says. “I had a lot of unprocessed emotions from attending a fundamentalist Christian school where my sexuality came to bear in an ugly way, and that emerged in an unhealthy relationship with food. When I started writing The Whale, I think it all just came pouring out of me.”
Through Charlie, Hunter found a place to explore the trauma and anger he had around his upbringing.
“Unprocessed grief is the ground floor of everything for Charlie. He’s suffering from congestive heart failure, but maybe he’s really dying of the grief he’s never reconciled,” says Hunter.
Just before writing the play, Hunter started teaching at Rutgers University, tackling the class every freshman loves to dread— Expository Writing. His experience as a professor inspired the choice to make Charlie an online teacher, a job that allows him to hide physically from the world while still being able to
engage socially. And it was this choice of career for Charlie that eventually helped Hunter flesh out Charlie’s motivations in the show, and why he’s so desperate to reconnect.
As a high school teacher, Charlie would be intimately acquainted with how important it is, both in essays and in life, to have a clarity of vision; to defend one’s position, to omit the unnecessary fluff, to get to the heart of the matter as clearly and concisely as possible. It’s this belief system that undergirds Charlie’s desire to reconnect with the people in his life – to tie up loose threads in the anticipation of a strong concluding paragraph —in what he believes are his final days on earth.
“Nobody likes expository writing, but I remember I got to a point where I was begging my students, please just write something truthful. Write anything you actually believe. That’s when one of my students wrote what is now a line in both the play and movie: ‘I think I need to accept that my life isn’t going
to be very exciting.’ I will never forget reading that because it was like a sliver of light suddenly opened up on the page, and I could see this person and their humanity illuminated,”
Hunter explains. “Charlie is looking for that, from himself and from others.”
Charlie’s pursuit of the truth is what brings him back in contact with his estranged daughter, Ellie.
“As a teacher, the only way Charlie can even hope to connect with Ellie is through her Moby-Dick essay,” says Hunter.
When Hunter began writing his play and delving into the dynamic between Charlie and Ellie, the experience felt strange, almost scary for him. He’d never felt so open and exposed before. “It felt completely different to me because I was so much more naked, not hiding behind anything, and it just felt really vulnerable.”
This vulnerability became part of the very mechanics of the play, a radical kind of honesty and openness that compelled or at least comforted audiences enough that they were willing to follow the show down the rabbit hole. But once Aronofsky was involved and the idea of a film adaptation was on the table,
there was a new question at the forefront. Could Charlie’s story effectively be told on screen? Is it possible to make a single location, and a mostly static character, cinematic? There was an initial temptation to play with geography, to move some of the action beyond Charlie’s house and into the outside world with new, invented characters, but both Hunter and Aronofsky eventually scrapped that idea.
“Darren and I were drawn to the challenge of keeping it all in this one space where the characters are trying to save one another. But it had to not feel claustrophobic,” says Hunter.
“The atmosphere needed to feel inviting enough that audiences could lose themselves inside it.”
Subtle but significant, Hunter’s changes excited Aronofsky.
“Sam wasn’t afraid to get innovative,” he says. “One example is the addition of the pizza delivery guy [portrayed by Sathya Sridharan], who creates one of the film’s biggest emotional moments. When I read the scene where he sees Charlie, I was completely convinced I’d seen it in the play, but it was new.
When your brain turns an image on the page into something you think you saw before, you know it’s powerful.
It took Aronofsky ten years to find his Charlie
“I considered everyone—movie stars, unknowns, non-actors—but no one ever made sense,” he recalls. “I needed someone who you could believe was Charlie but had incredible depth. And then I spotted Brendan in a small part in a trailer for a Journey to the End of the Night and I lit up.”
In February 2020, Aronofsky gathered Fraser and other cast members for a scene-by-scene reading at St. Mark’s Theatre in New York. Something magic happened there. “From moment one, I had chills,” recalls Aronofsky. “I knew this was a movie, and I knew I wanted to make it with Brendan.”
Hunter, who watched the reading, had that same sense of fate unfolding. “You could see Charlie’s DNA in Brendan,” he says. “He really, really understood what it is to feel loss as Charlie does. And he understood that if you played Charlie in a dark, brooding way, the story might die on the vine. Instead, what Brendan did was to directly connect to the joy and love in Charlie.”
“Everything I’ve got I’ve put on the screen,” Fraser says with raw emotion. “There was nothing I held back. It is all there.” As he seized Charlie by the soul, Fraser did not shrink from his dark side, nor sentimentalize anything about a man whose life as a father, a teacher, a husband, and a boyfriend has come to pieces in his hands. “Charlie is no angel, but he is incredibly human. Inside I think he is Walt Whitman,” says Fraser, referring to the poet’s celebration of the human ability to be “large and contain multitudes.” Adds the actor, “Charlie is a lover of life and all its beauty, but he’s also in hiding.”
Hunter hopes the film will help break down another storytelling wall
“I feel it shouldn’t be that novel for someone to write a character with obesity who is also a beautiful, flawed, loving, full human being,” he says. “I would never say this is a story about all people who struggle with obesity, only that it came from my own personal experience. There are many different stories to tell, but hopefully, Charlie will be received on his own terms as someone who was written with compassion and love.”
As much as Charlie’s physicality is a core element of the story, Fraser hoped his performance would take audiences to a place where what Charlie’s body looks like is ultimately less interesting than what Charlie thinks, feels, and longs for over the course of the film. “We get less than a week to know who this man is,” he says. “I know people will be looking at first for the line between artifice and reality, but I hope it’s invisible. Ultimately, I hope the amazing makeup is so well integrated that it fades into the background as you’re swept up in the story itself.”
Fraser’s performance became a rare fusion between actor and extensive prosthetic makeup. Aronofsky had envisioned Charlie’s weight to be at the farthest human extreme, severe enough to be life-threatening, but he also wanted to make sure that Fraser’s face wouldn’t be covered in a way that obfuscated his emotional range of expression.
Aronofsky’s conception of The Whale initially was centered around the script and the performances first and foremost. But he knew that the single-location setting—Charlie’s one bedroom apartment—was a crucial character in the visual narrative of the film. All things considered, The Whale may be the most
pared-down film Aronofsky has ever made.
While filming, Fraser wasn’t sure how it would work. But when he saw the finished film, the impact floored him. “I couldn’t leave my chair,” he recalls. “I had to sit there and gather myself. It wasn’t that I was sad; I was just overwhelmed.”
The finished film was also a form of solace for Aronofsky. He lost both his mother Charlotte and father Abraham this past year, and The Whale is dedicated to them. “My parents were fixtures on all my sets, they acted in several of my movies, and this was the first time they could not come to the set because
of Covid restrictions,” Aronofsky relates. “My mom passed before I had a cut of the film, but my dad was around, and he was able to see the movie with the dedication to my mother on it.”
The Whale has been resonating beyond its confines since audiences first met Charlie on stage. For Hunter, the film grants Charlie another new life far beyond expectations. “Mostly, I hope the film is an invitation for people to walk through the door of someone they’ve never met before, and maybe who
they wouldn’t have imagined meeting,” says the writer. “And once you do accept that invitation, I think the meaning and the joy of it become something very personal.”
Darren Aronofsky was born and raised in Brooklyn and heads Protozoa Pictures based in Chinatown NYC.
In 2010, Aronofsky received a Best Director Academy Award nomination for his indie box office phenomenon Black Swan starring Natalie Portman, who won a Best Actress Academy Award for her performance. 2008’s The Wrestler starring Mickey Rourke won the Golden Lion for the best film at the Venice Film Festival. Previous to that were the acclaimed and award-winning films The Fountain (2006), Requiem for a Dream (2000), and π (1998). Aronofsky also wrote and directed 2017’s mother! and the 2014 box office hit Noah .
As a producer under his Protozoa label, Aronofsky has been responsible for Jackie which garnered three Academy Awards, the documentary Some Kind of Heaven‘ which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, artist Prune Nourry’s docu-memoir Serendipity which made its world premiere at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival, Pacified which won the Golden Shell top prize at the San Sebastián International Film Festival, Catch the Fair One’ which premiered at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival where it won the Audience Award, and the documentary feature The Territory which premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and won both the Audience Award and Special Jury Award for Craft in the World Cinema Documentary category.
His also released his first book Monster Club written for middle school readers.
Samuel D. Hunter grew up in Moscow, Idaho and lives in NYC. He is the recipient of a 2014 MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship for his work as a playwright. His plays include The Whale (Drama Desk Award, Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play, GLAAD Media Award, Drama League nomination for Best Play, and Outer Critics Circle nomination for Best Play), A Case for the Existence of God (New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play), A Bright New Boise (Obie Award, Drama Desk nomination for Best Play), Greater Clements (Drama Desk nomination for Best Play, Outer Critics Circle Honoree), Lewiston/Clarkston (Drama Desk nomination for Best Play), The Few, A Great Wilderness, Rest, Pocatello, The Healing, and The Harvest, among others.
He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers Award and holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Idaho. He was a writer and producer on all four seasons of the FX show Baskets. His work has been produced Off Broadway by Lincoln Center Theater, Playwrights Horizons, LCT3, Signature Theatre, Page 73, Clubbed Thumb, and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Elsewhere, his plays have been produced by Theatre Royal Bath, Dallas Theater Center, Seattle Rep, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Woolly Mammoth, South Coast Rep, and Victory Gardens, among others. Two anthologies of his plays are available from TCG Books, a third is forthcoming. He is a member of New Dramatists and a Resident Playwright at NYC’s Signature Theatre. He holds degrees in playwriting from NYU, The Iowa Playwrights Workshop, and Juilliard.