clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How 5 actors transformed themselves to play fighters

New, 19 comments

Even with all the help Hollywood provides, it isn’t easy to transform into a fighter’s physique in a few short months.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Will Smith “Ali” Movie Set
Will Smith went from 185 lbs to 220 lbs to play Ali
Photo by Peter Brandt/Getty Images

Recently, Kumail Nanjiani went from average to superhero and posted the pics to prove it. His transformation is similar to Chris Pratt’s, but in each case the hard work is mostly covered up by costumes. When actors take on the role of a fighter, that work is going to be on display, and in order to suspend disbelief, the finished product must be convincing. Here are five actors who took on the challenge and succeeded.

1.) Will Smith in Ali - Taking on the role of Muhammed Ali had to be intimidating. Smith, who at the time weighed 185 lbs, bulked up to 220 lbs to play the heavyweight champion of the world. Smith claimed the gains came steroid free, saying his success was thanks to trainer Darrell Foster and hard work. “I ate more often—probably seven times a day—and I drank protein shakes forever. Steroids mess with your balls.” During filming, Smith continued to lift hard, benching 350 lbs after a full day of filming. At the time, Smith was known as a comedic actor, with few drama creds on his resume. His dedication was rewarded with an Oscar nomination and a newfound legitimacy as a dramatic actor.

Will Smith “Ali” Movie Set
Will Smith as Muhammed Ali and weighing in at 220 pounds.
Photo by Peter Brandt/Getty Images

2.) Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby - Clint Eastwood famously bragged on his star’s dedication to her role, pointing out that she was asked to gain 10 lbs, but she insisted on putting on 19 lbs of muscle in order to convincingly play Maggie Fitzgerald. With only had 90 days to create this transformation, Swank dramatically changed her physique by eating high protein meals every 90 minutes, totaling 4,000 calories a day. She did two hours of boxing, with the rest of the day devoted to lifting. After initially struggling, Swank said the workload was only possible thanks to a mental breakthrough. “I found more than anything that what I really learned from this movie was the power of the mind and how my mind was my biggest obstacle.” Her hard work paid off, as Swank walked away with the Best Actress Oscar.

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno - Season 11
Hilary Swank hit the talk show circuit to promote Million Dollar Baby by showing off her muscles.
Photo by: Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

3.) Jake Gyllenhaal in Southpaw - While Gyllenhaal’s work in Southpaw did not result in any Oscar accolades, the talented actor’s physical transformation was impressive. He had five months to prepare for the role, but with zero boxing experience and without a natural aptitude for the sport, Gyllenhaal opted for twice daily sessions, in the hopes of equaling ten months of prep. In addition, he ran eight miles a day, lifted weights and did a core workout daily. The actor was coming off his performance in Nightcrawler, for which he had dieted down to 147 lbs. He put on 28 pounds of lean muscle for Southpaw. According to costar Rachel McAdams, Gyllenhaal did not use a stunt double, and at one point was knocked out cold. Gyllenhaal came to and got back to work. It is no wonder that after the movie wrapped he slept for 14 hours straight.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Southpaw
Screen grab

4.) Robert De Niro in Raging Bull - The most remarkable aspect of De Niro’s body transformation for Raging Bull was not his achievement of a perfectly fit fighter’s build, although he did amazing work in that regard. Training for a year, the actor gained 20 lbs of muscle, sparring more than 1,000 rounds and fighting in three legitimate boxing matches—and winning two of them. The more astonishing feat was De Niro’s incredible weight gain. After filming the scenes covering Jake LaMotta’s prime, the actor traveled to Italy and put on 60 lbs of pure fatty bloat in order to play LaMotta after his decline. It took De Niro four months of bingeing pasta to get to a point Scorsese found so alarming he paused production to make sure De Niro was healthy enough to proceed. De Niro was awarded the Best Actor Oscar for his efforts.

On the set of Raging Bull
Pre-pasta Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. The actor would go on to gain 60 lbs in 4 months to play Jake LaMotta in decline.
Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

5.) Halle Berry in Bruised - While the film only just wrapped, Berry has logged her transformation on Instagram, highlighting her progress on her “Fitness Fridays.” At 53, Berry’s ability to get fighting fit is no doubt a testament to a lifetime spent working out. Even so, the actor has commented that sporting visible abs was a goal she had set for the role and achieved while filming. Berry spent seven months training prior to the start of shooting, working with boxers such as Claressa Shields and MMA fighters like Brian Ortega. In addition to a high protein, low carb diet she utilized intermittent fasting to lean out. Berry, who suffers from Type 2 Diabetes, has long abstained from carbs and sugar to maintain her health.