When Samuel D. Hunter met Darren Aronofsky to talk about the possibility of turning his Off-Broadway play “The Whale” into a movie, he found himself face-to-face with Russell Crowe…kind of. Aronofsky, you see, was deep into the editing of “Noah,” his 2014 biblical epic, when he first broached the idea of collaborating with the playwright.
“It was a little intimidating to have Russell Crowe staring down at me from this giant screen,” Hunter remembers. “It was kind of hard to play attention.”
The two projects could not have been different in size and scope. One was a massive studio production featuring fantastical settings, the other is a low-budget affair that unfolds entirely in a two-bedroom apartment. But Aronofsky thought there was something cinematic about the story of Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a morbidly obese man who makes a living teaching online college courses and who desperately wants to reconnect with his daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink).
“What attracted me so much to Sam’s play is that it makes you feel for someone who a lot of people just want to ignore,” says Aronofsky.
But telling Charlie’s story also required Hunter to mine his own experiences and struggles, something he talked about in detail during a recent sit-down with Variety.
How did you come up with the idea for “The Whale”?
It is a very personal story. I started writing the play about 13 years ago now. I was teaching expository writing at Rutgers, and I was desperately trying to connect with these students. These were college freshmen and it was a state requirement, so nobody wanted to be there. They weren’t writing anything that they actually believed in, they were writing things that they thought I wanted to read. I got the sense that nobody had ever valued them as autonomous people with opinions and taste. So I said before we get into the essay of it all, try to write something honest. And I got moving responses to that, and one of them ended up in the play and the movie, which was, ‘I think I need to accept that my life is not going to be very exciting.’ I think about the kid who wrote that a lot. And that honesty made me think about writing a play about an expository writing teacher and to personalize it in different ways, one of which was to write about a gay person and also somebody who had a history like I once did of self-medicating with food.
In what way did you struggle with eating?
To be clear, this is not a play about everybody who struggles with obesity. It’s how it presented in me. How depression manifested physically in me. I was at my biggest when I was 20 and coming out of college. I had support in my life. I had parents who loved me and a support system, and I was able to deal with some of my demons and go to therapy and become a healthier person. So the play is writing about a person who didn’t have that support system.
What triggered your depression?
I went to a very religious high school, one that I eventually had to leave when I was found out. I don’t like getting too deep into it because it was so political. I was outed by friends and it got to the administration and they told me to tell my parents. It was an ugly time, and I lost all my friends and mentors overnight. One of the darker moments of the whole thing was my credits didn’t transfer to the public high school I attended, so I was put in a remedial English class. But it became a positive time because I was out of the closet, so I had nothing to hide anymore.
What do you think about the way that obesity has historically been portrayed in movies?
The portrayal of obesity in media is so messed up. They’re demonized and made the subject of jokes. There’s such a history of that going all the way back to Falstaff. I wanted to do something different and something that felt truer to my emotional experience. It’s one of the last socially acceptable prejudices. I had a really shocking moment when I did lose a bunch of weight and it was weird to just see how differently people treated me. Cashiers were nicer to me. I was treated with more respect on an interpersonal level and that was a hard thing to realize.
Were you tempted to open your play up when you adapted it for the screen?
In the beginning we thought about it and tried to consider if there were storylines to explore in this. But it was either the second or third meeting where Darren was like, ‘I think we should keep it in the apartment and maybe make it more of a straight adaptation.’ I was really excited about that. I would have just assumed in doing an adaptation you open it up, but every time I’d think about that it’s like would it be Ellie at school with a kid she has a crush on. It felt like populating this thing with needless items for the sake of visual interest.
Brendan Fraser has received rave reviews for his work in “The Whale.” Why is his performance so successful?
I’ve seen so many different actors play this part, and the productions really live or die on whether or not they can tap into Charlie’s love and joy. If the actor does not connect to that through the pain and through the sadness then it doesn’t work. Before we filmed anything, Darren did a reading of the script with Brendan in the East Village. My palms were sweating, because it’s one thing to give this over to a production of a play that will last a few weeks, but it’s quite another to make a movie, which is kind of etched in marble. But a few minutes in, I was completely relieved because Brendan was so effortless and he connected with that joy and love and all the dimensions of the character. You felt it immediately.