Samuel D. Hunter, Author of ‘The Whale,’ On His Artistic Turning Point

A single heartbreaking truth that appears in both 'The Whale' and the newly revived 'A Bright New Boise' provided a pivot for the playwright turned screenwriter.

Playwright Samuel D. Hunter Jonathan George

“I think I need to accept that my life isn’t going to be very exciting.”

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That sentence popped out at Samuel D. Hunter one day several years ago as he rode home on NJ Transit from an expository writing class he was then teaching at Rutgers. He had asked his students to write him “something honest,” and that heartbreaking truth was one that emerged. 

The line is with him still. It appeared in the sixth of his 17 plays, The Whale, in 2012. And again ten years later in his first screenplay; Brendan Fraser, a current Academy Award contender for the lead role in Darren Aronofsky’s film version of The Whale, delivers it in one of the year’s most anguished and conspicuously acted performances.

It is also all over Hunter’s third play, the Obie-winning A Bright New Boise, which made it to NYC in 2010 (downtown at the Wild Project) and is now back for a revisit at the Signature Theater, starting Feb 21. “That single line was a turning point in my artistic life,” the playwright admits. 

It’s the rule that his Boise characters live by—clerks going through the empty motions of their dead-end jobs at a Hobby Lobby craft-supply chain store. Their inaction is confined to the store’s break room, which is every bit as bleak and bland as the people who shelter, and idle, there. 

The new worker-arrival is Will, trying to win back paternity points from the teen cashier, Alex, a son he abandoned because of a religious cult. Alex is an unforgiving, mean-spirited sort, so, while their domestic drama is the main event, comedy from their three co-workers abound.

From left: Eva Kaminsky as Pauline, Ignacio Diaz-Silverio as Alex and Peter Mark Kendall as Will in ‘A Bright New Boise’ at Signature Theater. Joan Marcus

Hunter drew his characters and the ambience from his own stint as a 17-year-old Walmart clerk in 1998, which should explain the authenticity of the barbs and naughty palaver bouncing off the walls.

“There’s a lot of auto-fiction going on in my plays,” Hunter confesses. “I’ve never written anything directly autobiographical, but there’s pretty personal stuff in just about all of them.”

The Whale is perhaps his most revelatory work. It was triggered by that “very unexciting” life his student is living. At first, he says, “the only thing personal about that play was that I was teaching expository writing then and struggling to connect with my own students. I started a script about an expository writing teacher named Charlie, but it just wasn’t feeling right. I was writing someone 10 or 15 years older than I was, and I was thinking of him as 10 or 15 years younger. For the first time, I accessed elements of my past that had to do with self-medication.

“I didn’t have an easy time of it as a gay person, and 10 or 15 years younger would have been much harder. I had questions of whether I would have been able to find an off-ramp for my drinking and my depression in myself, so it’s almost a version of myself if I hadn’t been able to.”

In rewriting The Whale for the screen, Hunter turned Charlie into a reclusive, morbidly obese teacher who, teaching online, allows himself the luxury of blocking his grossly overweight image from his class. It’s a reflection of the weight problem Hunter struggled with until he reached his 30s.

Like Will, the lead character in A Bright New Boise, Charlie has created abandonment issues and a very bitter offspring when he left home and hearth for another man. Another carryover crisis from real life is the wacko religion element that takes Will from Alex right after he is born.

“When I was in high school,” Hunter recalls, “I went to a Family Christian School for over four years—till I was outed, and then I went to public school. But it really imprinted on me. I think that I had an appetite for it as a child because I have always been interested in the divine and had a really strong faith in God. The tragedy of all of this is that—within the community and accepted within the community—there was this one thing about me, the fact that I was gay, which just knocked everything to the ground. I think it made me realize that that kind of faith exists at the cost of people like me and people like Charlie, which is a hard thing to realize.

“Isn’t it funny that The Whale was a provocative play in 2010—and, now, it is a provocative movie in 2023?” he continues. “If you look at a lot of the ways that religion works in modern areas—it’s about defeating it or getting out or letting your eyes open to a wider world. I think that does happen sometimes, but I think that there’s also millions and millions and millions of people who don’t do that. They live within it, they live with the conflicts, they live with the inconsistencies and contradictions because it brings foundational organization to their entire lives. The less we shy away from those stories, the less we understand our modern condition and culture at large.”

The similarities are so strong in both A Bright New Boise and The Whale that they practically qualify as companion pieces, and they are published together in an anthology of Hunter’s work.

Brendan Fraser in ‘The Whale.’ A24

One who was not remotely fazed by The Whale was director Darren Aronofsky. When he first caught the play in 2012, he saw a movie in it. “That’s when we started talking about doing a film, a decade ago,” remembers Hunter. “He never once thought about bringing on another screenwriter. He never once thought about deviating from the core structure of the play. There are very few directors who do something like that. He might be the only one.”

Still, Aronofsky managed to surprise his novice adapter when he showed him the final cut. The last few minutes of the film is a flashback to happier days on the beach. “It wasn’t that Darren was keeping it from me. I think he just forgot he hadn’t told me. I love the ending a lot. For me, what that flashback is, is a moment where the family is together—but it is also a moment when you see Charlie staring out at the ocean, contemplating the decision that he’s about to make.”

Fraser garnered a Best Actor nomination as Charlie; Hong Chau a Best Supporting Actress nomination as his care-giver. They’re the latest performances Aronofsky has steered toward Oscars. The previous four: Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler; Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream; Natalie Portman in Black Swan. The latter won.

Last summer when The Whale world-premiered at the Venice Film Festival, the film and Fraser got a 10-minute standing ovation, and Hunter did an international roundtable composed entirely of European journalists. A Polish woman said, “All of the reviews call your picture very Christian.” He was with Aronofsky, who exclaimed, “What?”—but Hunter pleaded guilty as charged. 

Hunter embraced the notion: “I was, like, ‘Yeah, I think it is.’ I think the core value of this story are race, redemption, forgiveness, human dignity, all of the stuff that is very core to my work.”

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Samuel D. Hunter, Author of ‘The Whale,’ On His Artistic Turning Point