Actor Transformations: Why going skinny or buff is such a big deal

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It’s impressive enough that most actors can go from role to role in quick succession. But the world likes to freak out when that transition is visible. With the release of the new boxing film Southpaw last weekend, the internet has been filled with videos and gifs of Jake Gyllenhaal’s transformation into a boxer. It took five months of training for Gyllenhaal to go from his skinny, un-muscled frame that we saw in Nightcrawler to his extremely toned and six-packed self in Southpaw. An impressive feat, but that doesn’t totally explain the complete awe and fascination. Sure, it is Jake Gyllenhaal we’re talking about. Attractive: yes. A talented actor: heck yes. So why are people really only talking about the physical transformation and not so much the mental?

Obviously this isn’t the first time people have fawned over an actor who has gone through such a visible physical transformation for a role. Christian Bale lost a substantial amount of weight for his role in The Machinist and then beefed up shortly after for Batman Begins. If you’ve seen The Machinist, you might have a hard time believing that afterwards it only took Bale six months to gain over 100 pounds to play Batman (and really just to look like his normal self). In the case of both of these films, it’s interesting to note that while both actors started off drastically skinny, they ended up gaining quite a bit of muscle for their next roles. And what’s more appealing to the masses than going from essentially physically unappealing to very appealing in a short amount of time?

Celebrity magazines and websites love to show off pictures of actors who are sporting a buff physique for a role. And nowadays, those actors are often playing superheroes, or are at least in some kind of action movie. It doesn’t quite matter what their starting point was; the important thing now is that they look better than they did before. A notable example of this is Chris Pratt, who went from lovable, chubby Andy on Parks and Recreation to chiseled superhero in Guardians of the Galaxy and buff action hero in Jurassic World. And you bet that people made sure you knew about it and chronicled his transformation.

Chris-Pratt-Style

The similarity of Pratt to Gyllenhaal, let’s say, is that their starting points were both physically unappealing in terms of media expectations. But once they got in shape (i.e. more attractive) for their new movies, the media focused much more on the superficial side of things. In Gyllenhaal’s case, there was much more to his transition from his role in Nightcrawler to his character in Southpaw. His character in Nightcrawler is essentially a sociopath living by his own means and manipulates those to get what he wants. The skinny physicality works for his character because his strength is his mind, not his body.

Gyllenhaal then had to transform physically and mentally again into Billy Hope for the film Southpaw, about a boxer who only uses his rage to fight and must reinvent himself into a better person for his family (Gyllenhaal sure knows how to pick his roles). Getting in shape to play a boxer is one thing, but going from such a different character psychologically while ALSO dedicating five months to intense physical training is what makes it so impressive. But what most people just talk about is his new six-pack.

The other interesting thing about actor transformations is the type of attention they receive. While certain transformations may not receive sparkling attention from the media (as in they probably won’t make the cover of People Magazine), there’s a good chance that the Academy Awards will look their way. That’s what happened with Charlize Theron when she became essentially unrecognizable for her role in Monster (and won Best Actress in 2004), when Adrien Brody got rid of most of his material possessions and lost weight for his role in the Pianist (and won Best Actor in 2003), and when Anne Hathaway lost weight and had her head sheered on camera in Les Miserables (and won Best Supporting Actress in 2013). That’s the attention that those transformations usually receive. People talk about them for sure, but they don’t have the same media appeal as gaining 30 pounds of muscle.

But much to the disappointment of anyone who saw Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal’s performance didn’t even get an Oscar nomination. Luckily the film and his performance have reached critical acclaim, and many would say that that’s a better achievement than an Oscar nomination. And now he probably has the most talked about abs on the Internet, so that’s something.

Gyllenhaal and Bale are only two of a large number of dedicated actors and actresses who are obviously willing to go to extreme lengths in order to give their all for a performance. While their dedication is usually noted by the media, the main question is almost always about what it was like to lose or gain weight for the role. And of course there’s the issue of actresses constantly being asked more about what their fitness regime was to get in shape for a role (this interview with Anne Hathaway is a perfect example) instead of actual character questions. Changing one’s physicality is extremely impressive whether it’s losing weight or gaining weight, but it’s high time that the focus be shifted to the actor’s actual talent instead of what their diet was.




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