Zach Baron had a question.
The movie star was a popular cult icon in the late ’90s, appearing in cult classics “School Ties,” “George of the Jungle,” “The Mummy” and more, only to disappear from the big screen until Baron, a GQ staff writer, noticed Fraser suddenly pop back into the limelight in a supporting role in the third season of “The Affair” TV series.
“There was a time when the sight of Fraser was as familiar to me as the furniture in my parents’ house,” Baron writes in “What Ever Happened to Brendan Fraser,” a story that would be the most read story Condé Nast — the publishing company of GQ, The New Yorker (now owned by Vox), Vanity Fair and more — would publish in 2018, as well as one of the Top 100 most read journalism stories of the year, Baron said.
“I say that not because I’m particularly proud of it one way or another,” Baron said. “I think that virality is a weird and random thing. I mean, you can feel good about the reporting or the writing — and I felt good about both, — but there’s plenty of things that I felt good about reporting and writing (where) it didn’t go that viral.”
Fraser’s story is one of iconic talent, and subsequent tragedy — but for decades, the actor faded from public eyes without anyone asking the question why.
A staff writer for GQ since 2013, and freelancer before that, the bread-and-butter of Baron’s work is “what I like to avoid calling the celebrity profile, but the celebrity profile,” he says.
Baron typically chronicles the stories of the big names and up-and-comers in the entertainment industry. But Baron said he wanted to tell the stories of those working in “weirder career positions.”
“Maybe they’re on the back end of something, maybe (they’ve) been steadily working in an un-flashy way for a long time,” Baron said. “These kind of intermediate states that don’t get written about, and I’m always really interested in and I’m always kind of on the lookout for stories like that.”
While on the lookout for such a story, Baron came across a meme on Twitter poking fun at the disappearance of Fraser from the limelight. Around the same time, Fraser appeared on “The Affair” as John Gunther from 2016 to 2017, which became known to Baron and begged his attention.
“I remember thinking, ‘Hey, this is a guy who when I was younger was incredibly well known. There seems to be some kind of mystery about why he went away,” Baron said. “Movie stars don’t generally show up on like the fifth lead on Cinemax… and I was just curious.”
But the story didn’t happen just like that.
It took Baron six to nine months before convincing his editors at GQ to let him pursue the idea. After it was announced Fraser was cast in an FX crime thriller series, “All The Money in the World” in 2017, his editors finally gave him the thumbs up on the project.
Prior to speaking with Fraser, Baron watched every movie he’d ever acted in and read every available interview with him, he said.
When going into a profile interview, Baron says it should be apparent “that you actually have taken the time to become informed about this person and in a non-superficial way, and that you’re genuinely sort of interested in them, and that you’ve worked hard to be prepared to talk to them,” Baron said. “And, you know, not always, but often people respond to that.”
Baron only physically met with Fraser twice. His story pitch was approved in March 2017, and after speaking with Fraser’s publicist to set up a time for an interview, he flew to Fraser’s home in upstate New York in October.
“A lot of times what I’m trying to do in the first meeting with someone who I’m profiling is just get a second meeting,” Baron said. “I wasn’t like, pulling punches. In fact, I think I was doing the opposite,” Baron said. “I was asking him some pretty deep questions right off the bat.”
The two spent the day together at Fraser’s home before parting until December in London where Fraser was shooting “Trust,” a motion picture film based on the same story as “All The Money in the World.”
Baron watched Fraser on set, and the two hung out in his trailer and had dinner. After only two meetings, and subsequent calls and texts, Baron’s story was “basically done” in January 2018, he said.
Then the story took a turn.
Right before Baron closed the draft in January, he got a phone call from Fraser alleging sexual assault by a titan of the industry, Philip Berk, the former president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, also known as the organization group of the Golden Globes.
During that phone call, Fraser told Baron what happened to him at a luncheon in Beverly Hills in the summer of 2003:
“‘His left hand reaches around, grabs my ass cheek, and one of his fingers touches me in the taint. And he starts moving it around.’ Fraser says that in this moment he was overcome with panic and fear,” Baron writes.
Following the assault, Fraser’s trauma was one of many incidents that led to his disappearance.
“He had spent basically six months…getting a sense of who I was and how I did my job,” Baron said. “And ultimately, I think just made a judgment that it was a kind of safe place to share that.”
While Baron had to consider how to supplement his almost finished story with Fraser’s new information, he was firstly focused on making sure Fraser knew what he was doing.
“The first thing that happens is actually, I was like, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?'” Baron said. “What I had with him was a very honest conversation about everything that was going to need to happen next if we were going to keep going…and then the next thing that’s going to happen is you’ll be asked about this for the rest of your life.”
The two had a long conversation about how Baron would have to corroborate the events with Fraser’s ex-wife and alleged assailant, and prepare him for what might happen when the account was published in February 2018.
As for how Fraser’s assault changed his story, Baron says it didn’t — not really.
“The way the story was written, you could tell that there was maybe a couple of things he wasn’t talking about with me,” Baron said. “And I didn’t know what that thing was, but the story ends up being written in a way that kind of pointed to there’s some dramatic things that happen in this guy’s life.”
When Baron went to add the new information into the story, he discovered nothing really needed to change except to add an additional section at the bottom.
“Sometimes you get a little lucky,” Baron said.
There were three elements to the story’s reception, Baron says.
First: It went viral.
Second: The investigation.
Three: Fraser’s #MeToo moment
After the initial moment of the story reaching virality, the Hollywood Foreign Press responded to the allegation. While there was a back-and-forth between Baron and the organization — assuring they would investigate the claim — however, Berk is still a member of the organization and the alleged investigation never resulted in a statement or further actions by the organization, Baron said.
Additionally, an unexpected development that Baron didn’t plan on was the support from his peers and the #MeToo movement.
“The #MeToo stuff was pretty fresh at that point,” Baron said. “And this was like an interesting wrinkle in it, although it also was treated very differently in a way that itself was pretty interesting.”
Baron continues to work on profiling celebrities and writing human interest features for Condé Nast, “as long as that lasts,” he says.
Despite spending the last decade at Condé Nast in a work environment in “a constant state of turmoil and contraction and layoffs,” he is somewhat optimistic for the future of magazine and newspaper feature writing, he says.
Prior to Condé Nast, Baron wrote the final cover issue for Spin Magazine. A close friend of his worked at Blender, a music magazine, when it was sold, and another at Vibe, now defunct as well. His wife was a writer for Glamour Magazine prior to the switch to one issue a year, although she has now left for The Ringer.
“So I think that there’s got to be some realism about what the industry is right now. When I talk to…people who have been very successful at this work, I’m not sure if anybody is super optimistic about it. So I guess that would be the bad news,” Baron said. “At the same time I don’t really think the appetite for feature journalism is going away. I think that people always want that stuff. So on some level, I don’t know what the economic model will be, and I’m not sure if you should spend all that much time thinking about it.”
But Baron says, if you like it, just go for it.
“I think that if you’re interested in writing — write. And see what see where it takes you,” Baron said. “I do think there’s a market inefficiency for just people who are willing to pick up the phone and go out in the world and find stories.”