When Samuel d. Hunter meets with Darren Aronofsky to discuss the possibility of turning his Off-Broadway play “The Whale” into a film, when he finds himself face-to-face with Russell Crowe. Aronofsky, you see, was deep into editing his 2014 biblical epic “Noah,” when he first broached the idea of collaborating with the playwright.
“It was a little scary to have Russell Crowe staring at me from this huge screen,” remembers Hunter. “It was hard to play the focus.”
The size and scope of two projects cannot be different. One was a huge studio production featuring gorgeous settings, the other a low-budget affair unfolding 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 college online and who desperately wants to reconnect with his daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink).
“What drew me to Sam’s play so much is that it makes you feel for someone that a lot of people want to ignore,” says Aronofsky.
But telling Charlie’s story also required Hunter to draw on his own experiences and struggles, which he spoke about in detail during a recent meeting. diversity.
How did you come up with the idea for “Whale”?
This is a very personal story. I started writing the play about 13 years ago. 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 no one wanted to be there. They weren’t writing something they actually believed, they were writing something they thought I would want to read. I realized that no one valued them as autonomous people with opinions and tastes. So I said before we get into all this writing, try writing something honest. And I got ongoing reactions to it, and one of them ended up in the play and the movie, which was, ‘I guess I have to accept that my life isn’t going to be very exciting.’ I think of the child who wrote it a lot. And that honesty made me think about writing a play about an expository writing teacher and personalizing it in different ways, one of which was writing about a gay person and someone who had a history like I once did of self-medicating with food. .
How have you struggled with eating?
To be clear, this is not a drama about everyone struggling with obesity. How it presented in me. How depression manifested in me physically. I was at my oldest when I was 20 and just 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 being written about someone who didn’t have that support system.
What triggers your depression?
I went to a very religious high school, which I eventually had to leave when I was found out. I didn’t like to go too deep into it because it was too political. I was ostracized by friends and it reached 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 dark moment of the whole thing was that my credits didn’t transfer to the public high school I attended, so I was placed 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 obesity has historically been portrayed in film?
The portrayal of obesity in the media is therefore haphazard. They are satanic and funny content. Falstaff has such a history going back to him. I wanted to do something different and something that felt true to my emotional experience. It is one of the last socially acceptable superstitions. I had a really shocking moment when I lost a bunch of weight and it was weird how people treated me differently. The cashiers were nice 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 up when you adapted your play for the screen?
In the beginning we thought about it and tried to consider if there were storylines worth exploring. But it was either the second or third meeting where Darren was like, ‘I think we should put it in the apartment and maybe do a more direct adaptation of it.’ I was really excited about that. I just assume when doing an adaptation that you open it, but every time I wonder if it’s a kid who comes to school and has a crush on her. It felt like populating this thing with unnecessary items for visual interest.
Brendan Fraser received rave reviews for his work in “The Whale”. Why is his performance so successful?
I’ve seen many different actors play the part, and productions really live or die on whether they can tap into Charlie’s love and joy. It doesn’t work if the actor doesn’t connect with it through pain and suffering. Before we filmed anything, Darren read the script with Brendan in the East Village. My palms were sweating, because it’s one thing to put on a play production that will last for weeks, but it’s quite another to make a movie, which is carved in marble. But within minutes, 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 feel it immediately.