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“It’s a film that always had the intention to change hearts and minds,” Brendan Fraser said of The Whale, for which he is nominated for the best actor Oscar, ahead of receiving the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s American Riviera Award on Tuesday night.
The popular star, who was greeted with huge applause by the Santa Barbarians who packed the historic Arlington Theater, discussed his life and career with Deadline‘s Pete Hammond, who described the actor’s recent resurgence, after several years out of the spotlight that he had occupied since the early 1990s, as “the Brenaissance.”
Coming from an “itinerate family” that spent considerable time in Europe, Fraser said that seeing plays in London as a kid hooked him on the idea of becoming an actor. He studied at a conservatory in Seattle before heading to L.A. in 1991, where he was asked by Sherry Lansing to test — he thought she meant academically, not a screen test — for the role of a Jew at an anti-Semitic school in the dramatic film School Ties. He landed that part — he says by imitating Matt Damon, who had already been cast, and opposite whom he read for the part — and shortly thereafter the part of a thawed-out caveman in Encino Man, a comedic film for which he based his performance on silent clowns like Keaton and Chaplin and others including Bill Irwin. The two “diametrically opposing” projects, which were both released in 1992 (in the opposite order from which he shot them), showcased his range and led to many other opportunities that followed.
Henceforth, Fraser did his share of silly comedies, among them Airheads (1994), in which he played a rocker opposite Adam Sandler and Steve Buscemi; George of the Jungle (1997), “a live action cartoon” that featured early CGI, but in which a real monkey tongued his ear (prompting him to winkingly warn the audience, “Never work with animals”); and Bedazzled (2000). But he also kept a toe in drama, with projects like Gods and Monsters (1998) and The Quiet American (2002), on which he worked opposite Ian McKellen (whom he said he idolized long before he met him) and Michael Caine (theirs was the first Western film made in Vietnam since the Vietnam War), respectively.
Still, the films for which Fraser became best known were The Mummy (1999), The Mummy Returns (2001) and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008), a trilogy of action-adventure flicks that proved to be blockbusters. (He was not, however, a part of the fourth installment, the 2017 flop The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise, about which he said, “I was at the theater on opening day watching Tom’s movie,” adding after a pause, “There was nobody else in the theater aside from me and my two kids.”)
For a variety of reasons, some of which were discussed (physical wear and tear) and others of which were not (a Me Too incident previously shared with GQ), Fraser faded from the scene in the second decade of the 21st century. But then Darren Aronofsky happened upon a 2006 indie in which Fraser had starred, Journey to the End of the Night, and thought of the actor for the principal part in a big- screen adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s play The Whale that he had been struggling for years to cast. Fraser said he was ready to be “rediscovered,” and fully committed to the emotional and physical challenges of playing a morbidly obese man hoping to repair his relationship with his estranged daughter before it was too late. “To play this part,” he said, “I had to be all in, 100 percent.”
Fraser’s award was presented to him by actress Sarah Michelle Gellar, with whom he costarred in the 2007 film The Air I Breathe, who called him “a gift.”
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