At the beginning of playwright Samuel D. Hunter’s career, before he’d even been produced in New York, he was living with his boyfriend in an illegal midtown sublet and teaching expository writing at Rutgers University. But the dramatist was growing frustrated with the cold objectivity of the essays he was grading. “Forget about writing a good essay,” he told his students. “Just write me something honest. Tell me something truthful.”
One student responded, “I think I need to accept that my life isn't going to be very exciting.”
Hunter couldn’t get that phrase out of his head. On the long NJ Transit rides from New Brunswick to Manhattan, the beginnings of a new play began to take form. That student’s answer is now a line in the play The Whale and its recent film adaptation, directed by Darren Aronofsky.
The Whale made its Off-Broadway premiere in 2012 at Playwrights Horizons, winning Hunter a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play and a Drama Desk Special Award, which noted Hunter's “empathic and indelible The Whale affirms his arrival as a distinguished dramatist who depicts the human condition.” It was then produced around the country. The film adaptation, for which Hunter also wrote the screenplay, premiered in September 2022 at the Venice International Film Festival, followed by a wide theatrical release in December. It’s now making the rounds in the Hollywood awards circuit—with lead actor Brendan Fraser getting Oscar buzz for his performance as Charlie.
The story centers on Charlie, a home-bound 600 lb. man who teaches expository writing online. The action takes place in what might be the last week of Charlie’s life, as he desperately tries to connect with his students and with his estranged teen daughter Ellie. Years of using food to assuage the grief and guilt from the loss of his partner Alan, who committed suicide when his lifestyle conflicted with his family’s religion, has left Charlie on the verge of heart failure. But he refuses to go to the hospital, begging only for Ellie to spend time with him at his apartment.
Some media discourse and online chatter have accompanied the film, including criticism of the extensive use of prosthetics to transform Fraser into Charlie, who is suffering from severe obesity. Some have called the film fatphobic. Hunter expected there to be some discussion around The Whale film, but he was also surprised at the level of pushback.
Hunter had read "hundreds of reviews," and didn't encounter that kind of critique surrounding any of the theatre performances, which often put an actor on stage in a fat suit. Hunter has a theory: "The history of portrayal of obesity in cinema is very different than in theatre. The way that prosthetics and costumes have been used to portray obesity in cinema has been really awful. It's mostly been used to make people the subject of ridicule, or to dehumanize them. And so I think people are kind of bringing that to the table."
Hunter believes, though, that the realistic prosthetics used for Charlie showed a heartbreaking truth—the opposite of ridiculous. He doesn't take the criticism too much to heart, though (nor is he defensive). "At the end of the day, people are allowed to have whatever reaction they want to have. I just told the story. And I tried to tell it with as much love and integrity as I could," he says.
The Whale wasn't an easy play to write. Hunter went through a few drafts of the play in the late aughts that he didn’t think worked. “They felt too intellectual,” he says. So, he got personal. His own youth growing up gay in a fundamentalist Christian school in Idaho informed the play. Hunter then wrote in a character named Thomas, a young missionary who finds himself on Charlie’s doorstep, who is intent on saving his soul. Hunter’s own struggle self-medicating his depression with food influenced Charlie’s long, passive culinary suicide.
For Hunter, the Playwrights Horizons production was already the peak of success: “I always just wanted to be an Off-Broadway playwright.” However, Oscar-winning director Darren Aronofsky was in the audience one night and met with Hunter about turning the play into a film. Hunter admits to some initial trepidation, mainly about film’s tendency to take a play and make it bigger, to open it up and put it in several locations.
But Aronofsky wanted to keep the story confined to one room, like the play, so Hunter bought screenwriting software just so he could write a film script. It may have taken 10 years, but the A24 film is one of this winter’s most buzzed-about movies.
Fraser, well-known in the mid-late ’90s for broad comedies like George of the Jungle, Airheads, and Encino Man, stars as Charlie in a much-lauded comeback of sorts. Following the blockbuster action-comedy franchise The Mummy in the early 2000s, Fraser took a pause from the industry for health reasons, including surgeries required for on-set injuries. However, in a 2018 interview with GQ, he came forward with a full account of sexual assault by a Hollywood Foreign Press executive—a story that was relayed to the HFPA at the time in 2003, but was quickly swept under the rug. Fraser believes he may have been blacklisted for reporting the incident.
The public’s response to seeing Fraser on film again has been near ecstatic. His performance is earning accolades (a six-minute standing ovation at Venice Film Fest and a Critic’s Choice award), but so is his mere presence. Hunter describes mobs screaming Fraser’s name and following him around at press events. He also says Fraser is handling it all with grace and humility. For Fraser’s fans, the actor currently exhibits a kindness that always been present, not only in his public personality, but also in his performances.
The Whale is no different. Fraser’s Charlie, and Hunter’s Charlie, is full of hope. He has an unflappable faith in humanity’s intrinsic goodness. “People are amazing,” he insists in the script. Despite his students and the pizza delivery guy looking at him with varying degrees of disgust, ridicule, and horror when he finally reveals his appearance to them. Despite his acidic daughter (played by former Broadway Annie, Sadie Sink) lashing out with a viscous anger designed to wound her father, even as he seeks redemption. He believes in them.
That optimism in other people seems incongruous for a character who is rarely shown affection and is actively killing himself with whole pizzas. That attitude is another mirror into Hunter’s psyche. “Even in my darkest moments, I’ve never been a cynical person,” says the writer. “The most tragic moments of my life are always ones of isolation."
Again, he reaches towards his own personal history to illustrate the play—Hunter was outed at his Christian school and forced to leave. “The worst thing that happened was I lost all my people…even more so than the complicated feelings of self-loathing I had,” he recalls. So, he built a new community. When some people hurt him, he turned to other people. He found a way to connect. “Even in points in my life where I could not bestow generosity upon myself, or love for myself, I never lost love for other people,” he says, wondering if he’s starting to sound like a Pollyanna.
Hunter also credits his family for some of that idealism. That boyfriend that Hunter shared a sublet with early in his career is now his husband, and the two have a five-year-old daughter. “I struggle with narratives that are cynical, because I just find that they're lazy. They’re a little vapid, yet they masquerade as sophistication. And I just don't buy it,” he says. “And as a dad, I kind of can't buy it. I want to usher my kid into a world where human connection has real value and cynicism isn't worth it.”
His new role as a father has also complicated his view of the story he wrote 10 years ago, of a father leaving his daughter. He’s adjusted the screenplay to reflect that change. “It’s not a different story, but there’s more depth of character than I had in the play. To the extent that I think I might do a rewrite of the play,” he reveals.
At the same time, Charlie and Ellie’s relationship is complicated. Charlie’s relationship with himself is even more so. It is both optimistic and self-destructive. “That’s the tragedy, right?” remarks Hunter rhetorically.
It’s also those complexities that drive Hunter to keep writing plays (his play A Bright New Boise, set in his home state of Idaho, will run Off-Broadway at Signature Theatre January 31 to March 12). As Hunter puts it, “That’s the fun, at least for the kind of plays that I’m interested in writing. They’re so fundamentally humanist. There’s no authorial voice coming in to dictate what you should be feeling. It’s just people. It’s the language of other human beings.”
See photos from The Whale's premiere Off Broadway, staring Tony winner Shuler Hensley.