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'The Whale' garners controversy for not casting an actor with obesity as the lead

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

There's already been some controversy about a film that opens today. It's called "The Whale." It's about Charlie, a man who left his wife and young daughter when he finally admitted he's gay. His boyfriend later died, and that sent Charlie into a tailspin of depression. His weight ballooned to 600 pounds. He's confined to his apartment. His every movement is labored. He refuses care, except from an in-home nurse who's also his closest friend.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WHALE")

HONG CHAU: (As Liz) Charlie, your blood pressure is 238 over 134.

BRENDAN FRASER: (As Charlie) Sorry.

CHAU: (As Liz) Stop saying you're sorry. Go to the hospital. You have congestive heart failure. If you don't go to the hospital, you'll be dead by the weekend.

MARTÍNEZ: Brendan Fraser plays Charlie in a performance that's already rumored to be a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination. In what Charlie thinks are his final days, he tries to reconnect with the now-teenage daughter that he abandoned. Charlie appears to be someone who has chosen slow suicide. Fraser sees his character differently.

FRASER: This is a story about a man who wants to live, although he must die. He knows it. He's aware of it. He's not necessarily at peace with it, but his only salvation is to reconnect with her. And I think not that much else matters.

MARTÍNEZ: But if Charlie wants to live, why is he killing himself?

FRASER: I don't know that he is killing himself. I think that he wants a sense of peace. He's deeply wounded by the loss of his loved one. He fell irrevocably head over heels, hopelessly in love with someone else while he was married. And Charlie tries to soothe his grief with food. And he doesn't really succeed. He never eats for pleasure. And the tragic consequences of that are what we see played out, as he says to his daughter when she asks him, does this mean I'm going to get fat? And he says, no.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WHALE")

FRASER: (As Charlie) It doesn't. I was always big. I just - I let it get out of control.

And that's where and why he finds himself in the position he's in.

MARTÍNEZ: Brendan Fraser wears a fat suit for this role, and the camera sometimes lingers on his body. Some have called out director Darren Aronofsky for fat-shaming. Others wish he'd hired an actor who's closer to Charlie's body type. Here's Darren Aronofsky.

DARREN ARONOFSKY: I was completely surprised by any controversy. I think there's been this long, sad history of movies portraying people with obesity as punchlines, as jokes, as evil characters, and never as human beings. And the way the makeup was always portrayed was just cut from foam or pillows or just in no way trying to attempt to make a real human body. We pulled it off. So most, I think, of the criticism is based on just what people have done in the past. And I just encourage people to come see the movie.

FRASER: I just - I wanted to say that "The Whale" is one specific story about one specific person because not all people who struggle with obesity are going to struggle with it in the same way. Some of the experience that I was able to glean came from working with the Obesity Action Coalition, who are a support and reference group, and the partnership that we had with Dr. Rachel Goldman, an eating disorder specialist and psychiatrist who partnered with us to ensure that we had every best intention to approach the topic with as much sensitivity and empathy as possible. So it became almost a mandate of mine that I took on to bring dignity to this man who would otherwise be overlooked.

MARTÍNEZ: You mentioned Charlie. He wants to reconnect with his daughter. He left her and her mom when she was just a kid. She's 17 now. So let's hear a little bit of that from the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WHALE")

FRASER: (As Charlie) When I left your mom, she did not want me around you. I hoped that she would change her mind eventually, but she...

SADIE SINK: (As Ellie) You could've just called me. All this time, you could have been a part of my life.

FRASER: (As Charlie) Ellie, look at me. Who would want me to be a part of their life?

MARTÍNEZ: So, Brendan, you know, I think a lot of people are going to see this and think, well, he's pointing at the way he looks. And I don't know necessarily if that's what I thought when I saw that. It doesn't matter to me, I think, that he's big. I think it's how he's led his life that he doesn't feel he's worth anyone's love or even anyone's presence.

FRASER: Well, weight stigma poses direct and significant consequences for our emotional and physical health. So Charlie is someone who is entirely self-aware. He has lived a full life. He's more than just who he is as he presents. He's a father. He's an educator and has no small capacity to love. He has the ability to see the good in others when they can't see that in themselves. And he can bring that out in them. And the tragic poetry of that is that he can't help himself in that same way.

MARTÍNEZ: Darren, one of one of the lines that I'll remember from Charlie is when he talks about...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WHALE")

FRASER: (As Charlie) Do you ever get a feeling that people are incapable of not caring? People are amazing.

MARTÍNEZ: Do you think that's true, that people are incapable of not caring, that they're amazing?

ARONOFSKY: Wow. You have to ask me personally? I think I do. I just - it's just interesting how much we run from that. I - like, the last few years have just been such a time of disconnection and cynicism. We are connected.

MARTÍNEZ: I think the movie coming out right now is kind of perfect because the life that Charlie is living, I think a lot of people led that life for the last three years...

ARONOFSKY: Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: ...Just being away from people and not having those relationships...

ARONOFSKY: Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: ...And maybe forgetting how to be a human being. Brendan, what about you? Are people incapable of not caring? Are people amazing?

FRASER: Personal view - I think that we all are incapable of not caring. It just depends on what you care about. And it's also the moniker of a man who has had a very complicated relationship with his loved ones. And in the little amount of time that he has left, I think it's his way of thanking them.

MARTÍNEZ: Brendan Fraser is the star of "The Whale." Darren Aronofsky directed the film. Brendan and Darren, thanks a lot.

ARONOFSKY: Thank you very much.

FRASER: Thank you. Be well. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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