Building a Better Action Hero
Credit: Illustration by Paul Martinez

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. Superman movie. "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.

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.' "