“Upper Canada College was a bit like Lord of the Flies”: A Q&A with Brendan Fraser
The screen star dishes on his career renaissance, growing up in 1980s Toronto and what his latest project has in common with his boarding school days at UCC
It’s been a massive few years for Brendan Fraser, last year’s awards-season golden boy, who was honoured from TIFF all the way to the Oscars for his performance in The Whale. When the SAG-AFTRA strike left the Canadian icon (and former Toronto private-school student) with a little extra time on his hands, Fraser decided to give voice acting a go. The Downloaded—also starring Hamilton’s own Luke Kirby—is a sci-fi thriller about a group of astronauts and criminals who participate in a cryogenic freezing experiment, where their bodies are put on ice and their brains are uploaded onto a computer. Here, Fraser reflects on his recent career renaissance, his days as a student at Upper Canada College and why boarding school wasn’t so different from Lord of the Flies.
Obviously you’ve had a huge couple of years professionally. What led you to this new project?
As actors, we have found ourselves with extra time on our hands recently. What appealed to me about The Downloaded was the chance to work in a medium that I have always been a big fan of. As a kid, I lived in Europe, and I would often listen to BBC One, which had really great short dramas. As an adult, I went through a phase of listening to a lot of very scary true-crime podcasts—to the point where I was looking over my shoulder. What I love about audio is that the listener is in charge of how good the story is, in the sense that they are hearing the narration and then imagining the rest based on dialogue and audio cues.
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How is voice acting different from your regular gig?
I love going into a studio because you don’t have to worry about wardrobe. You can roll out of your bed and show up in your Uggs and sweatpants and still give a stellar performance. Maybe that sounds lazy, but I also really enjoy speaking the words when they’re well-written, which is the case with The Downloaded.
I want to talk about that project, but first—your voice. I don’t think I ever realized how rich it is. You’re giving my Barry White vibes.
Let me just dial my bass up a little bit…but really, thank you. You’re very kind. I don’t think anyone’s ever complimented me on my voice before.
The Downloaded is a story about cryonic suspension—where people’s bodies are frozen and their brains are uploaded onto a giant computer with the hope of coming back in the future. Very creepy territory.
Think of the suspension as setting us up for time travel in the story. And then there is the question that is posed by this scenario where you have an opportunity to download your consciousness and wake up and the world will have changed. Would anyone actually do it?
No chance! I don’t want to outlive my descendants. To me it’s a nightmare scenario, but I am really interested in the questions that come up around it. Our story—where you have both astronauts and criminals given the same opportunity—probes the notion of utopia. Is there really such a thing? Can we get to a perfect world? Readers of Aldous Huxley will agree that, no, it’s not possible. But that’s the fun and nuance and drama of a story like this. Who’s in charge? Have the keys been given to the inmates?
Literally, in this case—your character, Rosco, is a convicted criminal.
Yes, and he’s given the option to do his time or to play it out in a state of suspension so that it will seem like no time went by, but in reality a long time goes by. And then, because something has to go wrong, they overshoot the runway by 500 years, and there he is having to figure everything out and understand who he is in this new time. It’s a notion I find frightening.
Tell me if I’ve got this right: you were born to Canadian parents in Indiana. As a kid, you moved to California, then Washington, then Ottawa and then Toronto?
Close, but no cigar. California came into my life when I was 22, after college.
I would suggest you contact the good people at Wikipedia.
I’m pretty sure they’re self regulated. I’ll put my trust in the netizens of the world. I ended up in Toronto because I went to boarding school at Upper Canada College. My stomping grounds were Yonge and St. Clair. I spent a lot of time at the Eaton Centre as a teenager.
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What do you remember about your time at UCC?
It was a seminal period for me. Speaking of utopias, it was a little bit Lord of the Flies at the time: a society of your peers. Who’s in charge? Where are the grown-ups? Are we self regulated? Have the keys been handed to the inmates?
Sounds like wild times.
It was also a great period. I loved the 1980s.
The ’80s were such a fashion moment. Did you feel constricted by the whole grey flannels and blazer thing?
Until about 3 p.m., when we would pull our uniforms off and trade them for net shirts and fluorescent socks and skinny ties and tastefully acid-washed blue jeans.
I read somewhere that you were the first UCC student ever who wasn’t required to take math.
Not true. I wasn’t proficient at math, but I finished the requirements. It’s a defining moment for any student to learn that you’re not going to be able to think in a regimented way. My brain is wired to think more circuitously.
Were you in the school play?
I was in many school plays. I was in West Side Story. I played Bernardo, who is a Puerto Rican character. I don’t think that casting would go over these days.
You’ve had a huge career renaissance over the past couple of years after disappearing for a while. How has success been different the second time around?
I think the second time I had nothing to prove. I went through a lot during those in-between years, and I think that was necessary. I don’t think the work I’ve been able to do would have been possible if I hadn’t taken some time away from that world. There was a time in the ’90s when I had films opening against each other on the same weekend!
I remember. Brendan Fraser–mania was extremely intense for a while there.
I think I have a better appreciation now of what goes into the work—all born of the more compelling need I have as an adult to connect with stories that I care about. No matter how far-fetched or kooky the conceit—say, a criminal who has been transported into the future—it’s on me as an actor to personalize it so that the audience can identify with it. My character deals with missing his daughter; he wants to know what happened to her. Sci-fi exists to tell these very ordinary and commonplace stories in fantastical ways.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.