Synopsis : A reclusive English teacher suffering from severe obesity attempts to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter for one last chance at redemption.
Q: You’re baring your soul in this movie. What was it like when Darren Aronofsky came to you and talked about doing this?
BF: I met Darren in January of 2020. It was freezing. I admire him as a filmmaker and as a human, knowing how his films challenge the human condition and offer up no easy answers. I knew that going into this meeting, I was prepared only with the knowledge that this is the story of a man who has been living alone for a considerable amount of time. He has regrets, there are life choices that he’s made, some that life has made for him. He’s in very poor health, an overeater and it’s harming him, and he has very little time.
He needs to be redeemed in his daughter’s eyes so he has to reconnect with her in a meaningful way and, if he can, make some sort of reconciliation or attempt to. That’s a lot to work with, right? I hadn’t read the script. Darren wasn’t sure he was going to be able to make this movie because he had to create this character, from the outside in. The inside out was already taken care of by Samuel Hunter’s script which was an award-winning play that ran successfully Off‑Broadway. He did the adaptation for the screen also. We didn’t know if Charlie could be recreated faithfully in a way that — they never put quotation marks around the man — had a semblance of dignity and respect for who he is. He’s not who he is as he presents himself. There’s so many more things, as I hope you have all seen. Darren wanted to stage a reading of it and we did that at Theatre St. Mark’s. I met Sam Hunter and they videotaped it. Then March of 2020 rolled around and yeah, we all put our comfortable pants on.
How wonderful it is that we can do this again, see each other and have this experience together. I lived under an existential threat at that time, as we all did. Making this film, somehow created by that environment of hyper-care for one another given the safety issues, we were a small movie of five characters in search of salvation in one room. We were able to do after rehearsing for three weeks. The picture was insular, like working as, I would imagine, a submarine crew. We went to work each day — at least I know I did — with an outlook that was you’d better give it everything you’ve got because, collectively, we didn’t know if there was going to be a next week or tomorrow, so what are you waiting for? I knew it was a career character and a storytelling choice that I wanted to be a part of. To have exposed all the jagged edges everywhere [in order] to try and find some way to smooth them out so that we could have some understanding of what love and tolerance really is.
This movie has a shot at changing hearts and minds. Certainly I think about the way that we address one another regarding weight and diets in our lives. It seems to me that it’s the last domain of accepted bigotry or prejudice in our culture. If we’re going down the list of them, this has got to make the list. Our society still divides [on this] somehow. I know that how we speak to one another has real health ramifications for us. I worked with an organization called the Obesity Action Coalition, they were our advisors and our partners on this. They gave us notes on how to be attuned to the material and terminology that would be most helpful. Their mission statement is to get everyone to stop being mean to one another because it can cause harm.
They’re an organization that numbers in the tens of thousands and many of them are individuals who have obesity, have had obesity or their family members have. They’re a support group for referrals and health care and, more importantly, a sense of community. We were introduced to them as a group, and I spoke individually with many interesting people, some bed-ridden, some caught in this unfair limbo of not being approved for a medical procedure that could save their life — a bariatric procedure — until they proved that they could lose a certain amount of weight on their own before an insurance company would sign off on it.
Talk about existential threat. My heart went out to them. They were so generous and helpful with their testimonials. I tried to put on my best Interviewer hat and start at the beginning. Frequently each of these individuals would say that when they were small, there was someone, a figure, a teacher, a family member — maybe I’m sensitive to it, but I noticed most often, a father — who spoke in a way that was recriminating to them. And it stayed with them, causing a self-patterning of the cycle of use and overuse.
Those who have an eating disorder are helpless to it. They need help and support. Of course, they can’t be blamed for who they are. Our human minds fire off all these dopamine receptors when you pick your favorite vice, whatever it is. It’s not just Charlie looking in the drawer for chocolate bars. It can be anything — gambling, whatever — go down the list. It’s just not fair for those who live with obesity in the way that a man like Charlie has.
Since food has been mass-produced with cheap empty calories, and too much sugar since the beginning of the 20th century, we don’t see people who lived with obesity then in the way that we see it now. Prior to that, food was something that was power. It had to keep you alive pretty much, and your status, and all the many factors. If you wanted a slice of apple pie, you needed that tree; you did it.
And now, go down the list, if there’s an embargo on sugar or something, [and one is capable of [getting] that, either somebody loves you a lot or you are very powerful. Today, we pick up gadgets and they show up wherever we are. So that cycle of consumption of calories and what’s available in parts of the country or not available, it’s just not fair — in my view. I don’t know if you share that or not, but it was impressed upon me. I think it validates Charlie in a certain way for that reason.
Q: When you’re acting in something like this that has really hard themes, how do you take yourself out of it and bring yourself back down instead of just taking it all in?
BF: Everything I need to know is on the page, right there. I was — and you’re only as good as the people you work with. That was Hong Chau [Liz], up on the screen. She’s amazing. She could speak volumes in silences, more so than with respect to her dialogue sometimes. She’s incredible. I’ve watched her, front-row seat every day, when we gave it all, one after the next. Such talent on the way. I watched Ty Simpkins [Thomas] grow up in this movie, and by the end, he earned his stripes. And of the actresses I admired so much in the ’90s, Samantha Morton [Mary] remains one of those hugely talented people who are still talented — in my eyes, at least. They seem like they have layers of some feeling, a transparent, mystic thing she has . . . from her, from a place of truthfulness.
Q: On set you were taking off your masks to act and then putting them back on when you were off, right?
BF: The protocols were in place. They did work hard to get us back to work. We were a small movie, a chamber piece. One person getting sick — which didn’t happen — would have shut us down. Any other film that was happening at that time would go on. But yeah, they did calculate such risks, in a way, and not just the creative kind, which I support risk taking in creative [work]. There’s the most growth in strong and interesting work.
Q: Beyond the people that you met in the course of this production, was there any other inspiration, any other character that you saw with those same qualities as Charlie?
BF: He was built from the outside in by prosthetics makeup artist Adrien Morot. His [work is usually] creatures. You might have seen the poster around here for a doll called “M3gan” — that’s his [design]. He [designed the] character makeup to transform whoever Charlie was going to be played by. That’s what he was applying to me. It was four hours to get into, an hour to get out of it — it’s cumbersome as hell.
It was held together by a five-point harness with a crew of maybe five to seven people, depending on what we were doing, to keep Charlie together, paint my face back on, and rehydrate me. That character really was a great inspiration from the ground up. If there was anything that inspired me most to play him, [it was] knowing that he does have this secret super-power to bring out the good in others, especially when they can’t see that in themselves, and he can’t do that for himself. But that’s the tragedy.
Q: One line that has stuck was, “You have to find truth in your argument.” Some of the characters may have been a bit disingenuous on their approach to their interaction with Charlie. Maybe they weren’t so truthful in their argument. Did you feel that reading the script, and if so, was that your approach to the methods that you used for your interactions with those characters?
BF: Charlie’s home base is his couch and the sun and moon’s orbit around him. They all represent something. HIs bird represents hope. For instance, the pizza guy is the audience, it’s the world, who want to look and see what’s going on behind that door. He’s just curious enough for all the wrong reasons, and then, when that curiosity is satisfied, he responds to emotions. That’s a look at society, and the spirit of confronting all of these is played out through the frustrations that these characters have and for all the optimism and good nature that [Charlie has]. Thank you for seeing this in this character Charlie, and let’s not forget that he’s human.
He’s got some dark shades to him. He puts Liz in an awful position to be his enabler and nurse; he is her friend but it’s fraught with conflict. His daughter hasn’t seen him; they haven’t seen each other in years and years, and suddenly he wants to pour it all on. She’s absolutely right to be infuriated, and happens to be brilliant also. He sees in her that she doesn’t know it yet — she’s like a Joyce Carol Oates in training. The derision that Charlie has to endure is all an exercise in what this film turns out best, which is being an empathy machine. We need those edges to press up against to have that experience.
Q: Charlie is, at times sad, at times regretful, or optimistic, and has not had a particularly smooth arc. Did Darren Aronofsky give you any signpost about which direction you should take, for this minute and a half, then something else for the next three minutes, or whatever?
BF: We figured all of that out, all those big mistakes, in that three-week rehearsal. [The floor] was taped out, we weren’t allowed to walk through a wall, we had to use the entrance. That’s where we learned how to do our jobs. I know that’s also where he learned to put the camera with nothing in [it] so that when we showed up on that small set, all that sort of head-scratching was done. Had I thought of that, I would have been in the chair getting made up, but there wasn’t a lot of time to think about this. Much of it wasn’t discovered on the day, but all of it was laid out. Charlie’s illness was charted from Monday to Friday, we see him deteriorating, it was all in steps. Lastly, Darren did write out a flowchart of the hero’s journey that was for Charlie and that was very helpful.
Here’s the trailer of the film.