It’s one thing to mentally prepare to play a character in a movie or a play. It’s another thing to physically transform yourself in order to better identify with the role. Some transformations are only skin deep; extensive makeup or prosthetics may be sufficient to pull of the necessary look. Other transformations are more involved; many actors may take part in weeks, if not months, of preparations for a role. This can include intense training, specialized diets, and exhaustive exercise routines. The end result of an actor going through such a transformation is not only a more accurate visual resemblance, but also a confidence or familiarity with that character’s actions, skills, or demeanor.
Some transformations involve sitting on the couch and eating pizza. This week, we are looking at important movie roles where an actor gained weight on purpose for the role. There are many different reasons for them to do this, and in each case we’ll look at why they made the change, how they completed the change, and how effective it was for each respective film.
Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones’ Diary
For Bridget Jones’ Diary, Zellweger gained about 40 pounds to play the titular character. As a famous literary character, Bridget Jones was known to have poor eating habits and a fluctuating body weight. To gain weight, Zellweger gave up exercising and ate lots of fatty foods. Zellweger approached the role trying to create a character that had a more “realistic” body as compared to her own at the time, which was thin. She would later lose the weight and then gain it again for the 2003 sequel, although she did not purposefully gain additional weight for the third film, Bridget Jones’ Baby (her weight gain in that film due to pregnancy was completed with prosthetics). The original film went on to be successful and Zellweger’s performance earner her an Oscar nomination for best actress.
Jared Leto in Chapter 27
Chapter 27 tells the story of Mark Chapman, the man who murdered John Lennon in 1980. Jared Leto was cast in the role and he gained 67 pounds in order to have the same body type as the real Mark Chapman. To accomplish this transformation, Leto said he would drink melted ice cream, soy sauce, and olive oil. He gained weight so quickly that his body couldn’t support the extra mass and he was overcome with gout. At one point, he was confined to a wheelchair. Leto claims that this weight gain was the most difficult thing that he had ever done as an actor, more difficult than losing weight for his roles in Requiem for a Dream or Dallas Buyers Club. The film received mixed reviews. Many critics and audience members thought that the plot was distasteful. However, Leto received praise for his performance and he won an award for best actor at the Zurich Film Festival where the film was released.
Charlize Theron in Monster
Charlize Theron gained 30 pounds to portray Aileen Wuornos, a real-life serial killer. Theron gained the weight not just to get closer to the physical shape of Wuornos’ body, but to better understand her lifestyle. Theron wanted to prove herself as an actress, and decided that a method acting approach would be the best test for her. To complete the transformation, Theron ate a diet consisting of high-fat foods like donuts and potato chips. In addition to the diet, Theron worked with a hair stylist to dry out and thin her hair gradually to achieve the right look (she did not wear a wig in the film). In the end, the only prosthetic used during filming were a set of eyelids. Theron’s dedication to the role really paid off as she would go on to win the Oscar for Best actress for her performance in this film.
Robert De Niro in Raging Bull
While filming The Godfather: Part II, De Niro had read the autobiography of boxer Jake LaMotta. He was so captivated by it that he decided he wanted to make a movie. It took 4 years, but eventually he convinced Martin Scorsese. The film takes place over several decades, and LaMotta is shown as both a young agile fighter, and a heavier retiree. De Niro first trained for and filmed the younger LaMotta scenes, and then gained weight for the older scenes. Scorsese shut down production for 4 months so that De Niro could gain the weight. De Niro gained more than 60 pounds by binge eating 3 times a day (pasta, meat, butter, ice cream, and beer). When he returned to the set to begin filming again, he had many health issues due to the rapid weight gain. Scorsese had to use short takes because De Niro had trouble breathing and would get tired quickly. He even shut down production at one point because he was so concerned about De Niro’s health. Raging Bull was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, and De Niro won Best Actor.
Russell Crowe in Body of Lies
In Body of Lies, Russell Crowe plays a CIA veteran named Ed Hoffman. He worked with director Ridley Scott to define the character, ultimately deciding that Ed needed to seem like he had been athletic in the past, but his job had caused him to lose that physique. Crowe claims that he wanted Hoffman to seem like he sat at a desk all day for many decades, and to achieve this look he gained 63 pounds. His diet consisted of high fat foods, including hamburgers, and adapting a sedentary lifestyle. In the end, the film received mixed reviews, and Crowe’s performance didn’t necessarily stand out.
Christian Bale in The Dark Knight/American Hustle
Last week we looked at Christian Bale’s successful weight loss for his role in The Machinist. Immediately after completing that film, Bale began to build his body back up to play Bruce Wayne for The Dark Knight. In 6 months, Bale gained 109 pounds. Director Christopher Nolan actually thought that Bale was too big to reprise the role, and so Bale ended up losing 40 pounds before filming began. Although Bale has not given us any insight in how he gained this weight so quickly, it is known that Bale worked out consistently before losing the weight for The Machinist, and worked closely with a personal trainer. After completing The Dark Knight, Bale went on to lose 40 pounds for his role in The Fighter before gaining weight again in preparation for his next role. That role was con artist Irving Rosenfeld in American Hustle. Bale gained 43 pounds by eating unhealthily and frequently. Bale was critically acclaimed in all of these roles, including an Oscar win for The Fighter, and a nomination for American Hustle.
Matthew McConaughey in Gold
Last week we looked at how Matthew McConaughey lost weight for his Oscar-winning role in Dallas Buyer’s Club. Approximately three years later he purposely gained weight to prepare for his role of Kenny Wells in the movie Gold. Gold is based on a real life 1993 mining scandal, but for legal reasons, the character names were changed. Wells was at least partially based on David Walsh, the CEO of British mining company Bre-X at the time of the scandal. McConaughey gained 47 pounds over six months, eating a lot of pizza and cheeseburgers and avoiding exercise. The film earned mixed reviews, but McConaughey was commended for his enthusiasm and commitment to the role.
Ryan Gosling in The Lovely Bones
This one is a unique addition to this list because Gosling did not actually end up being featured in the film he gained weight for. In 2007, Gosling was cast as Jack Salmon, the father of the girl who is murdered, an event around which the film is based. Initially, Gosling had some reservations about the role because he thought he would be too young. In an effort to make himself seem older, Gosling purposely gained weight. In a few months he gained 60 pounds. He claims that he drank melted ice cream in order to get the desired look. When he arrived on set without notifying the director or the production staff of his weight gain, they were understandably upset. Gosling claims that he was fired because of his lack of communication and uncertainty in the role. Mark Wahlberg was cast to replace Gosling in the final film.
Vincent D’Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket
D’Onofrio’s weight gain for his role of deranged Private Leonard Lawrence in Full Metal Jacket is considered the most significant of any film. D’Onofrio gained 70 pounds in order to better fit into the role. Kubrick wanted the character to be big and clumsy, which would make the ridicule that the character received and the resulting frustration that much more believable. While the film would go on to be critically acclaimed, and the role would be a breakout for D’Onofrio, the weight gain did not sit well with him. During the filming of one of the basic training scenes, D’Onofrio injured his knee. The severity of the injury was compounded by his weight, and he had to have surgery to repair it. D’Onofrio said that he hated being overweight because he wouldn’t get the same respect that he had before. After completing filming, D’Onofrio worked hard to lose the weight quickly before auditioning for any other roles.