Brando never did crunches. Al Pacino didn’t slurp protein shakes. Cary Grant had never even heard of burpees, BOSU balls, or human growth hormone. But not one of today’s leading men can afford the luxury of a gym-free life. You simply don’t get your name on a movie poster these days unless you’ve got a superhero’s physique – primed for high-def close-ups and global market appeal. Getting there takes effort, vigilance, and the dedication of the elite athlete: high-intensity training, strict diets, supplements, and hormone replacement. If that fails, there are always drugs. Today’s actors spend more time in the gym than they do rehearsing, more time with their trainers than with their directors.
Acting skill – even paired with leading-man looks and undeniable charisma – is not enough to get you cast in a big-budget spy thriller or a Marvel Comics franchise. “A decade or so ago, Stallone and Van Damme and Schwarzenegger were the action stars,” says Deborah Snyder, who produces husband Zack Snyder’s films: 300, Man of Steel, the upcoming Batman vs. Supermanmovie. “Now we expect actors who aren’t action stars to transform themselves. And we expect them to be big and powerful and commanding.”
Michael B. Jordan, who got his break as The Wire’s sensitive kid Wallace and raised his profile in last year’s Fruitvale Station, knows he needs to be able to bulk up on command if he wants to break into the A-list. “You’ve gotta be ready to take off your shirt,” he says, and he will as the Human Torch in next year’s Fantastic Four movie. “They want to blow you up and put you in a superhero action film. Being fit is so important. . . . The bar has been raised.” Even in the late Nineties, Hollywood’s biggest stars – Nicolas Cage, Keanu Reeves, Harrison Ford, Denzel Washington, Will Smith – were handsome Everymen, athletic but not jacked. Now even Tom Cruise and Bruce Willis, who is pushing 60, are more chiseled than they were in their prime.
Gunnar Peterson, the trainer who for decades has maintained the physiques of Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and others, agrees. “For male action heroes,” he says, “it’s an arms race now.”
Peterson is a ruggedly fit 50-something, who, like every trainer in Hollywood, asks me to guess his age, because he looks 35. Peterson walks me through a cluttered private gym that’s as subtle as his clientele: There’s a life-size cutout of Sylvester Stallone in The Expendables next to pyrotechnic stills of Rambo and Rocky, and a W magazine cover of a shirtless Bruce Willis and his wife, Emma, who met in Peterson’s gym. Near the Gatorade-emblazoned glass doors are the uneven bars where Stallone practices timed hangs (like the ones he did in Cliffhanger) and the yoga ball with which Kim Kardashian perfected her prodigious ass.
“Now we expect actors who aren’t action stars to transform themselves. And we expect them to be big and powerful and commanding.”
The baseline goal is to keep an actor fit enough so that he can get ready for any role in as few as eight weeks. And though he’s trained primarily for aesthetics, he still needs to be able to swing a sword, kick a guy’s face, or do a lap dance in ass-less chaps, as Matthew McConaughey (another Peterson client) did in Magic Mike. Peterson points at a framed poster of McConaughey in his leather thong, signed, “Rattlesnakes and Water Moccasins,” the name the two came up with to describe the sleazy, sinewy look they achieved through six months of two-a-day workouts.
Though he uses bands, Power Plates, and all manner of new techniques, Peterson is unapologetically old-school: “We’re not auditioning for Cirque du Soleil.” He gestures to the racks of heavy weights that made Stallone a global macho icon. “What about fucking basic barbell curls? It has to be a one-arm dumbbell press on a stability ball? Look, it’s great that you have an iPad, but there’s nothing wrong with a book.”
Peterson works with big stars fighting to stay relevant as well as young guys clawing their way into the business. I ask him what he would say to a young actor who thinks he can make it on natural good looks and talent.
“Great, you’re a good-looking dude and you can act,” he says. “Now take off your shirt.” Peterson frowns. “All of a sudden you go, ‘Oh, maybe you can be the friend.’ Or: ‘We’ll do an indie film.’ ”
For much of Hollywood history, only women’s bodies were objectified to such absurd degrees. Now objectification makes no gender distinctions: Male actors’ bare asses are more likely to be shot in sex scenes; their vacation guts and poolside man boobs are as likely to command a sneering full-page photo in a celebrity weekly’s worst-bodies feature, or go viral as a source of Web ridicule. A sharply defined inguinal crease – the twin ligaments hovering above the hips that point toward a man’s junk – is as coveted as double-D cleavage. Muscle matters more than ever, as comic-book franchises swallow up the box office, in the increasingly critical global market. (Hot bodies and explosions don’t need subtitles.) Thor-like biceps and Captain America pecs are simply a job requirement; even “serious” actors who never aspired to mega-stardom are being told they need a global franchise to prove their bankability and land Oscar-caliber parts.
“If I wasn’t playing some young hero who can swing a sword, I wouldn’t care what my upper body looked like,” says Kit Harington, who wields heavy metal in both Game of Thrones and the new Pompeii, roles he prepped for with twice-daily training sessions and “stupid amounts of protein.” Says Harington: “Playing these hard warriors, it would be a mistake to not look muscle-y.”
Even the type of muscle has changed. “In the Eighties, it was the bigger, the better,” says director Tim Burton. “Think of that shot from Rambo of Sly holding the machine gun and the veins in his forearms bulging.” Actors rarely bulk up like that anymore; they’re all trying to be Tyler Durden.
Every trainer interviewed for this story cited Brad Pitt’s ripped physique in 1999’s Fight Club as an inspiration. Previously known for his lush, golden hair, the girls’ guy Pitt was reborn as Durden, a sinewy, predatory man’s man. “Brad Pitt in Fight Club is the reference for 300,” says Mark Twight, who trained the cast for 300. “Everyone thought he was huge, but he was, like, 155 pounds. If you strip away fat and get guys to 3, 4 percent body fat, they look huge without necessarily being huge.”
Trainer Gunnar Peterson sculpted Sylvester Stallone and Matthew McConaughey in 2012’s Magic Mike.
To get that hungry look, trainers stress calorie-conscious diets and exercises that pump up fat-burning metabolism. No actor can gain 10 pounds of muscle in a six-week period, but he can lean down to reveal the muscle underneath. Trainers talk about the “lean out” – the final, preshoot crash period when actors drop their BMI (body-mass index) to its bare minimum and unveil muscle definition.
But maintaining extremely low body fat for the duration of a multimonth shoot is nearly impossible and often dangerous: The stress can make an actor ill, damage internal organs, and make him susceptible to other injuries. Matt Damon, who dropped 40 pounds without supervision for 1996’s Courage Under Fire, got so sick that he was beset by dizzy spells on set, impairing his adrenal gland and nearly doing serious damage to his heart. Even in the best-case scenario, calorie deprivation can exhaust an actor, making him light-headed, distracted, and fatigued.
Since 5 percent body fat is nobody’s natural condition, fitness plans are geared to peak on the days of the sex scenes or shirtless moments. To prep for these days, trainers will dehydrate a client like a boxing manager sweats a fighter down to weight. They often switch him to a low- or no-sodium diet three or four days in advance, fade out the carbohydrates, brew up diuretics like herbal teas, and then push cardio to sweat out water – all to accentuate muscle definition for the key scenes.
The last-minute pump comes right before the cameras roll. Philip Winchester, the hero of Cinemax’s action series Strike Back, recalls seeing the technique for the first time on the set of Snatch: “Hundreds of extras were standing around,” he recalls, “and Brad Pitt would drop down and do 25 push-ups before each scene. I thought, ‘Why is he showing off?’ ” Then Winchester figured it out. “I realized he was just jacking himself up: getting blood flowing to the muscles. I’d always wondered, ‘How do actors look so jacked all the time?’ Well, they don’t. Now we ask: Is it a push-up scene? When I shot that Strike Back poster, I was doing push-ups like a madman, saying, ‘Take the picture now! Take it now!’ ”
A fat Superman would never fly. A pudgy Spiderman can’t swing. And an actor who can’t get jacked on deadline doesn’t have a shot at being a leading man in today’s Hollywood. Given the choice between acting chops and physique, producers and directors will often choose the better body. Today studios make bigger bets on fewer movies, aiming for blockbusters that are more expensive and complex than ever to make and whose trailers and posters rely on a ripped leading man. An out-of-shape actor can force a director to recast roles, reshoot scenes, or use CGI effects, often at great expense. Once he is signed on for a role and a production schedule is set, the actor is expected to do whatever he has to to get in the shape required of his character. Fitness budgets are baked into most contracts; studios typically pay for trainers, nutritionists, and even home-delivered meals. Some studios make a point to hire their own trainers so they can control the outcome.
Recently, a major production was pushed back several weeks when the star told producers he needed more time before he could go shirtless. “A delay costs money,” says a studio executive who worked on the film, but not every actor is worth waiting for.
“If it’s just another guy, you can replace him,” the exec says. “But when it’s the star? He’s the reason you got the money in the first place.”
Over the years, studios have come to rely on the service of guys like Harley Pasternak, who has been building camera-ready bodies since his late teens. “The rewards can be enormous,” he says of developing the sort of body that can sell a trailer on its own. So can the hazards of not working out: “There’s no worse feeling than knowing you didn’t put the work in, and that your man boobs will forever be on film.”
Pasternak, who is 39, is reclining on the patio of his West Hollywood home, which is deceptively modest, until you realize it’s part of a three-building complex that houses multiple gyms and offices. The most expensive trainer in Hollywood, Pasternak creates nutrition and fitness plans, then assigns one of his six staff trainers to work with a client. Before a single bead of sweat forms, Pasternak will discuss the role with a film’s producer and then go over the rough plan with the actor, setting goals based on the character. Eight weeks’ prep is standard for most films, but schedules shift – and sometimes eight weeks isn’t enough.
“When is the first shoot day?” Pasternak says he asks the actors. “When’s the first time you have to have your shirt off? Are there any action scenes? Are there any sex scenes? If so, where are they in the shooting schedule? Should I send a trainer to be on set? Should I send a chef?”
During the four years Harley Pasternak was sculpting Halle Berry during her Catwoman/Bond Girl/X-Men prime, he practically lived with her. “I was with her all day, every day, and cooked every one of her meals,” says Pasternak.
James Bond, Then and Now: The late-Sixties Bond, Sean Connery, next to 2006’s Daniel Craig.
Sometimes trainers are valued for their candor. Telling a star he’s out of shape requires a professional touch. Bobby Strom, a tatted-up bodybuilder and former New York City detective who rose to fame on the tightness of Jennifer Lopez’s ass, says he is sometimes asked to speak candidly to the talent when no one else has the guts. After George Clooney played the pudgy Everyman lead in Michael Clayton, the producers on his next project sounded the alarm. They asked Strom to talk to Clooney, but Strom refused. “Then they called me,” Strom says, “and were like, ‘Listen, he put on a lot of weight. We want to ask him to call you,’ but nobody had the nerve! They were all scared.”
For the most part, actors – especially younger ones who grew up training – get with the program, but with older actors, motivation can be a chore to muster. Sometimes it’s just because they’re insanely busy. “The higher someone rises in the strata, the less trainable he becomes,” says Mark Twight, “but for most, money, fame, and success are powerful motivators.” Gunnar Peterson agrees: “That guy’s getting $6 million for the movie,” he says. “That’s what gets him out of bed.”
Shoot days have gotten longer in film and television, so an actor’s endurance is key. A single injury can shut down a shoot and drive production over budget, so there’s increasing pressure for stars to stay fit, or perform injured if they don’t. “There are greater demands physically than 10 years ago,” says veteran action-film producer Randall Emmett (Rambo, Broken City, Righteous Kill). “You’re shooting 120 days for some of these movies now – 12 or 14 hours a day.”
If an actor is shooting on location, most trainers will find a local gym or devise stripped-down training plans around body-weight exercises, dumbbells, and bands. Big stars are a different matter. Studios will stop at nothing to keep them happy – and ripped. Bruce Willis’s weight trailer, which Teamsters drive to the set every day, is rumored to have cost $200,000. Downtime is the one constant on any shoot, so many actors improvise ways to keep fit on set. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau likes “body-weight exercises, no machines” while working on Game of Thrones so he can train on location. Russell Crowe likes to bike, if he does anything at all. Jonny Lee Miller runs to and from the set of Elementary. Jake Gyllenhaal prefers cardio, mostly biking and barefoot running. Since 2003, Robert Downey Jr. has practiced Wing Chun kung fu. Matthew McConaughey used to drop down and do push-ups in the middle of meetings, or whenever the Washington Redskins (his favorite team) scored – just so he could hit his daily goals. Jamie Foxx does push-ups in between brushing his teeth and shaving, as part of his morning ritual.
“For actors, it has to be a lifestyle,” says Peterson. “Train it, eat it, supplement it, sleep. That’s what you do. That’s just part of who you are.”
There is an easier way to go from flabby wimp to sinewy screen predator. Sometimes a superhero’s journey begins with the needle prick of a syringe full of human growth hormone (HGH), testosterone, or steroids.
“In Hollywood, the drug of choice is the drug that makes you look good,” says Strike Back’s Winchester. “It’s like the drug scene at a boarding school – it’s all available.” When actors ask about steroids, trainer Steve Zim tells them about the hair loss and zits, and “that usually ends the conversation in one second.” Steroids also produce rounder, water-retaining muscles instead of the lean, mean bodies currently in vogue. Testosterone and HGH are far more common, particularly for older actors, since lower levels of testosterone can make it impossible to retain muscle mass. “Over 40? I encourage getting tested,” says trainer Bobby Strom, “but there are some trainers who just go right to the testosterone, like they’re putting you on a multivitamin.”
Zim has seen the benefits of hormone therapy firsthand. “These people who look younger and fitter – a lot of them are using growth hormone and testosterone; the size comes from the testosterone, the virility and the youth come from the growth hormone.”
On set, actors swap tricks of the fitness trade – and the phone numbers of trainers and doctors who will prescribe testosterone or HGH, no questions asked. There are dozens of hormone-replacement clinics in and around Hollywood, and their business is booming. But there are significant risks: Hormone therapy accelerates all cell growth, whether healthy or malignant, and can encourage existing cancers, especially prostate cancers, to metastasize at terrifying rates. Testosterone supplements can lower sperm counts. For many, the risk is worth it.
So who on a movie set would be most likely to take a risk on something unproven that could cause bodily harm? The stuntmen, of course. Several actors we spoke to say the stunt guys introduced them to performance-enhancing drugs. It makes some sense: If you’re asked to body-double for Ryan Gosling without the benefit of his trainer and his personal chef, you’ll be tempted to take a shortcut, too. And if you’re jumping off buildings, battling ninjas, or swinging a battle-ax at ogres all day (or, worse, playing the ogre who gets bashed in 20 consecutive takes), you’ll see an upside to HGH’s accelerated recovery time.
Stuntmen often work for day rates, so every day they can’t work is a day they don’t get paid. “The stunt guys are partying hard, in their thirties or forties looking 20, 25,” says one action star. “They’re taking massive hits and bouncing back up again. I asked, ‘What are you guys doing?’ ” According to the actor, a stuntman told him, “Steroids to get a build, insulin injections to get the cut, then HGH.” Stuntmen talk about drugs as a calculated risk that’s worth the advantage, so long as they get regular colonoscopies and screenings for prostate cancer. It’s easy to see how an actor – especially one who relies on his brawn or his ability to throw a convincing punch – might seek that same edge.
That edge is what lured Manu Bennett, who played the fearsome gladiator Crixus on Spartacus. In 2007, at the age of 35, he got a lead role in The Smashing Machine, the story of ferocious Mark Kerr, an MMA fighter and drug addict. Bennett was to face off with Jean-Claude Van Damme. It was a dream role, his real break, so Bennett went all-in.
“I try to build myself as a physical representation of the character, and I knew Kerr had problems with steroids,” says Bennett. “So it challenged me to, uh, fully embrace the role.” (It’s an echo of what Mickey Rourke said when asked about steroid use during his Oscar-nominated role as a veteran grappler in The Wrestler: “When I’m a wrestler, I behave like a wrestler.” Or Tom Hardy’s more caustic explanation of his Dark Knight Rises physique: “No, I took Smarties,” he replied when a reporter asked if he’d juiced for the role. “What do you fucking think?”) Bennett says he began doing two-a-day workouts with a former Mr. Australia and began taking injections. He put on 44 pounds in three months.
When he arrived on the set in early 2008, he boasts, “I could have challenged the look of people like Stallone and Schwarzenegger.” But then the star, 47-year-old Jean-Claude Van Damme, never arrived and the movie was never shot. According to Bennett, Van Damme didn’t want to be shown up. “He’d seen a picture of me, and I was absolutely pumped,” Bennett says, “and he was not in the best shape of his life at that time.” Bennett is still angry. “This fuck-up just thinks of himself. He looks at this photo of me and feels egotistically challenged.” (Van Damme’s representatives did not respond to requests for comment.)
In the end, Bennett’s big break had broken him: “I ended up going back with no money and had to work on a building site as a day laborer for eight months, swinging that pick, jackhammering.”
And since he could no longer afford the hormone supplements, his estrogen levels surged. “It was horrible,” he says, noting that he would sob uncontrollably on the work site. “Everything went kind of soft. I was on my period for two months, crashing on the estrogen.”
Eight months later, he got a call from his agent. Ironically, the producers of the new TV series Spartacus had seen a photo of Bennett at his drug-enabled peak and cast him as the show’s villain, Crixus. Bennett left the construction site and hit the gym, but says he never went back on the juice. He gained back much of his size, but not all of it.
Now Bennett is 44 – old for a badass nemesis – and won’t rule out hormone therapy in the future. “For the roles I take on, I’ve got to be an actor and a professional athlete or fighter to somehow match their myth,” he says. “I’ve got to set a new summit and figure out how I’m going to get up there.”
Hollywood’s most infamous gym is actually located in an ugly parking lot on the outskirts of Salt Lake City. It’s even less hospitable inside: a huge hangar with cinder-block walls, exposed insulation, harsh fluorescent lights. There are no mirrors, electronics, or elliptical machines. Just weights, kettlebells, rowing machines, cables, and more weights. Steel bars are welded to the walls, next to rugged wooden milk crates stamped gym jones.
The only decorations are a few autographed photos of the 300 cast, an autographed poster of a broad-chested Henry Cavill as the new Superman, and dozens of framed commendations from American Special Forces teams. At the gym’s center, a giant Plexiglas frame contains this Fight Club quote: quit your job. start a fight. prove you’re alive.
This is the lair of Mark Twight, who has salt-and-pepper hair and the skin of a man who’s spent most of his life on mountains. Twight made his name as a competitive mountaineer, writing Extreme Alpinism and the punk-inflected memoir Kiss or Kill: Confessions of a Serial Climber. With his Mountain Mobility Group, he runs high-altitude and extreme-cold training sessions for Special Forces. And he trained the Spartans for the two 300 movies.
He’s still irritated that people think they used CGI to create the muscle he worked so hard to achieve in the 300 cast. “We’re selling this male ideal,” he says. “Is it achievable? Fuck, yeah. It can be done. Ninety-five percent of the people who we have put into condition for these roles have done it clean.”
In 2006, the week after 300 came out, Twight’s website got 13 million hits, after the so-called 300 Workout went viral. It wasn’t actually a daily workout but a 300-rep test that Twight offered his cast – as a challenge and a taunt – at the end of 12 weeks of training: 25 pull-ups, 50 dead lifts with a 135-pound barbell, 50 push-ups, 50 24-inch-box jumps, 50 floor wipers, 50 single-arm clean-and-press reps with a 36-pound kettlebell, followed by 25 more pull-ups. In the end, 17 of the 40 actors Twight trained were able to pull it off – and that cast included world-class athletes turned stuntmen, former martial-arts champs, and pro fighters.
For 300, the idea was to get the cast looking “like a gang” that had been training together since childhood. Twight set up the gym as a gauntlet and played on actors’ insecurities by forcing them all to train on the same soundstage with their shirts off, watching each other.
“Male vanity,” he says. “Fuck – nothing more powerful. Thirty guys in a room, all vying to be alphas. Everyone had on leather underpants and a cape. Nobody wanted to be remembered as the Spartan with the muffin top.”
Even the goofball Parks and Recreation star has made the transition to action-hero superstar physique for Guardian of the Galaxy. His advice for getting into superhero shape? “Book a Marvel movie and had a deadline: If you don’t [lose weight], you might get fired.”
A trainer’s personality can be as dominating – and as grating – as any movie star’s, and on-set disagreements are inevitable. Twight and Gerard Butler clashed on the 300 set, and the actor started working with his own trainer. Though Butler looked convincingly gladiatorial in the film, Twight says he lacked the commitment to lean down like his Spartan brethren. “He’s not mentally equipped,” Twight says. “Gerry does not want to do the work that other people are doing.” Another actor says Butler was more willing to train than to make sacrifices to slim down. “Gerry goes straight for the cream puffs, man. He works out hard, then he likes to drink beer. He’ll get big, but he’ll never get ripped.”
Deborah Snyder, who produced the film, points out that Butler is an “extremely hard worker” and that “there’s no way to look like that without doing the work.” She takes a more equitable view of Twight and Butler’s creative differences: “I think you break down whoever you’re training a little bit, as part of building them up, and when you have two strong personalities, sometimes there are clashes.” Lead actors almost never get fired because they don’t get in shape, though sometimes a shoot will be delayed to give an actor more time. In extreme cases, directors will lean heavily on body doubles, air-brushing, CGI, or old-fashioned padded costuming. “One character on Watchmen didn’t want to train at all and said, ‘Gimme the muscle suit,’ ” says Twight. “He likes to eat and drink and smoke, so the poor guy had to go through three hours of putting on prosthetics every day.”
The trainer admits that there will always be actors who take shortcuts, especially when shooting in a B-movie locale like Bulgaria, “where their relationship to performance-enhancing drugs is completely normal, like walking into a pharmacy.”
And those aren’t the only drugs actors are known to sample. On the set of the 300 sequel, Twight recalls that one of the original Spartans confided, “You know one of the reasons I lost so much weight on that job? I was doing enormous quantities of cocaine.”
Twight shakes his head. “You should have told me,” Twight says he told the actor, “because I might have killed you. But I’d much rather have you doing a lot of blow than smoking a bunch of dope.”
A Spartan with the munchies would never lean out.
The munchies would have been impossible to appease on the set of last summer’s Superman – Twight banned junk food and soft drinks from the set, as he continued to sculpt the new Man of Steel, Henry Cavill. The trainer has nothing but praise for Cavill, who had to keep up his physique for a grueling 127-day shoot. “It’s not like you’re peaking a guy for three days for his shirtless scene,” Twight says. “You’re living with this guy for a year.”
For the six months prior to the shoot, Cavill worked out and ate according to Twight’s plan. The film’s producers actually contacted Twight and his wife, Lisa, a trainer, to make sure they weren’t giving Cavill anything illegal. With tarnished heroes like A-Rod and Lance Armstrong, it was important to establish that our most American superhero wasn’t a juicer.
“Someone in production had me more than pinky swear,” says Lisa, leaning on a stationary bike. “They told me that they’d be drug-testing Henry.”
“They never tested him,” says Twight, “but I gave them a list of every supplement, with contact numbers.”
Twight says there is a secret to Cavill’s transformation. “Yeah, there’s a 90-day miracle, but you’re not gonna fucking like it,” he says, laughing. “It’s hard work. It’s commitment. Self-discipline. Persistence. And mindful attention to all this stuff. Then you can become whatever you want.”
Ever since De Niro remade his body for his Oscar-winning role as boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, physical transformation has been macho shorthand for an actor’s commitment – from Tom Hanks in Philadelphia to Christian Bale and Tom Hardy in, well, everything. Matthew McConaughey agreed to lose more than 35 pounds in his Oscar-winning role as an AIDS patient in Dallas Buyers Club, a show of faith that convinced co-star Jared Leto (who also won an Oscar for his role in the movie) to take a role in the film. “I knew Matthew had made the commitment to lose all that weight,” says Leto, who lost more than 30 himself. “It’s not just about how it looks. When that guy walks on set, people see him and say: ‘That guy’s not fucking around.’ That commitment compels you to deliver.”
Science is only making these body transformations easier and more common. For Spike Lee’s Oldboy, Josh Brolin had to embody a 20-year transformation from bloated alcoholic to killing machine; he gained 28 pounds in 10 days, and then lost 22 pounds in three days. “He took saline pills so the weight he gained was water and he could lose it faster,” says Lee. “De Niro talks about how hard it was to lose all that weight for Raging Bull, and how it took months. Josh lost his weight in, like, a weekend.”
Extreme weight loss or gain has become such a gimmick that lately, it seems many actors and fans are confusing body manipulation with talent. Actor Mark Strong, the star of AMC’s Low Winter Sun, says he is skeptical of this generational shift toward ripped bodies and extreme transformations. “I think a lot of young male actors are trying to prove how good they are by showing you how hard they’re working on their bodies,” he says. “It’s become almost synonymous with being a good actor. People want to quantify acting so that the acting looks awards-worthy.”
Sometimes that impulse to get fit can disrupt a film. Six-packs and bulky chests can look freakishly anachronistic in a prestige period picture: It’s not just that Tudor princes and Victorian lotharios didn’t have waxed chests and 12-packs – it’s that almost nobody had bodies like these until the last decades of supplements and fitness science.
“Can’t we just go back to when you didn’t have to do all this stuff?” James Franco gripes. “I look to Benicio del Toro. He’s not in the best shape but he still looks cool, man. He’s awesome.”
And true awesomeness is too ephemeral, too rare, to be achieved by effort alone.
“Either you have it or you don’t,” says Fast and the Furious star Rick Yune, “It’s not about Sean Connery’s fitness, or Liam Neeson’s muscles. You see Clint Eastwood point a gun – and you believe it. It’s not the physical. It’s what you put behind it.”
What Yune is really complaining about is this sense that studios see actors as bodies now – interchangeable in a global movie business that’s built more on brands than stars. More than ever, studios are building franchises around fresh, inexpensive faces with bodies that can fill a superhero costume.
“One of the reasons there are so few real movie stars is that there are very few who are distinguishable from one another,” says Nicolas Winding Refn, who directed Ryan Gosling in Drive and Only God Forgives. “Everybody can get a six-pack, so it has no value. Everybody starts to look alike. It’s the soul that makes you a movie star. Not your body.”