Modern screen heroes come in many guises, but whether a leading man is cast as a mathematician, a surgeon or a scientist, the likelihood is that, once the shirt comes off, he will be equipped with both a firm abdomen and bulbous biceps.
A new appetite for leading men who, whether or not they are playing professional athletes, appear to spend half the week in the gym is now concerning even established actors. Last week Outlander star Tom Brittney complained about the emphasis on achieving a “built” body before auditions. British drama schools are also tackling the pressure on students to conform to a muscular type.
“It is real and prevalent, and we are very aware,” said Vanessa Ewan, a senior lecturer in movement at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.
Speaking to Radio Times, Brittney admitted some of his roles were now dependent on a strict gym regimen and diet. “It’s tough. And I would hope the industry pulls back from that,” the actor said. Last summer the comic Noel Fielding also confessed he got more work when he looked thinner. Hard luck on a host of Bake Off.
Such sentiments were echoed this weekend by a group of male acting students who fear, like Brittney, that appearing in peak condition is now part of their job.
“Of course there is a responsibility to look after ourselves as we train,” said Russell Scott-Dickson, 21, a Belfast-born student at Arts Educational Schools in London. “But there is a pressure to look that bit leaner, because it is going to help. And agents say to us that our image is the most important part of the package. We all deal with it differently, but it can obviously lead to problems like body dysmorphia or eating illnesses.”
The fad for “bulk and muscle” that trainee actors and tutors identify is the latest in a succession of key screen looks. In the 1950s, bare-chested stars such as Johnny Weissmuller of the Tarzan films, or Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity, were broad rather than toned. They were replaced in the 1960s by the clean-cut, preppy looks of Robert Redford and Paul Newman, while in Britain during the late 1980s what really counted was having the undernourished, rarefied outline of a Rupert Everett or a Julian Sands.
The new age of brawn has been ushered in by Aidan Turner’s Poldark, Idris Elba’s Luther and Richard Madden’s Bodyguard. Even the languid and cerebral Holmes in the BBC’s Sherlock, as played by Benedict Cumberbatch, annoyed some viewers with his unfeasibly developed upper arms.
“It is an odd phenomenon,” said Catherine Alexander, a course leader at Central. “We talk about it a lot.” Referring to the Game of Thrones actor, Alexander said she knew it as the Kit Harington effect and believed it actually limited performances.
“It is detrimental when people build up too much muscle because we convey emotion through our chests. An overly muscular chest is a barrier. The actor can’t make that connection, so we encourage our students to stop doing weights all the time,” she said.
Taylor Bradshaw, 20, a student from south London, welcomes the support he gets at ArtsEd, which offers a gym and a coach, but he understands the need to represent reality. “Hopefully we will play different kinds of people. Not all the parts out there are soldiers and bodyguards,” he said.
Beefing up for a role can be seen as just part of the essential artifice of performance, one of the tricks replicated down the ages, from theatrical masks to the soft-focus camera lens and contemporary special effects of Hollywood; but it is also a reflection of wider modern tastes.
“We live in self-obsessed and image-conscious times and nowhere more so than in the TV and film industry,” said Bradshaw.
Ewan, who runs a body/identity/image group at Central to help students, is worried about a blurring of lines between an actor’s personal image and the parts they hope to play. She also suspects the desire for bulk is about wanting control in a difficult marketplace. “The actor needs to discern the difference between a personal decision and a professional decision. The line is slim,” she said. “An actor faced with a free personal trainer in a first job sees that as a bonus and he may not recognise he is handing over more than he is gaining.”
Drama schools, Ewan argues, are there to give actors the tools to transform without the need to change body shape. Leo Woodall, 22, another student, agrees and hopes the entertainment industry can avoid reproducing identikit leading men. The drive to look like the four American blockbusting stars, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Pine and Chris Pratt, does not encourage good mental health.
“While it is true people want to look at beautiful people, they also want to see real people with imperfections. I like to be in shape, but I would not want to get too big because it would restrict me,” he said.
Even a top-ranked star like Evans is not happy with the trend. He has complained, along with the actor Armie Hammer, that being seen as a muscular hunk in the Captain America role may send his career off into a dead end. The answer might be to let visual effects do the work. Certainly, producers of mass-market entertainment spend a big proportion of the budget on improving the look of the stars. Los Angeles is home to several profitable low-profile effects companies that specialise in digitally beautifying every shot with patented programmes such as Flame or Beauty Box. And in the cruel world of high-definition cinema, these efforts to remove stomach rolls and improve silhouettes are now as concentrated on the male actors as the female.
Ewan regularly points out to students at Central how much easier it is to put on muscle for a role, either with exercise, padded costumes, or with CGI, than it is to slim down. And she acknowledges that it is an issue female actors “have been dealing with for ever”. As Brittney remarked last week: “Maybe it’s the guys’ turn.”