The Story Behind the Photo: "The Whale"

Tania Thompson
 | Jan 07, 2021
The Whale
Matthew Arkin as “Charlie” in The Whale (2013). Photo by Scott Brinegar.

About The Whale

Charlie is different from most of us. First, he’s an online writing teacher with one friend, a nurse who nearly kills him with kindness, and one acquaintance, a troubled young missionary who’s determined to rescue his soul. Second, he’s in bad health but refuses to be hospitalized.  And third, he weighs in at 600 pounds. When his estranged daughter turns up suddenly, Charlie makes a deal to buy her time, if not her affections. He hopes their connection will give her life—and his—meaning at last.

When the lights came up on a dingy apartment living room set on the Julianne Argyros Stage, a large man was seated on a small sofa. Audiences gasped​ when they saw Matthew Arkin, appearing to be several hundred pounds heavier than normal​, thanks to some ingenious prosthetics. He had become “Charlie,” the main character in Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale (2013). The Los Angeles Times lauded Arkin’s performance, saying that he “makes the audience feel for the morbidly obese, grieving … Charlie in Samuel D. Hunter’s funny, angry and moving play.” And Broadway World called it “beautifully acted and heartbreakingly stirring.” The tour de force performance was a journey for Arkin and in this Q&A, he talks about the meaning behind this particular photo [above].

What moment does this depict?

In The Whale, the amazing play by MacArthur Fellow Samuel D. Hunter, one of the central plotlines follows my character Charlie's efforts to heal his relationship with his daughter, Ellie [portrayed by Helen Sadler] and to awaken her to her own potential before his impending death from congestive heart failure and complications of extreme obesity. He left Ellie and her mother when Ellie was three; she's now in high school and an extremely angry and troubled young woman. But Charlie knows that she's also incredibly intelligent, and so he bribes her into coming to visit him every day and to do some writing. At one point, Charlie picks up Ellie's red notebook when she's not around to see what she's been working on. He opens it and reads a phrase from it out loud: “This apartment smells. This notebook is retarded. I hate everyone.” He then reads it again: “This apartment smells. This notebook is retarded. I hate everyone." He reads it a third time:
This apartment smells.
This notebook is retarded.
I hate everyone.

What's the power about this moment?

To me, the power of this photo is that it captures the exact moment that Charlie realizes that what his daughter has written is a haiku, thus confirming for him that she is incredibly talented and intelligent and, also, that on some level his efforts to reach her are working; even in her rebellion, she can't help but express her innate strengths and abilities. This strengthens both his resolve and his hope for her future.

How did you work to make this moment happen?

When we were in rehearsal, I asked Helen Sadler, the wonderful actor playing Ellie, my daughter, to write the phrase in the notebook we were using as a prop. That way, at every performance, I’d be looking at her writing and it would help me to connect with her. One of the things that helps me, as an actor, is to have as many “real” things around me or in my memory as I can. I feel that those kinds of touchstones can ground a performance. As another example of doing that type of work, I remember a time when I asked Lisa Emery, who played my wife in Dinner with Friends, to bring in a photograph of her at the age that we would have first met and fallen in love. Then I would have that image to hold in my mind when we were working on the last scene of the play, when the couple is discussing the difficulty of keeping marriage and love alive through the long haul.