Following his win for Best Actor in a Leading Role at Sunday’s 95th Academy Awards, Brendan Fraser shared some thoughts about his gay character in The Whale.
Fraser’s performance has garnered near-universal praise, and he was by far the favorite to win Best Actor at the Oscars. But the film itself has been divisive, drawing criticism for its depiction of its main character, Charlie (Fraser), an isolated, 600-lb gay English teacher struggling with grief and depression. Critics have called the film fatphobic and accused director Darren Aronofsky of presenting “obesity as tragedy.” The filmmaker was also blasted for casting Fraser, a straight actor who wore prosthetics and a fat suit, rather than giving an actual fat gay actor the opportunity to take on the role.
In the Oscars press room, Out Magazine’s Raffy Ermac commented on how “queer storytelling has come a long way” since Fraser starred opposite out actor Ian McKellen in 1998’s Oscar-winning Gods and Monsters, and asked him how it felt to play a “complicated queer character like Charlie” in The Whale.
“Charlie’s so much more than just a gay man,” Fraser said. “He’s a father, he’s an educator, he’s a truth seeker, and that he fell hopelessly, inconveniently in love with whomever is immaterial.”
In the film, Charlie is estranged from his ex-wife and teenage daughter, having left them years ago after falling in love with another man. He’s also grieving the death of his partner.
“He’s someone who found love, lost it, and then found it again,” Fraser said of the character. “I think that’s something that we can all take a page from. And know that with perseverance, if you put one foot in front of the other like Charlie did, go to the light — believe me. If I can do it, you can too — good things will happen.”
Fraser’s comments echo a perennial tension around LGBTQ+ characters and stories in mainstream media. It’s a cliché at this point for actors, writers, and directors to assert that their characters “just happen to be gay” in the context of their stories. It’s a way of saying that LGBTQ+ people are just like anyone else; we have jobs, fall in and out of love, face hardships, and experience triumphs, and coming-out stories, stories of discrimination, etc. aren’t the only LGBTQ+ stories worth telling.
Which is all true and worth remembering. Queer people are, as Fraser said, more than just our queerness.
But the idea that queerness can be incidental to a person’s life ignores the lived experience of LGBTQ+ people existing as a marginalized group in a heterosexist society. It’s almost inconceivable to imagine an LGBTQ+ person who hasn’t experienced some form of homophobia or transphobia; we grow up aware of our difference in ways that straight people don’t, and that shapes how we interact with and experience the world.
In The Whale, Charlie is estranged from his daughter (played by Stranger Things’ Sadie Sinks) in part because he is gay: some combination of fear, repression, and internalized homophobia presumably led him to remain closeted for a period of his life, marry a woman, and have a child. He came out later in life, a uniquely queer experience, and abandoned his family. These circumstances are inextricably linked to systemic heterosexism and homophobia. To say that Charlie’s sexuality is “immaterial” to his story, to who he is, suggests a massive blind spot on Fraser’s part when it comes to understanding what it is to be a gay man.
By all accounts, Fraser is a deeply sensitive actor, so it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t take any of this into account when crafting his Oscar-winning performance. It’s entirely possible, likely even, that his comments were simply imprecise, made as they were in a moment of high emotion. It’s possible he was reiterating the thing straight people seem to think they’re supposed to say about queer characters: that “they’re just like us,” that they “just happen to be gay.”
But his comments point to one of the reasons why some LGBTQ+ people argue that straight actors should not play LGBTQ+ roles. Beyond the equity issues that arise when an already privileged class of performers—straight, cis, thin, able-bodied—are consistently given high-profile queer roles—leading to awards, more prestige, greater name recognition, marketability, and earning potential—there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the LGBTQ+ experience. Playing a gay character has to involve more than just slotting in a different gender as the object of desire; it has to involve nearly every aspect of how that character has experienced the world. A character’s queerness isn’t the only thing, but it is also… everything. And it’s definitely not immaterial.