Sadie Sink unleashes the rage in ‘The Whale’

Sadie Sink recalls crying and screaming in the back seat of the car as her mother drove her older brother to a theater audition. Why was he allowed to do it but not her? It wasn’t fair. “I begged my mom to let me audition,” Sink said in a recent phone interview. “I was 8.” Eventually her mother gave in. She had to get special permission because Sadie was two years too young. It does not matter. She got the role.

Credit for Mama Sink, who made the right decision all those years ago in Brenham, the southeast Texas town where Sadie grew up. Today, 20-year-old Sink is causing Oscar excitement for her role in The Whale, in which she plays the angry teenage daughter of Brendan Fraser’s morbidly obese online English teacher, Charlie. A fixture in the hit Netflix sci-fi/horror series Stranger Things, she plays the tough and fiery Max Mayfield, one of a cast of teenagers drawn into a morass of monsters and demons. She will soon star with Eric Bana in the drama Berlin Nobody, about a psychologist investigating a cult.

Right now she’s focused on the double whirlwind of promoting The Whale, directed by Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan), and preparing for the final season of Stranger Things, filming next year. Like her Max character, Sink’s character in The Whale, Ellie, has an uncompromising approach to life, an attitude that insists she’s best avoided.

“Ellie is definitely a hard pill to swallow,” says Sink. “But I think hopefully by the end of the movie you can get into her brain a little bit more and start to understand where she’s coming from. At least I hope so.”

When Ellie is aggressive, she has her reasons. Her father, Charlie (Fraser), who was in love with another man, left her and her mother when Ellie was a child. Charlie has since eaten almost to immobility and an early grave. When Ellie re-enters her father’s life, both guns fire. Ellie is the prodigal daughter with a monster chip on her shoulder who is deeply annoyed by his absence and has no qualms about commenting on his looks (produced by the use of a thick suit). And Charlie isn’t the only target of her anger. She also takes pleasure in tormenting a local missionary (Ty Simpkins) who can’t seem to stay away from Charlie’s apartment, where Charlie’s best friend (Oscar nominee Hong Chau) treats him with tough love and Ellie seems to skip the love part fully.

“She’s definitely angry,” says Sink. “But I think it’s really just this immense pain she’s in that obviously started at a young age when Charlie left her. Over time, that pain and confusion she felt manifested itself in this anger and cruelty.” But Ellie is so complete in her hostility and Sink is so invested in the character that humor creeps in from the fringes. “Oh yeah, it’s funny,” says Sink. “She’s brutally honest.” Some viewers catch the humor; When The Whale screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, viewers laughed out loud. But when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival just before that, few were noticeably amused.

For Sink, the big draw was Aronofsky. She was already a fan of his work, and she’s even bigger after working on The Whale.

Aronofsky, working from a script by Samuel D. Hunter (who adapted his own play), had the cast rehearse extensively, a rare experience for film or television. “He treated it like a play, like we were a theater company,” says Sink. This approach really appealed to Sink, a former theater boy who hopes to return to the spotlight soon.

“Not only is he a great visual director, he really knows how to work with actors,” she says. “And the rehearsal time – how he handled that and how he worked with us on our characters – was just really, really helpful. When we got to the actual set and when we were shooting we knew the material so well and the characters so well that now we could just play.”

Aronofsky says the pleasure was all his.

“Sadie is as precise as a surgeon’s scalpel,” he says in an email. “She is a firework of emotions and a full professional.”

Sink is grateful to Fraser, the film’s star. He’s this awards season’s comeback story and the front-runner right now to take home the Oscar, which would be his first. The scenes between Fraser and Sink, full of seething suspense, are the film’s most powerful.

“He’s so incredibly patient and, especially given the circumstances he was in, so generous as a team partner,” says Sink. “It’s a very tricky dynamic that the two have because they really don’t know each other. But at the same time, they really do. Charlie knows Ellie better than she or anyone in her life ever does or will.” Sadie Sink unleashes the rage in ‘The Whale’

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