Brendan Fraser Talks His New Movie ‘The Whale,’ His Old Movies ‘Airheads’ and ‘School Ties,’ and the ‘Superman’ Movie He Almost Made

Oscar-nominated actor drops by the Stern Show for his very first interview with Howard

February 7, 2023

Should Brendan Fraser’s name be called on Oscar Night (as many are already predicting it will be) there’s no chance he won’t be prepared to give a well-thought-out acceptance speech for his performance in “The Whale.” Especially after what happened to him a few weeks back at the Critics’ Choice Awards.

“I was not expecting to hear my name called and everything that I had in mind and written on a piece of paper in my pocket went out of my head the moment that I stood up there,” the actor told Howard on Tuesday morning during his first-ever Stern Show interview. Brendan’s still not quite sure what exactly he said while receiving that award.

“I walked off stage and I asked Angela Bassett ‘What did I just say?’ … She says, ‘You said “go to the light” – that’s all that matters,’” he recalled with a laugh.

Fraser’s performance in “The Whale” has received near-universal praise from critics and audiences alike, not to mention a six-minute standing ovation when the movie premiered at the Venice Film Festival. But if the wave he’s currently riding takes him all the way to an Academy Award win, he says he plans on pointing out all the people who’ve made his long career in acting possible.

“There are many people that I have to thank for bringing me to the place that I find myself in now. It’s been a circuitous path that I followed – ups and downs and everything’s been on the ascendency,” Brendan said. “But at the same time, you’re only as good as the people you work with and I would be remiss to not acknowledge who they are.”

Getting an Education on the set of ‘School Ties’

Arriving in Hollywood when he was just in his early twenties, Fraser was still green when he landed a role in the 1992 drama “School Ties.” In fact, when Brendan was asked to “test” for then-Paramount Pictures C.E.O. Sherry Lansing, he took the term quite literally. “In my naïveté I thought it was like an exam or something,” the actor confessed to Howard.

Starring a crew of future leading men including Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Chris O’Donnell, Brendan credits Damon, his scene partner in the screen test, with helping him land the role of David, a star high school quarterback in the 1950s who happens to be Jewish. “I was used to being onstage at that point in my life playing to the back row,” Fraser said of his theater experience at the time. “I needed to match pitch with Matt, so I felt like I was his wingman and I think that’s why I got hired.”

The role wound up hitting close to home for the young actor. “In a way, I felt like David because his story is that he wants to belong,” Fraser explained. “For all that need of wanting to belong, I identified with that because I felt like I [wanted] to be a part … Hollywood.”

Over 30 years later, the intense scene where Fraser and Damon’s characters fight naked in the shower remains just as powerful today as when the movie was released. “I wasn’t looking,” the actor clarified of working unclothed with the future “Good Will Hunting” star. “When Damon’s character says what he says about David, he just reveals who he is. His antisemitism and his prejudice is stripped down naked and it’s ugly … and that’s the point of the scene.”

Working With Adam Sandler and Chris Farley on ‘Airheads’

“School Ties” would not be the last time Fraser witnessed great talent along with a dose of nudity while working on a film. But when he worked with Adam Sandler and Chris Farley on the comedy “Airheads,” the disrobing wasn’t written in the script. “One night we were sitting there and Sandler’s sitting next to Farley and Farley looks over at Sandler and Sandler …  he pulls his shorts up and he’s yanked his nutsack down on his thigh,” Brendan remembered of his co-star. “He points at it, and he goes, ‘I’ve got this growth.’”

Fraser, who said he thought the friendly competition between Farley and Sandler upped the performances in the film, marveled at their teamwork. “I know when they became writing partners at ‘SNL’ that they had a pact going, which was, ‘I’m not going to be afraid, and you don’t be afraid … we’ll go forward together with courage’ and that’s really what they did,” he told Howard. “[Comedy] is about confidence — you have to really own what you’re doing.”

Heroes Welcome

While Brendan is well known for starring in big-budget popcorn films such as the “Mummy” franchise, he told Howard he came very close to adding a couple of superhero films to his résumé too. The first was a “Superman” film written by past Stern Show guest J.J. Abrams. “Of course, it’s a life-changing, amazing opportunity,” Brendan said before admitting not getting the role was, in a way, good for him. “I think inherently I didn’t want to be known for only one thing because I prided myself on diversity my whole professional life … I’m not a one-trick pony.”

That’s not to say he didn’t want it. “I felt disappointed that there was an amazing opportunity and it didn’t come to fruition,” Fraser said before explaining what he suspects prevented things from moving forward. “It had to do a lot with some [real] shenanigans and studio politics and, probably, inherently in my screen test … they could kind of see I was only there like 98 percent.”

Brendan did land a role in 2022’s “Batgirl” — but the project wound up never getting released. “It was a story about a guy who had been in the service and his benefits were cut and he was very angry with the system and what else is he going to do but burn it to the ground?” he said of his villainous character, Firefly. “You’ve got some sympathy to him, you’ve also got some humanity to him, and on top of that, a screw loose … Like all the best bad guys, you kind of like him a little bit … I relished this part — it was great fun.”

Though Fraser never saw a cut of the film, he heard great things about it from those who did. Still, he feels that the decision to scrap the project based only on the first version wasn’t a fair one. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t eat half-baked cake. I don’t want to see something that’s not ready yet and the sad thing is … it wasn’t shown in the best light that it could have been,” he noted. “That’s disappointing for obvious reasons but moreover because little girls are going to have to wait longer now before they can see a Batgirl who they can identify [with].”

‘The Whale’

Fortunately, Fraser’s work on “The Whale” was given a chance — and audiences have been responsive. “It’s cathartic for many people,” he told Howard of the film’s power. “So many people are saying that it’s opening a door for them to reconnect with their daughter, their son, that … they didn’t know how to do it on their own terms and now they feel emboldened to be able to. And so much of what is said in the world of this film is what we almost wish that we could have said when we’re all confronted with these situations.”

In his quest to fill the main role of Charlie, director Darren Aronofsky took his time — 10 years to be exact. “He wanted to cast the role [effectively],” Brendan said of the process. “The challenge that he was really open with me about when I met him initially was, ‘How am I going to do this? I need to find an actor that can act but at the same time has a physical body type, that can create Charlie, that builds him from the outside in.’”

Having been out of the limelight for a while largely due to recovering from injuries, Brendan’s personal story appears to have been a selling point for Aronofsky. “He did tell me that it would be helpful to him to hire an actor who everyone felt they already knew but they hadn’t seen in a while, and to reintroduce whoever that is,” the actor revealed. “I was in everyone’s living room for a while in the ’90s … I was like the furniture to a whole generation of young people … Charlie should feel like he’s someone that you know. Everybody should be able to identify with him and … I’ve learned that people can do that with me.”

For Fraser, he was impressed with the work Aronofsky did with Mickey Rourke on 2008’s “The Wrestler.”

“Like all the best directors, Darren’s very simple about just showing you where to go to get you where you need to be — I mean that’s what a director does, essentially,” Brendan noted, adding, “and if you take that direction, maybe something good will happen.”

See Brendan Fraser in “The Whale” now playing in theaters.