"Sunday Morning" didn't expect Branden Fraser to build us a fire, especially since he had a pretty nasty cold. But what we really didn't expect was for him to start quoting Herman Melville: "I know not all that may be coming, but come what will, I will go to it laughing. Herman Melville, 1851, 'The Whale.'"
That quote about accepting the future has meant a lot to Fraser lately, ever since whispers of a best actor Oscar began sneaking through Hollywood for his latest movie, "The Whale," out this week.
"That's, like, a tomorrow thing," Fraser told Lee Cowan. "I'm staying in today."
His performed earned him a six-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival, and then another five-minute ovation at the London Film Festival. "That was wholly unexpected," said Fraser. "I got choked up."
Chances are, you'll get choked up too.
"The Whale," from director Darren Aronofsky, is the story of Charlie, a man living with obesity who's trying to right a few wrongs in his life.
To watch a trailer for "The Whale" click on the video player below:
Fraser said it's the most demanding role of his long career – and one of the most controversial. He worked with the Obesity Action Coalition to make sure his performance as Charlie was done with respect and empathy. But to some critics that wasn't enough. They say the film, and Fraser's use of a so-called fat suit, still stigmatizes those with larger body types – exactly what Fraser says he was trying to avoid.
"It has us take a look at someone who we would otherwise just dismiss," he said. "I think this film has the ability to change hearts and minds about how we perceive those who live with obesity."
His return to the big-screen has Hollywood calling it a comeback. His fans have a better name for it: a "Brennaissance." Whatever it is, Charlie is certainly a far different character than the ones Fraser was playing back in the '90s and early 2000s. He could just as easily go from "George of the Jungle," to holding his own with the likes of Oscar-nominee Ian McKellen in the drama "Gods and Monsters."
Cowan asked, "When you look back at yourself in the '90s, what do you think these days?"
"What do I think? I think that guy's really lucky!" he laughed. "I think he's got awesome hair!"
That hair, his good looks, and his swashbuckling demeanor made "The Mummy" a blockbuster. Critics even started comparing him to Harrison Ford – and like Ford, Fraser reprised his "Mummy" role several times over.
"Which is both a blessing and a curse, I guess?" asked Cowan.
"Maybe curse of the mummy!"
But his celebrity was quickly becoming a sandstorm, pelting him with self-doubt, he says, day after day: "I felt at that time that it wasn't enough. I wasn't big enough, I wasn't cut enough, or any of those adjectives. And the person that I saw, and was trying to create, wasn't an ideal in my mind. And how you contend with that?"
Just how he contended with it was to back off, to reevaluate his priorities, and let the Hollywood merry-go-round spin off on its own for a while. "I needed the music to stop, you know? We can put actors on pedestals and then knock them off so quickly and so easily. It's almost like that's the game. So, I just got rid of the pedestal. I just wanted to be myself."
He picked up a hobby: archery. He says there's something about releasing an arrow into the wind that has become for him both calming and cathartic.
That smile quickly went away when our conversation turned to one of the most painful chapters in his life. "It was causing me emotional distress; it was causing me personal distress," he said.
In 2003 he says the former president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Phillip Berk, groped him during a luncheon at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Berk has consistently denied the allegations, saying he only pinched him as a joke. But to Fraser - the intent didn't matter.
Cowan asked, "It sounds like it really derailed everything, right?"
"Well, yes, because there's a system in place that is about power," Fraser said. "And I had played by the rules up until that point. And I felt like, okay, now, suddenly, I've been violated. And it has gone too far. And I will no longer abide this."
He waited 15 years before he finally went public, in a 2018 GQ article. Had it not been for the #MeToo movement, he says he might not have come forward at all. "I spoke up because I saw so many of my friends and colleagues who, at that time, were bravely emerging to speak their truth to power," he said. "And I had something to say, too."
"The Whale" has something to say as well, he thinks. What he hopes audiences take away isn't pity, but an understanding that Charlie could be any one of us who loves, and cares, and grieves.
Brendan Fraser has been through all of that pain himself – and is now coming out the other side.
Cowan asked, "Do you feel like those days of self-doubt and when you were trying to step back from things to really focus on priorities, do you think those are behind you now, those days?"
"It feels like a new day, that's for sure, it does," Fraser laughed. "Yes, it does. It feels like a new, better, beautiful day!"
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Story produced by David Rothman. Editor: Lauren Barnello.
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