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Discussing the ‘Fat Suit’ at ‘The Whale’ Premiere

The carpet was blue. The poster was blue. The suits were blue.

That is, until the actor Ty Simpkins arrived at the New York premiere of “The Whale” at Alice Tully Hall this week — in a magenta suit.

“I want the summer weather back,” Mr. Simpkins, 21, explained of his choice to break with the otherwise muted palette of the film’s cast and creative team, who arrived on the red carpet — well, oceanic blue carpet — in navy suits and black dresses.

The moment of levity was at odds with the character Mr. Simpkins plays in the director Darren Aronofsky’s somber new film, adapted from the play by Samuel D. Hunter and produced by A24. The movie centers on Charlie, played by Brendan Fraser, a reclusive, morbidly obese gay man trying to reconnect with his teenage daughter (Sadie Sink) after the death of his lover. (Mr. Simpkins plays a young evangelical missionary who tries to convert Charlie — and wrestles with some of his own demons in the process.)

“The Whale” has received rapturous reviews at film festivals — including a six-minute standing ovation in Venice — and has been hailed as a comeback role for Mr. Fraser, whose career faltered in the years after his success in the “The Mummy” (1999). Though Fraser is regarded as a front-runner to win his first Oscar for his performance, and the film will most likely be nominated for best picture, it has also been criticized for Mr. Aronofsky’s decision to put Mr. Fraser in a so-called fat suit rather than cast an obese actor. The director has said that doing so would have been difficult.

When asked about his choice to use a “fat suit,” Mr. Aronofsky objected to the phrasing. “I wouldn’t use that word,” he said. “It’s prosthetics and makeup.”

The film’s makeup artists, he said, “were able to create this incredible illusion that not only works with the audience but I think helped Brendan inhabit his character and bring it to life.

“That you can be transported into the life of someone who seems incredibly different than you and still learn something about yourself is why I love movies,” Mr. Aronofsky continued.

On the carpet and at the after-party, the film’s cast and creative team discussed the themes the film tackles, the emotions it raises and what they hoped audiences would take away.

The writer and playwright Samuel D. Hunter, left, with the actor Brendan Fraser and the director Darren Aronofsky at La Grande Boucherie after the New York premiere of “The Whale.”Credit…Jackie Molloy for The New York Times
Mitch Bukhar, left, a talent agent, with Ty Simpkins, who played a young evangelical missionary in “The Whale.”Credit…Jackie Molloy for The New York Times

Mr. Fraser gained weight for the role, in addition to wearing the prosthetics, which added as much as 300 additional pounds to his frame. He has said that he prepared for the part by speaking with people who have struggled with eating issues, asking about their diet and the impact of their weight on their relationships.

“Very often people who live with severe obesity are disregarded and shut away and silenced,” said Mr. Fraser, 53, who attended the premiere with two of his sons, Holden Fraser, 18, and Leland Fraser, 16. “So it was my obligation — my duty — returning dignity and respect and authenticity.”

He continued: “The creative choices we made — the makeup, the elaborate costuming that I wore — with the help of the Obesity Action Coalition, I’m pretty sure that we came really close to creating a film with a main character who hasn’t been seen in this way, as authentically before, and I’m proud of that.”

The film, which shows Charlie inhaling whole buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken and double-stacked slices of pizza — with ranch dressing added on top — and being subjected to relentless verbal abuse by his teenage daughter, can at times be hard to watch. But stories that push and challenge audiences remain essential, said Mr. Hunter, who wrote the film.

“In academia, there’s kind of a push for no more trauma-based stories, and I struggle with that,” said Mr. Hunter, 41, after posing for photos next to his husband, the dramaturge John Baker, on the carpet. “Not only because that is discounting a broad swath of world literature — maybe the majority of it, certainly the Bible — but also because I think there’s utility in looking at dark things through the lens of fiction.”

Mala Gaonkar and David Byrne at the after-party for “The Whale.”Credit…Jackie Molloy for The New York Times

But Mr. Aronofsky wanted to be clear: The film is not meant to induce two straight hours of waterworks. “What’s surprising to many people is how funny it is,” he said. “I think when people see the heartfelt material, there’s a lot of laughs.”

At an after-party at the heated outdoor atrium of the upscale French brasserie La Grande Boucherie on West 53rd Street, where sliders, artisanal cheeses and wine were served, David Byrne, the former Talking Heads frontman, said it wasn’t the humor that had surprised him, but the humanity.

“It’s surprising, the amount of heart in it,” Mr. Byrne, 70, said.

Over by a gleaming Christmas tree, the comedian Jim Gaffigan was still processing what he had just experienced.

“A film that moves you that much, you want to give a standing ovation to,” Mr. Gaffigan, 56, said, clutching a glass of wine. “But I feel like the audience was so emotionally drained that we needed the walker.”

“Darren always does that,” he continued. “He accesses emotions that are very credible, very personal. It’s going to take a while to process.”


Quick Question is a collection of dispatches from red carpets, gala dinners and other events that coax celebrities out of hiding.

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