Samuel D. Hunter, UI grad and playwright behind ‘The Whale,’ talks friendship with Brendan Fraser, writing ‘autofiction’ and falling in love in Iowa

Samuel D. Hunter — photo by Josiah Bania

Before The Whale became an Oscar-nominated film, playwright Samuel D. Hunter briefly believed the play had reached its pinnacle.

“Having the show at one of my favorite theaters, Playwrights Horizons, here in the city, a 125-seat theater, was the top of the mountain,” Hunter, a 2007 graduate of the University of Iowa’s Playwrights Workshop, told Little Village, recalling the play’s 2012 Off-Broadway debut.

“I don’t think the run had even ended yet when I got the call that Darren Aronofsky had seen [The Whale]… and he would like to meet with [me] about film rights to it.”

Hunter returned to Iowa City for the first time in seven years on Wednesday, attending a sold-out screening of The Whale followed by a Q&A at FilmScene’s Chauncey location.

Directed by Aronofsky (Black Swan, Mother!) and starring Brendan Fraser (The Mummy, School Ties), The Whale has accumulated three Oscar nominations at the 2023 Academy Awards. Notably, the film has heralded as a comeback for Fraser, who has already received a SAG Award for his performance.

Like many, Hunter was surprised when Fraser’s name came up for the lead role of Charlie — an obese English teacher instructing online courses and trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter.

“I knew Brendan from Gods and Monsters and School Ties. I knew Brendan as a really good actor who could also make a bunch of money slamming into trees,” said Hunter, alluding to Fraser’s 1997 role in George of the Jungle.

“Ever since August we’ve been traveling around the world doing press and Q&As and stuff like that,” Hunter added. “He’s become a close friend …. He’s just such a genuine, grounded, generous human being. I really am grateful that a kind and generous soul could take this role.”

It’s a role — and a script — that’s very personal for Hunter.

Charlie, like Hunter earlier in life, grapples with self-medicating by over-eating. In the film, Charlie asks his students to write something honest and receives a response identical to one Hunter received when he asked the same of his students: “I think I need to accept that my life isn’t going to be very exciting.”

Furthermore, the film takes place in Hunter’s home state of Idaho and features a character from Iowa — Thomas, played by Ty Simpkins (Jurassic World, Iron Man 3) — who’s at odds with his religious family. Hunter himself is familiar with religious tumult, having been kicked out of his fundamentalist Christian high school after coming out as gay.

“I just started realizing early on in my career that the more I can personalize something, the more that writing can be an act of autofiction,” Hunter said. “The more depth I can bring to it.”

In an unusual move for film adaptations, Aronofsky kept Hunter close to the movie throughout its production. He adapted his own play for screen and — during a period where it was unclear if Aronofsky would ultimately direct the film — Hunter was introduced to a few other prospective directors.

“All of them wanted to put their own spin on it. One of them wanted to do a re-write himself and he wouldn’t tell me what he wanted to change,” said Hunter. “I was open to it, but … this story is very personal to me, very close to me and I feel very protective of it. Along the way Darren is really the one who had faith in me and this story.”

When shooting eventually happened, Hunter was there every day to provide his perspective for the director.

In the time since Aronofsky first approached him, Hunter has gone from a playwright “who was figuring out how to be a screenwriter” to someone who confidently wears both titles. Alongside the screenplay for The Whale, he’s also worked on spec scripts and worked as a writer on four seasons of the FX comedy Baskets.

Another of his plays, A Bright New Boise, has not only received a recent New York production, but is also being staged in Des Moines by the Iowa Stage Theatre Company this May.

“That’s a companion piece to The Whale, actually,” Hunter said. “They’re published together [in the trade publication]… A Bright New Boise, like The Whale, is about a father trying to reconnect with an estranged child. They’re very different stories but they do connect in different ways and I do feel like they’re in conversation with one another.”

Though success has been no stranger to Hunter in the years he’s been away from the Hawkeye State, Iowa City has been a powerful force in his life.

“It’s where John, my husband, and I met in the theater department,” he said. “Our dog is named Squire because we used to take hikes up at Squire Point … and [now] we get to take our daughter, who’s 5, with us tomorrow. Even though I’m not from Iowa, it always feels like coming home.”