VENICE, Italy — Brendan Fraser is having a moment at the Venice International Film Festival.
The once ubiquitous movie star of “The Mummy” franchise and “George of the Jungle” had, in the last decade, backed away from the spotlight. But Fraser is charting what could be a major comeback starting with his transformative role in Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale,” which had its world premiere Sunday night at the festival.
As the credits rolled in the Sala Grande theater, the audience gave the film a long standing ovation while Fraser, on the balcony alongside his director and co-stars, wiped tears away.
Fraser plays Charlie, a reclusive English teacher with a kind soul who weighs 600 pounds (270 kilograms). While the film already has pundits predicting Oscar nominations, Fraser is trying not to think about whether awards are in his future.
“I’m just trying to stay in today,” Fraser said before the premiere.
Aronofsky has been trying to make “The Whale” for about 10 years. He vividly remembers reading The New York Times review of Samuel D. Hunter’s play, going out to see it, and knowing he had to meet the writer.
One line in particular stuck out to him: “People are incapable of not caring.” It’s why, he said, he had to make the film.
But casting presented a challenge.
“To a lot of Sam Hunter’s pain, it took me 10 years to make this movie and that’s because it took me 10 years to cast,” Aronofsky said. “Casting Charlie was a huge challenge. I considered everyone. Every single movie star on the planet. But none of it really clicked. ... It didn’t move me. It didn’t feel right.”
Then, a few years ago, he saw a trailer for “a low-budget Brazilian movie” with Fraser and “a lightbulb went off,” he said.
Fraser, who also has a role alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s next film, “Killers of the Flower Moon," said he doesn’t “know an actor in my peer group worth his weight in salt who wouldn’t want to work with Darren.”
Plus: “By far and away I think Charlie is the most heroic man I have ever played," Fraser added. "His superpower is to see the good in others and bring that out of them.”
Prosthetics were used to transform Fraser into Charlie, who rarely leaves his couch.
“I needed to learn to absolutely move in a new way. I developed muscles I did not know that I had. I even felt a sense of vertigo at the end of the day when all the appliances were removed, as you would feel stepping off of a boat in Venice,” Fraser said. “It gave me an appreciation for those with bodies similar. ... I learned that you need to be an incredibly strong person, physically, mentally, to inhabit that body.”
Beyond his physicality, Charlie is also a character with profound empathy and love for everyone around him, including his estranged daughter, Ellie, played by “Stranger Things” star Sadie Sink.
“She’s got a lot of things to say so she comes in hot. But I think what she’s not expecting is someone who cares so much about her,” Sink said. “For someone like Charlie to see that there’s good in someone like Ellie, it’s throwing her for a loop.”
Hunter, who also wrote the screenplay, said his play is personal. He started it 12 years ago when he was teaching a mandatory expository writing course at Rutgers University that no one wanted to take and everyone resented. He also pulled from his own background, setting the play in his hometown of Moscow, Idaho, and weaving in his history of being depressed, self-medicating with food and going to a fundamentalist religious high school as a gay teenager.
“I was afraid to write it,” he said. “I thought the only way I can do it is if I write it from a profoundly place of love and empathy. ... I wanted (Charlie) to be a lighthouse in the middle of a dark, dark sea.”
“The Whale” was Aronofsky's favorite kind of challenge — in that it had so many limitations. He learned long ago on 1998's “Pi” that boundaries are “your gateway to freedom.” On that film, he only had $20,000 and a dream. In “Mother!” he was limited to a house. And, in “The Whale,” it’s not just a single apartment, it’s also a character who doesn’t move much.
He and cinematographer Matthew Libatique, whose friendship stretches back to their days at the American Film Institute in 1990, spent quite a bit of time talking about “how to turn theater into cinema” and “how to make that engaging and exciting.” In the rough cut, Aronofsky said he was relieved to find that it didn’t feel claustrophobic.
Fraser added that the film is “a piece of cinema. Proper cinema.”
Venice is a regular stop for Aronofsky, who in 2008 won the Golden Lion for “The Wrestler" and also debuted “Black Swan” and “The Fountain” on the Lido. He said the festival is like home.
Aronofsky and his actors could be poised to leave with trophies in hand this year, too. “The Whale” is part of the official competition of the festival, which will be decided on by a Julianne Moore-led jury on Sept. 10. And A24 plans to release it in theaters on Dec. 9. But he's mostly just glad to be back with his first film since 2017's “Mother!”
“The last few years, so many of us have lost so much. ... Cinema is about human connection. It's about the chance to slide into someone else’s shoes and have two hours of empathy in someone else's mind. I think that’s exactly what the world needs. I'm just so happy to be back,” Aronofsky said. “It’s a big moment for me and, I think, for cinema.”