Building a Better Action Hero
Credit: Illustration by Paul Martinez

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."