A Tale of a Whale: Shanon Weaver on Playing and Watching Charlie
Austin artist Shanon Weaver shares his experience playing Charlie and watching Brendan Fraser play the same part in The Whale
"Check this out!" read several messages I've received over various social media outlets since January of 2021. All of them accompanied by a link to the news of an upcoming film based on Samuel D. Hunter's play The Whale.
Why? That's a fine question. I'm glad you asked.
In 2014, my since-disbanded theatre company – A Chick & a Dude Productions – staged a production of the play. I played Charlie, the titular obese gay man seeking authentic connection in the final days of his life. At the time, to my knowledge, I was only the third actor to play the role, after Shuler Hensley in the 2012 off-Broadway premiere at Playwrights Horizons and Matthew Arkin at South Coast Rep in 2013. It was my most challenging and most beloved role to date, one I'd love to revisit someday. The production was well-received, nominated for a handful of awards (one of which it lost to a production of Neil LaBute's Fat Pig, ironically), and our "most successful" production by many metrics.
So when news hit that Darren "Black Swan" Aronofsky was directing a film version, people thought I'd like to know.
A24 Films was kind enough to invite me to a press screening of the film, and what unfolded before me was mesmerizing.
This is not a review of the film, so I won't talk much about it other than to say it's one of the most faithful film adaptations of a stage play ever made. There are very few differences, and what little has been changed is justified. What I will talk about is playing Charlie and all that comes with it.
People are going to talk about the film. There will be renewed, heated debate about a straight actor playing a gay role. There will be discussions in various queer theatre courses about the tired "bury your gays" trope. There will be debate about a man of average weight playing a 600-pound person, discussions of fat-shaming, what a "healthy" weight looks like, and how useless (and racist) the body mass index is.
For my part, I'll bat aside these controversies (all of which are certainly worthy of discussion) and talk about my experience knowing, respecting, and honoring Charlie and his story.
It's almost not worth saying I wanted to avoid "playing gay" (because what the fuck does that even mean?), but I also didn't want to "play fat." As a dude from a family of large people – and no string bean myself – it was important to me that we never pointed at Charlie and laughed. There were to be no moments of comedy (exposed butt cracks, farts, etc.) at the expense of the character. For me, the story is about why Charlie is 600 pounds, not that he is. To play Charlie is to accept and respect his given circumstances as an actor would with any other role. Here is a man who knows he's going to die and wants to experience moments of true connection, true authenticity without the weight of all the bullshit that comes with life.
Naturally, physicality played a big part as well. Our "fat suit" was actually very light and easy to move around in, so there was a lot of work endowing that weight into the performance. The director, Melissa Livingston (then the "chick" of A Chick & a Dude), would sit on my chest as I memorized lines, simply to put in my body the feeling of how to breathe. The journey of portraying a failing heart over the course of a few days is challenging, to be sure.
Watching the film, I felt an odd camaraderie with Fraser. There was this strange sensation of validation and appreciation as I watched him play the role much as I had, with very similar choices and nuances. I found myself laughing inwardly at the absurdity of thinking, "Oh good, Darren Aronofsky and Brendan Fraser got that part right. Well done, fellas."
My experience with the film really boils down to that. It was refreshing and nostalgic to see essentially the same play we'd done eight years ago onscreen and gratifying to see it done in such a similar way. I'm looking forward to the rest of our cast and crew seeing it to find out if they feel the same.