McKellen was the natural choice to play Whale, as both are Brits who spent their careers openly gay. McKellen could portray the demons haunting Whale because he could personally understand the root of them. That’s not to say McKellen was cast only because of his sexuality; he’s one of the most brilliant actors alive and can slip into any character he wishes.
Fraser’s role is twofold; Boone is both the eyes of the audience into Whale’s life and the gaze object of the camera. Neither affords him the interiority Whale receives but Fraser still holds his own. McKellen would describe his co-star’s acting while invoking Marilyn Monroe:
“I didn’t appreciate Brendan’s performance while it was happening. I’ve talked to somebody who worked with Marilyn Monroe and he said the same of her. You could only see it through the camera or on the screen.”
While Boone meets Whale without any inkling of who he is, Fraser was honored to be acting opposite McKellen. He told The Los Angeles Times:
“The first time I met [Ian McKellen] in person, he was such a delight. He is such a lovely man. But he also said, ‘Well, let’s get to work now — we got to put our big boy pants on and go do this job. This is exciting and fun, but here we go.’ He’s a hero of mine. He’s just brilliant.”
While Whale and Boone’s friendship ends in tragedy, Fraser and McKellen’s friendship endured. McKellen even gave Fraser some advice on award acceptance speeches: “Be good, be brief, and be seated.” Though McKellen’s performance as Whale will go down as only Oscar-nominated (he lost Best Actor to Roberto Benigni in “Life Is Beautiful”), his heart must have swelled with pride after Fraser won for “The Whale.”