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The Whale screenwriter on writing about religious fundamentalism, bodies, and hope

Samuel D. Hunter goes deeper with his vulnerable, personal play.

A man looks sadly off camera.
Brendan Fraser as Charlie in The Whale, adapted for the screen by playwright Samuel D. Hunter and directed by Darren Aronofsky.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Have you ever been watching a movie and suddenly feel a jolt of recognition so acute that you know you and the writer have something in common? That’s what I felt watching The Whale, which Samuel D. Hunter adapted from his 2012 play. The film (directed by Darren Aronofsky) centers on Charlie (Brendan Fraser), who is in the last week of his life after refusing treatment for congenital heart failure. An eating disorder developed after intense trauma has left him houseridden, but his doorstep is active nonetheless. First a young missionary from the evangelical church down the road shows up; then his best friend; then his estranged daughter. Meanwhile, it rains and rains and rains.

Fraser has deservedly received accolades for his performance, but I spent the whole film with a racing mind because it powerfully embodied a link between the body and religious fundamentalism that I, and many others, have personally experienced. I knew it wasn’t by accident, and I wanted to talk to Hunter about it.

Hunter grew up in a more liberal Episcopalian family in Moscow, Idaho, but as a teenager he attended a fundamentalist Christian high school. It was there that he was eventually outed as a gay man. The Whale is in part drawn from his experience of self-medicating his depression. He has frequently written plays at the intersection of religion and American life (a rich vein of inquiry in theater these days), mining the topics with a complexity that’s hard to recognize, and maybe even appreciate, if you haven’t lived it yourself.

Hunter is a working playwright (his latest play, A Case for the Existence of God, was produced this year), so we met in midtown Manhattan to talk about all kinds of things: fundamentalism, bodies, religion in film and TV, the differences between how obesity has been depicted in film and theater, the challenges of adaptation, and a lot more. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

Some things really shifted between the play, which was produced a decade ago, and the movie, right? For instance, the young missionary in the play became an evangelical; in the play, he was a Mormon missionary.

When I first started writing the play, I had only recently started writing plays with gay characters in them. Even though I had been out since I was 17, I think I was still struggling with that part of my self-love. There was a lot of residual energy from my experience at my fundamentalist Christian high school, and still a very active fear of hell in my life.

So when I decided I was going to write this play, initially I thought, “Okay, I’m going to put these more personal things on the line.” Obviously, it’s autofiction. It’s not directly autobiographical. But the core thing is that I self-medicated with food for many, many years after being outed.

I think one of the reasons that I made that character a Mormon was in an act of self-protection or distancing, because when I was 27 or 28 and first writing the play, I wanted to believe that I was more emotionally evolved than I was at the time — like many people who are 27. I kept telling myself, “I’m over it. I’m over it. I’m over it. That was years ago. I’m fine. I’m fine.” But I hadn’t really properly unpacked it in therapy and I was still dealing with a lot of self-loathing.

Making the character Mormon allowed me to write about religion, but in a way that didn’t feel too close to home. I had lost a bunch of weight in my early and mid-20s, but after the play was produced, I lost another 70 pounds over the course of three months. I hesitate to even bring that up because talking about numbers — everybody’s body is their own. I’m really just talking about my own body.

I have my own history with religious fundamentalism and the way food issues can come along with them. That really hit me hard watching the movie. Those two things can be tied up so tightly. Especially if you have a body that isn’t a straight male body.

Yeah, exactly.

Everything about you is always wrong.

I’ve really had to come to terms with how I felt like so much of an outsider. This was partially self-imposed but also real, that I felt isolated from the gay community as a 19-year-old in New York City, because I was a big guy. So I was like, “Oh, I guess I don’t belong here either.”

So even though writing the play felt really vulnerable and open at the time, I think having a second crack at it with the screenplay allowed me to go even further.

There was an article in the New York Times Magazine recently about how eating disorder patients who aren’t visibly emaciated have a really hard time getting insurance to cover treatment and have difficulty getting admitted to treatment facilities. The main subject of the article comes from a very fundamentalist religious background, and when I saw that, I was like, “Yeah, of course.”

We are living in a world where we’ve pretended disorders correlate to body size, but they don’t. You can be fat and have a disorder, or not; you can be thin and have a disorder, or not.

I was 21 years old and I was rapidly gaining weight and I was very depressed and I was not getting treatment in any way. I had the love of my parents; shortly after that, I met my husband, in 2005. I had these things in my life that allowed me to teach myself to not believe that I was a terrible person worthy of suffering, which is something I still struggle with. But I also knew I was lucky in a lot of ways. My parents aren’t fundamentalist Christians, they were just Episcopalians who saw that this education in this religious school was a really good education, which it was.

When I watched The Whale, I immediately interpreted it as being about a man who has developed a disorder as a coping mechanism, intertwined with some religious trauma, and it’s causing his body to shut down. But his relationship with the eating disorder has proven to be a tricky thing for people to navigate, I think, in watching the movie. I’m wondering how you think about that, and how much it was on your mind when writing the screenplay.

It’s so tough. When I write, I don’t sit down to be like, “Okay, what’s the thesis statement about this character?” I struggle with theater and film that arrives at a thesis statement because I’m just like, if it was that reducible, then I don’t know why I needed to watch a character drawing which, by its very nature, does not have one perspective and is about a confluence of perspectives and experiences.

It seems like the actual way we perceive Charlie, the way we’re asked to look at him, has been an issue for some audiences. How much of that do you think is a result of shifting from a stage to a screen? And did you think about it?

There are so many layers to this. Theater by its nature is a little more artificial and suggestive of reality, whereas film — at least a film like this — strives for something more “real.” But I struggle with that because film arguably is way less real than theater. My plays don’t have scores or visual effects. My plays are people in a room talking to each other.

Film allows an intimacy with the character — a physical intimacy — that I really understand is making people nervous. But also, the history of theater has a less fraught relationship with obesity than the history of cinema does. And so the moment that somebody hears a movie is employing makeup and effects in order to create the reality of this character, there’s an entire catalog of incredibly abusive filmmaking that comes to the surface. I was very aware of that when I wrote the script.

But at the end of the day, I had to have faith that what I was doing with this was the diametric opposite of the way that obesity has traditionally been treated in film, which is to make them tertiary characters who are the butt of the joke, who are rendered as dullards and as lazy. And I was like, “Look, I’ve fundamentally written a guy who is incredibly vibrant, incredibly joyful, and is loving and deeply intelligent.” I have not seen that rendered in cinema — I just haven’t. I had to have the faith of my own convictions at the end of the day, while recognizing that everybody’s reaction to this is a valid reaction.

Yet it is true that most people watch a movie and think they’re supposed to make a judgment about the characters, right?

Yes. I also wonder if that is a modern concept. I don’t know if we watch Shakespeare looking for our moral center. I don’t even know if we watch O’Neill or Williams looking for our moral center. But if something was written in the last 20 years, I think that’s the No. 1 question on people’s mind. I’ve just never been interested as a writer in creating a moral center for anything, or dictating people’s morality or ethics. All I could do when I decided to write this play was just write it deeply from the inside and imbue as much of myself into it as humanly possible.

Beyond that, I have very little control over how it’s received. I think the play and the film are just kind of an invitation. I just open a door and invite you to walk inside. It’s up to you whether or not you want to meet that invitation with a furrowed brow or not. And if you do, that’s fine. Everybody’s experience with this movie is valid.

Charlie has a disease, congestive heart failure, that he is actively refusing to get treatment for, which is, I think, the key thing here. Yes, that is a result of life choices that he’s made, but that’s the fundamental thing: He said, “I’m not going to the hospital for this.” The ultimate self-destruction is in saying, “I’m refusing to get treatment and I’m going to let this run its course.” It’s not just that he’s a guy who got too big or something. It’s way more layered than that.

You also shifted the time period.

I did. Leaving it set in 2009, or whatever it was, felt a little bit like, “Why are we consciously dating this 13 years ago?” So then the question became, “When do we want to set it?” We arrived at the idea of setting it during the 2016 presidential primaries in Idaho. We wanted to set it before Covid so it would make sense that nobody was wearing a mask.

But on a deeper level, I really loved how it makes it feel like we’re on the cliff’s edge of this seismic change, and here comes this kid being like, “The world’s going to end soon.” It feels apocalyptic, and it also zooms the play out of this two-bedroom apartment and reminds you that there’s this whole world outside that is like Charlie on the precipice of oblivion.

Of course, you hear the phrase “the whale” and you think Moby Dick. You think Jonah. But then the fact that it’s raining all the time outside means you’re thinking of Noah as well. All of those stories are apocalyptic in nature.

I’ve always thought that my plays use the lens of realism, but I think they also definitely hover above the surface of realism. They’re definitely not naturalism.

I wrote a play right after The Whale called A Bright New Boise, which is very much, in my mind at least, a companion piece to The Whale. It’s about a father trying to reconnect with his son; the setup is there’s this guy who was involved in an evangelical church in north Idaho, and years ago had put up a kid for adoption and is now working at a Hobby Lobby in Boise where his son works, to try to build a bridge with his son.

But his problem is he can’t let go of the dogma. And so the on-the-ground relationship with his son is fundamentally in conflict with this constant voice inside. At the cost of every relationship in his life, he slides back into the dogma in a deeply tragic moment.

You can play it as a sermon on the mount, kind of like hellfire and brimstone. But I think he doesn’t want to say any of it. It’s incredibly painful for him to say it because it alienates everybody around him — but without it, his life doesn’t mean anything.

It’s hard to explain that fear of coming unmoored to someone who didn’t grow up with it. I grew up in a much more fundamentalist community than my husband — he went to youth group, whereas I would hear sometimes that Focus on the Family was too liberal. It’s hard to unlearn what you learn in those spaces. The voices stick around.

The way that I understand Christ is as a person who enmeshed within the community, and was a pastoral presence to people in all walks of life, and was all about grace and forgiveness and empathy and the love of God and the defeat of tyranny and single-mindedness and myopia. Churches that I really respect and think are doing such good work are doing the same thing. They’re like, “We’re going to build a house in a community that is open to all. It is a place where you can come and receive grace and forgiveness and love and support. We’re going to do Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, we’re going to host community nights. We’re going to be a pastoral force within the community.”

But somebody like the pastor whose community I’d been involved with [through the high school], his theology is like, “No, I build a wall between me and the outside world. And then every so often, I go into the world with blinders on and I grab some people and I coax them behind the wall with me. That is the only way to do it.”

How do you show that kind of thinking, that sort of experience with that sort of figure, on a stage?

I wrote this play once called A Great Wilderness, for Seattle Repertory Theatre. It was about a gay conversion therapist. Every character in the play was a fundamentalist Christian, and so there was not that requisite moment where he gets taken down; it really was just a portrait of this deep tragedy of this man’s life as he’s sliding into dementia at age 70. And people got really angry because the play didn’t have that life preserver for the audience, where the character learns their lesson. But I wrote it that way because the people that I was associated with [in high school], they’re never going to get that moment. If anything, they’re going to just harden.

But we have these narrative fictions that make it seem like everybody who holds these beliefs are eventually going to let go of them and see the light of day. Well, that’s the exception to the rule. And I think it’s our problem that we’re not talking about it.

It almost never happens in an instant.

Yeah, exactly. It takes years. As you know, it took me years as a gay man.

But it’s funny, I was just moaning about this to a friend of mine — I feel like I’m constantly having TV people come up to me and be like, “Let’s work on something.” And invariably I’m like, “I want to make a show about evangelicals in America.” And they’re like, “Ew.” They have no idea what to do with that. All they know is, “Religion bad, don’t touch it.”

This is bad because we need to have these conversations. These people aren’t going away. If anything, they’re digging their heels in and growing in numbers. It’s happening in my hometown. My family has been in [the movie’s setting] Moscow, Idaho, since 1867. My great-great-grandfather was the first postmaster in my hometown. We’ve been there forever. It has drastically changed since I was 10 years old. Drastically.

Charlie’s not a saint, but there are moments in The Whale that made me think he was sort of the closest thing the movie has to a saint. Is that how you think about it?

Very early on in my notebooks, I was referring to Charlie as a Christ character.

Which I would imagine would be hard to swallow because he clearly is making a self-destructive choice.

Yes. Well, so did Jesus. That didn’t end up very well.

Fair point. The very last moment in the movie is the one that you walk out with, thinking, “What does that mean?”

Narrative used to do it all the time. It goes back to that life preserver of narrative authority: At some point, the author needs to show up and assure everybody that the world still makes sense and that suffering always leads to a reward.

But that is not the truth of it. Over the pandemic, I was trying to remind myself that history is long, so I read this book, A World Lit Only by Fire, about the Middle Ages. It’s beautifully conceived. I wanted to remind myself that we’re living in a moment that’s tiny.

It was so striking to me, reading this book, this brief survey of the Middle Ages, of how much suffering doesn’t lead to reward. That most of the time, suffering sits there and then just falls into the void. It’s a hard thing to swallow about life, but I think it’s why — not to get too rosy-eyed about it — but why having faith in other people is so damned important. Assuming that suffering is always going to lead to some triumphant moment is delusional, and it’s going to lead to tragedy.

But if you can learn to hold hope and despair in the same moment, which we all do every day, then I think you will live a life that amounts to something.

I think that’s true of The Whale. It was very important to me that we preserved the sense of humor from the play in the film. I was on set the whole time, and I feel like that was my hobby horse: “We can’t lose the humor. We can’t lose the humor.” Because that’s what life is. Amidst the despair, there is belly laughter.

The Whale opens in theaters on December 9.

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