Matt McGorry is a triple threat. He’s a bodybuilding champ, a fitness writer, and also…a very talented actor. Random, right? You may have noticed his absence from Men’s Fitness over the last few years. That’s because he’s taken on a new role, that of Officer John Bennett in Orange is the New Black, Netflix’s new hit TV series. Fitness to acting might seem like a big jump, but the former personal trainer made it look easy—and we had to learn how. Whether or not you’re interested in fitness or acting, follow Matt’s advice on changing careers if you’re ready to make a leap yourself.
Men’s Fitness: Before Orange is the New Black, you were working as a personal trainer, bodybuilder, and Men’s Fitness writer. How did you get your start in the fitness industry?
Matt McGorry: It was actually pretty ironic. I wasn’t athletic as a kid and I was self-conscious about my body, but then in eighth grade I won a school contest, and the prize was a bunch of personal training sessions. The trainer became like an older brother to me. I think the reason I related to him is because he wasn’t your typical hardcore trainer who only cared about getting huge. He was more interested in smart, corrective exercises and healthy fitness. I didn’t like it at first but then I got into it when I started to see results and began to understand that the more work I put into it, the more I got out of it.
In college I got up to 220 pounds. (I weigh 185 now.) I got into powerlifting, and then I pared back my size and focused on strength. And beating my numbers became addictive. I think the part of me that felt emotionally vulnerable made me want to get big, because your hard work is instantly noticed all the time.
So, training helped you build up confidence?
It wasn’t my physique that gave me confidence as much as it was reaching the goals that I set for myself. The whole reason I did a bodybuilding show was to see how far I could push my own discipline. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. When I made the switch to acting, I was able to break that down into small, measurable goals like I did with bodybuilding. It went from “How do I deadlift 576 pounds?” to “How do I get these five lines on a TV show?” and then I would try to figure out how to progress to the next thing. All the fitness training served me in that way.
Tell me a bit more about the transition from training to acting.
After ranking in the top 50 nationally in three weight classes, I took a good look at things and realized I couldn’t pursue acting on top of this, and I was always interested in acting. But training consumed my life: I was cooking all my own meals, carrying my Tupperware everywhere with me. It takes a lot of discipline and creates a solitary lifestyle—at least it did for me. It wasn’t a lifestyle I could continue, so I stopped.
I didn’t even ease off of it. I didn’t do a bench press, squat, or deadlift for a couple years after that. And I basically haven’t cooked since. I am a very black and white person like that. Because I was so attached to my numbers from powerlifting, it was easier to take a big step away, so that as I was getting weaker I didn’t have to judge myself based on these same standards.
Are you completely uninvolved in fitness and training now?
I still work out. I like to stay in shape. Of course it cranks up if I know there is a shirtless scene coming, and I get, like, a one or two weeks notice now, which is nice. But otherwise, it’s just an automatic part of my life, it’s not even a question to me. I know some people who are like, “I love fitness,” and I feel like if you have to say that, you’re still in the romance stage. I’m in the stage where I’ve been married to it for 60 years and I don’t think I’ll ever get a divorce [laughs].
What do you do to stay in shape now?
My programs change depending on shooting schedules and roles. But in general, I’m not that strict; I like to be able to enjoy life and have a few drinks every now and then, and eat ice cream every night [laughs]. I went to such an extreme before, I’m very careful about not getting sucked back into that. Plus, now I know that I can pull things together quickly if I have to for a scene, so I don’t need to be aiming for the perfect six-pack all the time.
In general, I rely on lifting. Even when I’m aiming to burn fat and calories, I’ll use full-body lifting workouts to create a metabolic effect. Then I add some cardio, like HIIT, in there maybe one or two days a week. If I have a shirtless scene coming up, I’ll pull out more of the low-intensity cardio, like incline walking. It doesn’t burn a lot of calories, but it burns a higher percentage of fat and you can do it when you’re dieting without tiring yourself out as much.
Did you have to train in any specific way for your role in Orange Is the New Black?
No. My character on Orange is the New Black is not one that requires being absolutely shredded with 5% body fat. But I wouldn’t be opposed to doing that for a role one day.
What advice do you have for a guy who wants to change careers?
I think one of the big things I learned while training that also applies to acting is that you have to break things into small, measurable goals instead of shifting everything at once. (You are more likely to burn out if you are changing a lot at once.) For me it was like, “Okay, how do I get in front of casting directors? How do I break down the marketing of that?” I did small things, like sending out postcards and going to classes where I paid to meet casting directors.
It’s also important not to get too hung up on the end goal. If I was too focused on the end goal—having my own show or movie—it would have really discouraged me. It was the same with powerlifting. I honestly never looked very far ahead. I was like, “Great, I just deadlifted 315, I could probably try and deadlift 325 in a month or two,” and then a couple years later that became 550 pounds, and then 560 pounds. My advice would be to stay focused on what’s immediately ahead and reward yourself for those small victories.