Day 969: Pound-For-Pound Performances

originally published August 26, 2014

If anyone asks, I’m currently beefing up for the lead role in the upcoming biopic about Orson Welles’ final days. I haven’t been cast yet, and to my knowledge no such movie exists, but when Hollywood finally comes around to making it, I’ll be ready. So yes, I will have that second bag of deep-fried Oreos.

Screen actors – and perhaps stage actors as well, but that information is trickier to find – must occasionally alter their physical weight to slip into a part. Sure, they can cheat like Chris Evans in Captain America, whose 220-pound bulk was deflated to a scrawny pre-Atlas sand-faced wimp through the magic of CGI, but outside of the superhero genre, you’re not likely to see that. These self-abusatory body-wallops are a good reminder that that some of the faces speckled across movie screens are actual artists who are willing to endure physical torture for their craft.

In tracking down some of the wonkier stories for this piece, I tried to uncover an actress who has made a similar transformation, but there aren’t many. Renée Zellweger snarfed back some pastries to gain twenty pounds for Bridget Jones’ Diary, but her final appearance was hardly extreme. I’m more impressed with Anne Hathaway’s 25-pound drop for Les Miserables, much of which occurred throughout the filming process. If anyone knows of any other actresses who pulled off feats like these, please tell me in the comments section. It’s quite the sausage-fest on this page.

Considered to be one of the greatest actors of the last 50 years, Robert De Niro has yet to win an Academy Award since 1981. While I’ll withhold judgment on some of the scripts he has chosen in the last 20 years (I still can’t scrub The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle from the part of my brain upon which it splattered back in 2000), watching him perform usually justifies the cost of admission. If you have somehow deprived yourself of seeing 1980’s Raging Bull (for which he won his most recent Oscar), then you must immediately stop calling yourself a film fan until you do so – particularly if you have seen even one Tyler Perry movie.

For his role as real-life boxer Jake LaMotta, De Niro first trained as a boxer, winning two of his three middleweight fights. His trainer – the actual Jake LaMotta – believed De Niro to be one of the most promising middleweights he’d ever seen. Once they’d wrapped on the bulk of the shooting, production was halted so that De Niro could go on a 4-month binge eating trip around France and Northern Italy. The pasta took its toll, adding 66 pounds to De Niro’s frame and affecting his breathing, his posture, and his manner of speech. Martin Scorsese then shot the scenes in which Jake was retired and flabby. Throughout De Niro’s eating frenzy, the entire crew was paid for doing nothing but waiting. Not a bad gig.

Toss out those diet supplements and Weight Watchers points books; if you want to shed pounds quickly, you simply need to follow Matthew McConaughey’s six-month regimen. He dropped 47 pounds, from 183 to a lanky 136 for last year’s Dallas Buyers Club. He ate very little, and locked himself inside his Texas home with the blinds drawn in order to gain that ghostly pale pallor that the girls find so attractive.

In the end, he couldn’t run more than 30 feet before his legs locked up. Push-ups were agonizing, and his vision began to suffer. But like De Niro, his torture was rewarded on Oscar night, as was the work of his co-star, who also dropped a hefty chunk of his mass in order to portray a body ravaged by AIDS. Yes, of course I’m talking about this guy:

Jared Leto has been kicking the crap out of his body for most of his professional career. In 2000 he whittled his body down to drug-addict levels for Requiem For A Dream and he did a similar slim-down for Dallas Buyers Club last year. Perhaps more impressive was his 67-pound beef-up to play John Lennon’s killer in 2007’s Chapter 27. Mark David Chapman was a chubby bastard, and Leto wasn’t about to cheat with a fat suit to embody the guy.

Every night, Leto  would chug down pints of microwaved ice cream mixed with soy sauce and olive oil. He later told the press that the weight gain was harder to achieve than his previous reduction to a skeletal state for Requiem. It gave him gout, and landed him in a wheelchair. Afterwards, he went on a liquid diet for ten days to lose the weight, though it took him nearly a year to achieve physical normalcy.

Now we’re entering the territory of the grotesque. Christian Bale dropped 62 pounds for his role in The Machinist, a movie I feel guiltily obligated to see, simply due to the effort Bale invested in the part. He drank one cup of black coffee and dined on an apple and a can of tuna every day until he reached 120 pounds. He’d wanted to shrink down to 99 pounds, but the filmmakers felt that might kill him.

Perhaps more impressive than this hefty weight loss was the fact that he had a few months afterward to put back all that weight plus another 60 pounds in muscle mass for his next role, as Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins.

This stick-figure version of Matt Damon is the after-effect of dropping 40 pounds for a job. He ran six and a half miles each morning and evening (he needed to be skinny, not emaciated like Bale), and ate only a chicken breast, egg whites and one baked potato every day. He needed a few months of medical supervision afterward, but it was worth it. Not only because it captured the character brilliantly, but because it brought him more work.

Damon was not a star when he landed this part in 1996’s Courage Under Fire. He’d had a few parts on screen, but this devotion to method acting attracted the attention of Francis Ford Coppola, who gave Matt the lead role in The Rainmaker the following year. Damon built his career on this ludicrous sacrifice of good health. Let that be a lesson to you aspiring artists out there: you must suffer for your work. I’ve been learning that lesson for the last 969 days, without a break.

No discussion of acting chops can be digested without first biting into the work of Tom Hanks. He shrunk himself for Philadelphia a few years earlier, but in Hanks’ run for yet another Oscar he played with his weight for 2000’s Cast Away, which I have been incorrectly writing as a one-word title for 14 years now.

Tom went in both directions for this role. During pre-production he tacked on 50 pounds to attain the look of a typical pudgy middle-age, middle-income employee, which makes me wonder if I was to shed the same amount of weight if I’d gain that sleek Tom Hanks build.

After the pre-island and early-island scenes were shot, the production was halted for a year to allow Tom to lose all that weight and then some, and to grow his hair and beard to a suitable scraggle. During the break director Robert Zemeckis borrowed the entire crew to shoot the tragically mediocre What Lies Beneath. Oh well, work is work.

Now that I have achieved my Wellesian frame and salty beard, I have only to adopt his alcoholism to truly embrace my role in this as-yet-unwritten film. It’s all about the method. Let’s have a drink.

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