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As much-anticipated ‘The Whale’ opens nationwide, Idaho native Samuel D. Hunter visits Morning Edition

Samuel D. Hunter (left) talks about authoring The Whale, starring Brendan Fraser (right).
Josiah Bania, A24
Samuel D. Hunter (left) talks about authoring The Whale, starring Brendan Fraser (right).

One of the most talked-about films of 2022, The Whale, opens in theaters across North America this week. It features the must-see lead performance from Brendan Fraser, Oscar-nominated director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream) and a powerhouse screenplay from MacArthur Fellowship recipient and Idaho native Samuel D. Hunter.

The Whale is expected to be a big part of this award season, but its origin dates back to a blind submission to the Denver Center Theatre Company’s New Play Summit. Hunter had written nearly a dozen plays by then, but nothing that hit so close to home.

“It wasn't until I put some more personal stuff on the line and wrote a play that definitely was my most vulnerable, to-date,” said Hunter. “I grew up gay in Idaho, and I self-medicated with food for a good-long-time while in my twenties. And so, once I added that to the mix, then the play really started to emerge.”

And then there unexpected casting of Fraser as the 600-pound protagonist, Charlie. Hunter said it was fate from his very first reading.

“There was just something that happened 15 … 20 minutes in. It was just like, 'Oh my gosh, I think he has it,'” said Hunter. “There was something … Brendan already had it. It was in the room from the get-go. It was pretty evident that Brendan is one of those actors who can hold deep despair and deep joy and love at the exact same time.”

In a wide-ranging conversation with Morning Edition, Hunter talks about how he updated his screenplay while on-set, and how his best advice for new writers would be to go to that “scary place.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition. I'm George Prentice. Good morning. By now, you may have heard something about The Whale…the much-anticipated film… screenplay by Samuel D. Hunter, a native of Moscow, Idaho. You know him from his plays A Bright New Boise, which took home the Obie Award and the play The Whale, which won the Drama Desk award. It is a particular thrill to spend any time with Sam Hunter. Mr. Hunter, good morning.

SAMUEL D HUNTER: Good morning. I'm so glad to be back.

PRENTICE: I want to talk a little bit about success and how you see success. This must be a very interesting time for you professionally and maybe even personally. I think success is an understatement when we see audiences in Venice and how they reacted. And I was there with the audience in Toronto reacting with great emotion and sustained standing ovations. As you approach wide distribution for this film and all of the wonderful things that will probably come with it…how are you doing with all of this quite heady stuff?

HUNTER: It's been a little easier than I first feared. I mean, it's been overwhelming, of course, but I've been kind of surprised that it's like it actually feels a little similar in certain ways to opening a new play, which I've been through many, many times at this point. I mean, of course, it's very, very different. But, you know, like when I first wrote The Whale, I traveled around the country and, you know, to the first four productions and would do talkbacks and Q and A's and things like that. And I'm kind of doing the same thing right now, hopping around from festival to festival. I mean, it's much bigger. I did a Q&A in London for 2500 people. I mean, that was, you know, a little bit more than I'm used to, but I'm mostly just taking it day by day. You know, it also helps that I have a five-year-old. You kind of have to be in the moment when you're when you're parenting a five-year-old. So, you know, I'll fly to these festivals and do all this stuff. But then I come home and here's my five-year-old who still doesn't really understand what it is that I do.

PRENTICE: And wants breakfast.

HUNTER: Yeah, exactly. And just wants me to pick her up from school and take her to the playground, you know? That's all really nice.

PRENTICE: So, let's talk about The Whale and Charlie, the 600-pound Charlie, portrayed by Brendan Fraser, and certainly one of the most talked about performances in recent memory. So, I've got to ask you about that process of finding Brendan Fraser and connecting him to Charlie. I'm curious about your own early reactions to this casting.

HUNTER: Darren Aronofsky, who directed the film, is somebody who will not rush a project at all. And we started talking about this ten years ago. You know, he saw the play when it was produced here in New York. That wasn't actually the first production. That was the second production. It was the world premiere in Denver. But he saw it here in New York. And we had an initial conversation about making it into a movie. And those conversations continued. And throughout the years I would sort of work on it here and there. And there were many, many drafts. And throughout all of that, Darren was kind of quietly waiting for his Charlie because he knew that that was the big thing he needed to find in order to make this movie. And it was right before the pandemic hit that Darren reached out to me and he said, “What do you think about Brendan Fraser?” Wow, this is eight years after we first started talking, and even though I know he had looked at probably thousands of different actors for this role, he had never brought a name to me. That was the first name he ever brought forward to me as an idea. And so I was like, Oh wow, he's really serious about this.

And then Darren rented a little theater here in New York, in the East Village, and we did a reading of the screenplay, much like you would do a reading of the play with Brendan. And actually, Sadie Sink was in that reading, too…ended up playing Ellie in the film as well. And there was just something that happened 15… 20 minutes in. It was just like, “Oh my gosh, I think he has it.”You know, when you're doing an audition process, I think what you're looking for is somebody where you're like, “Oh, I think they can get there.” You know what I mean? I think they have it in them. I think I think they can really bring it. But there was something…Brendan already had it. It was in the room from the get-go.And then about two weeks later, the pandemic hit the world shut down, and that complicated everything again. But no, it was pretty evident that Brendan is one of those actors who can hold deep despair and deep joy and love at the exact same time.And that's kind of what the part needed was that complexity and that hard won hope.

PRENTICE: Well, let's talk about working with Darren Aronofsky. First off, if you can confirm this? I have heard of instances of some day of writing on-set, filming or close to filming and some new truth reveals itself. Did that happen where you added some new lines that just make more sense?

HUNTER: Yeah, definitely. There were. I was on set the entire time and that included three weeks’ worth of rehearsals that we did before anybody turned a camera on. So, I was very, very embedded in the process. And, you know, both Darren and Brendan leaned pretty heavily on me in terms of like how we wanted to get it. And it was it was a joy for me too, because unlike a play, you can shoot it as many different ways as you want, and then you have this kind of like buffet of takes to choose from. And so I felt like a freedom there and sort of like, Well, why don't we try it this way or why don't we see that? And I remember one specific day Brendan was shooting a scene in which his daughter kind of cracks for the first time. And you can see that she actually does want a dad and maybe there is a vulnerable girl inside. And I was watching the monitor and Brendan's eyes were just like lighting up in this just like rapturous joy. And I was talking with Darren in between takes and I was like, “What if we give them some language to, like, scaffold this? Because what he's doing is incredible.”

And so I gave him some line. I forget exactly what the line is, but it's something about like “I couldn't have asked for a better daughter” or something like that. And then there are also moments I remember one time one of my things throughout the process was like, we cannot lose the humor that's inherent in the stage play because it does go to such. I think it's a deeply hopeful film and a deeply optimistic film, but it goes to some pretty difficult places. And so along the way, it's so important that we that we do have some light and laughter. And we were doing one of the scenes and I realized that I had cut a few lines from the play that were funny. And I was like, “You know what? I think we can put those back in.” And so, we tried a few takes with those lines and, and those ended up in the movie. So, it was it was a pretty fluid process. It was exciting.

PRENTICE: How long ago was the very first germ of the play? How far back does this go for you?

HUNTER: A really long time. After I finished up graduate school, I was here in the city and I was teaching expository writing at Rutgers to college freshmen. I was in my late twenties, both my then-boyfriend, now-husband and I were both teaching there. And it's a really rigid course. It's all about how to write a good essay, how to depersonalize it objectively and clearly. And it was hard for me because I felt like I was teaching people to write in a way that is so opposite to how I work as a playwright, which is deeply personal, and there's a ton of myself in there. And so, at a certain point in the semester, I just got a little desperate. And because the kids just hated the course so much. And so, I just begged them to write something honest. And one of my students wrote me something that I will never forget. And it's a line that ended up into the play and in the movie, which was,” I think I need to accept that my life isn't going to be very exciting.” And there was just something about that that that really broke my heart. But there was just also something interesting about me as a teacher trying to like, genuinely connect with these kids in this kind of awkward way. And so, I just decided I wanted to write a play about an expository writing teacher. And then it wasn't. And then I, I had a few false starts, and then it wasn't until I put some more personal stuff on the line and wrote a play that definitely was my most vulnerable play to date about this. I grew up gay in Idaho, and I self-medicated with food for a good long while in my twenties. And so, once I added that to the mix, then the play really started to emerge.

PRENTICE: So, could you talk to maybe a few young writers who may be listening about going there?  About going to a scary place in writing, especially earlier in one's career? That's a big deal.

HUNTER: And it's tough. I think I had written a lot of plays up until that moment. I don't think I had been produced professionally, maybe was right around when I was starting to see my plays produced professionally. But in many ways, even though the whale was by no means my first play, I was probably my 10th or 15th play, but it felt like my first play because it was the first time that I felt like I left the training behind a little bit and was just like, “You know what? I just want to write something that I just want to tell a story I want to tell.” That's hard for me to write, that's scary for me to write. And and maybe it's just for me. Do you know what I mean? Like, maybe it's never going to see the light of day. And I think that probably all of my best plays were written and from a place of like, “Maybe this will never see the light of day, but I have to write it anyway.”

PRENTICE: And it's so interesting that you are now revisiting that moment…that moment that brought your career to a to a new plateau. And now here's the whale again. And there's this entirely new, different plateau for you.

HUNTER: Yeah, it's really interesting. I mean, you know, I've written a lot of plays at this point, but and I've written a lot of plays since The Whale. But it's funny how the whale is kind of been like the clothesline for my entire career so far. So, this does kind of feel like like both the end of something, and the beginning of something in a weird way, but it's exciting. Whatever it is, it's exciting. I'm not exactly sure what's on the other side of it, but we'll see.

PRENTICE: In the few conversations I've had with folks about them really anxious to see this film and me not giving anything away. More than a few of them have probably read too many of the, I don't know, the liner notes or whatever you want to call them.  But what I got from The Whale and you refer to this… is hope.  How sometimes it's nearly impossible to win or to keep optimism. Can you talk about that? Because I think that was like a real big reveal for me in this story.

HUNTER:, I had always written this play. I always knew I wanted to write this play from a sense of faith and hard-won hope. And I think the key thing is hard won because I didn't want to deliver any false platitudes or make easy answers. This is a play. You can look at the structure of this entire play as five people desperately trying to save one another in very complicated ways, failing at it, then maybe succeeding. And even the end, which I agree with you, I think is all about hope. It's a very complicated place, which I think is real. I think we live in incredibly cynical times. And I also think that it's really easy for cynicism to masquerade as sophistication or intelligence, when actually I believe in my bones that cynicism is cheap and easy. I mean, having faith in other people is way harder than than thinking that the world is garbage. And I think that's the play in the movie in in many ways about that fight, about that inability to let go of faith in other people.

PRENTICE: Well, whether it is private or public conversation, indeed, it's there. And there's that thing called “award season.” Is that something that's just over there, like across the street for you? Because it’s going to happen. The season's going to happen. You're going to be a part of that conversation. Do you have any particular feelings about that? Do you embrace it? Do you say, “Oh, it is what it is because there's not much you can do about it?”

HUNTER: It's so new for me. You know, It's a world that is so, so new, which I'm kind of glad that I don't know much about it because I can meet it with kind of excitement and wonder and just kind of like, whatever happens, happens. And I like I really mean that because I never thought that I would be in a place like this. You know what I mean? Like, all I ever wanted to be was a working playwright who could make enough money to have a family and health insurance. And I've had that, which has been like an incredible gift that I am deeply grateful for every moment of every day. The fact that I get to be that this is what I can do for a living, it's a crazy gift. So, like, the other stuff is I mean, it's great, but it just feels so far away or theoretical or something. And it's yeah, it's hard for me to even wrap my mind around.

PRENTICE: Well, I think the I would think that the greatest gift is when this has wide release. I can't wait for more people to see it so I can have a lot of conversations with them about this in particular, obviously the lens that we look through here in Idaho. But it is it's an American story. My experience was I instantly recognized him.

HUNTER: Yeah, that's hopefully what it is, is that whatever prejudices or judgments that some people might bring to this film, 7 minutes in, you know, largely due to Brendan's incredibly nuanced and lived in performance, those prejudices just begin to melt away. And that's always how I hope the play would work. And I was I'm so happy that the that the film seems to be working in that way as well.

PRENTICE: Well, congratulations for all that has happened to this moment. And great good luck in all of the moments to come. And for now, Sam Hunter, thank you so very much for giving us this film. Thank you for giving us some time this morning.

HUNTER: Thank you so much. It's so nice to talk to you again.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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