Building a Better Action Hero
Credit: Illustration by Paul Martinez

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."