In Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, Brendan Fraser plays Charlie, a reclusive English teacher living with severe obesity. Charlie’s disease limits his ability to walk around his apartment, so he relies on his friend, Liz (The Menu‘s Hong Chau), to be his nurse and caretaker. After a severe health complication, Charlie realizes his time is running out and he attempts to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Ellie (Stranger Things star Sadie Sink).
Based on Samuel D. Hunter’s play of the same name, The Whale is a heartbreaking depiction of regret and grief as one father attempts to make amends with his daughter, the one person he truly cares about. The Whale challenges the audience to find empathy and love in flawed characters. In an interview with Digital Trends, Sink and Chau describe their experience filming The Whale and working with Fraser.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Digital Trends: Ellie comes off as this angry teenager who clearly hates her dad. She’s full of angst. As the film goes on, you start to see there are a lot more layers to this character. How were you able to find and showcase the humanity in Ellie?
Sadie Sink: Ellie is someone who is in a tremendous amount of pain, and that pain is kind of manifested into these self-destructive coping mechanisms. And she, I think, is someone who finds power and control in scaring people. Her relationship with Charlie — I think Charlie’s this person who she has just built up as this villainous figure in her life. And when that’s proven wrong, I think it becomes one of the most confusing times of her life. And that’s kind of what we see throughout the film, [and] throughout this last week that she has with him.
On the flip side, Liz is a funny, sarcastic character. One moment she’s joking with Charlie, and the next, she’s crying on his shoulder. Hong, how were you able to go back and forth so quickly with these emotions throughout the film?
Hong Chau: I credit the writing. I think Sam Hunter crafted a beautiful story, and within the larger story, the individual scenes take you on such a roller-coaster ride where, just like you said, the scene will start off one way and end up in a completely unexpected way. So it’s really Sam Hunter’s gift for writing and creating such layered and complicated characters and situations.
Do you think Liz feels guilty for aiding in some of Charlie’s harmful behavior?
Chau: You know, it’s a really complicated relationship between Liz and Charlie. They have a lot of history. I thought that everything that she did felt really spot-on to me because if it’s easy for you to say no to someone or to cut them out of your life because they’re not living it the way you think they should, then that relationship probably wasn’t very deep to begin with. They have a really deep relationship, and when you’re in a true, true relationship, you bend for people.
Both of your characters spend the majority of scenes alongside Brendan. We can start with you, Sadie. What is one thing that stood out about Brendan during filming?
Sink: I think there were times when he was Charlie. He was this character, and he just put 100% of himself into this role, and so it just felt so real in certain moments. I think, especially once we started filming and came out of the rehearsal period, and we were fully in it, and he was in the prosthetics, there was this overall energy that had just shifted.
And it was because of Brendan, and the way that he plays Charlie. He’s so connected all the time and so giving and generous to his scene partners. It’s something I’m so grateful for and it just made everything so natural.
Hong, did anything surprise you about Brendan during this process?
Chau: Oh, my gosh. I was just blown away by his graciousness every day on set. One of my insecurities as an actor is working with props. I’m not coordinated or athletically inclined, so whenever I have to deal with props, I just become like butterfingers.
And there was one day in particular where I had to adjust the oxygen on Charlie, and oh, my gosh, I just… [Laughs] I was struggling, and Brendan was so patient and so kind, and I think it’s just that. He’s just an absolute sweetheart as a human being and also generous as an actor.
The Whale is in select theaters now and will expand nationwide later in the month.