In an era where action flicks and superhero stories are Hollywood’s bread and butter, it’s not enough for the female stars of these films to be talented and beautiful; they also have to acquire a very particular set of skills (and sometimes, a very particular set of muscles to match) in order to fulfill the physical demands of their roles.
From soldiers and spies to intergalactic assassins and psychotic ballerinas, these women put in maximum effort before the cameras ever began rolling, in order to be in peak condition when it came time to kick ass onscreen.
Gal Gadot already had the face to play one of the DC universe’s most notoriously gorgeous girl heroes when she was cast as Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice — but it took some serious work in the gym to turn her long, lean, runway model’s body into an Amazonian temple of muscle for Wonder Woman’s stand-alone flick.
Gadot, who was unable to do a single pullup at the start of her training, spent nine months bulking up for the role. By the time she was in costume and in front of the cameras, she’d gained seventeen pounds — “And it’s all muscle,” she told Glamour. “I feel so much better now. When you feel strong, it changes everything — your posture, the way you walk. I look at photos from five years ago and think, Whoa, I was too skinny.” And it wasn’t just the physical transformation she had to accomplish; Gadot also had to learn to ride horseback and swing a sword in service of the film’s intense battle scenes.
Between playing Black Widow in the Iron Man and Avengers franchises and a cyborg assassin in Ghost in the Shell, Scarlett Johansson has had to pretty much stay in constant peak physical condition since 2010, But for the latter, she had to know how to handle a wide variety of lethal objects, too.
Johansson describes her training regimen for Ghost in the Shell as “a lot of repetition and then a lot of tactical training, which I’d never done before — with room clearing and all that stuff, to just be as efficient with the weapons as possible.” Hardcore, for sure, although it still sounds like a lot more fun than the strict weight-lifting and diet routine she followed for Avengers, which she described as, “Workout like a dude, eat like a rabbit.”
Until recently, Alison Brie was best known for playing Trudy, the long-suffering wife of Pete Campbell on Mad Men — a role which required serious acting skills but absolutely no stuntwork. So when she landed a starring role in Netflix’s GLOW (that’s Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling), she had to train like a madwoman to get in literal fighting shape.
Sometimes, that meant intense workouts where she and her fellow GLs of W hurled weighted objects onto the gym floor; sometimes, it meant carrying her 220-pound trainer, Jason Walsh, around the room on her back. Walsh said his goal was to turn Brie into someone who could both dish out and take a hit. “Alison would be jumping off ropes and landing on people and flipping. I wanted to get her resilient so she didn’t run the risk of injury,” he said.
In order to play Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games franchise, Jennifer Lawrence had to not only act her butt off, but also whip herself into peak physical condition and acquire a slew of survival skills. Lawrence’s six-week training regimen included the usual time in the gym, where she did sprints and cardio conditioning for the action-packed films — and of course, she had to learn to hold a bow like a pro.
But when the actress was asked about her workout routine, she ticked off some unusual items, too, “Rock climbing, tree climbing — and combat, running, and vaulting.” She must have slept somewhere in there, too, although who knows when she would’ve had time for it!
Few actresses have ever gotten into the kind of shape that Hilary Swank did for her Academy award-winning role as a champion boxer in Million Dollar Baby, and now that we’ve gotten the scoop on how she did it, we understand why! Swank had to overhaul her entire lifestyle and adopt a tightly regimented routine in which her workouts, her meals, and even her sleep were all planned out down to the minute.
“My training was two and a half hours of boxing and approximately an hour and a half to two hours lifting weights every day, six days a week,” the actress said. “The producers asked me to gain 10 pounds of muscle. I gained 19 pounds of muscle. I started at 110 and went to 129. And in order to do that, I had to eat 210 grams of protein a day. Now, your body can only assimilate so much protein, so I had to eat every hour and a half.” Swank also described drinking ten egg whites per day and sleeping nine hours per night — but with a midnight alarm so that she could get up and choke down a protein shake in the wee hours of the morning.
For her role as a soldier in the 1997 film G.I. Jane, Demi Moore famously got in such peak physical condition that she was able to do one-armed pushups. To nail the part, Moore trained with an actual Navy SEAL and eschewed stunt doubles, even for the movie’s most intense scenes involving a brutal obstacle course.
She said, “I could have come in and asked to let the stuntwoman do the obstacle course, but I felt I would have walked away having missed an opportunity experiencing, first-hand, what these people actually go through in training; it’s the whole reason for doing this film in the first place.”
In order to play Beatrix “The Bride” Kiddo in Quentin Tarantino’s modern-day Kill Bill duet of kung fu films, Uma Thurman had to be able to kill Bill in several dozen different ways — and at least two languages.
Thurman described the litany of skills she had to train for, in an interview, saying, “Three styles of kung fu, two styles of sword fighting, knife throwing, knife fighting, hand-to-hand combat, Japanese speaking. It was literally absurd.” Needless to say, it took a serious investment of time and effort to take it from absurd to awesome. Said Thurman of her grueling regimen with martial arts master Wu Ping, “They trained me five days a week for three months from nine in the morning until five o’clock at night and we were not to be late and I never got to leave early.”
While some folks were swooning over the then-awe-inspiring special effects in James Cameron’s 1991 sequel to Terminator, others were far more impressed by the musclebound guns of its leading lady. Linda Hamilton trained like a maniac for her return to the role of Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, putting in thirteen weeks of work before shooting even began — a regimen that saw her doing loads of cardio, weight training, weapons training, and judo, as well as eating a very vintage-1990s diet that included virtually no fat.
And even that wasn’t enough to satisfy her trainer. Hamilton said, “He would have liked to have had me swimming in the ocean at dawn with a 50-pound pack. But I have a son who needed me too.”
Angelina Jolie doesn’t just accept physically demanding roles; she seeks them out, and then looks for ways to make them even more hardcore. In a special feature included on the Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life DVD, the movie’s director reveals that Jolie came on board with a list of new skills and new fighting techniques she wanted to learn for the film — requiring her to train in everything from horseback riding to stick fighting, before all was said and done.
Jolie clearly got a taste for pushing herself to the limit. Seven years later, she completed a grueling training regimen in two new martial arts in order to play the title role in Salt. “For her fight training, we got her learning a combination of Muay Thai and Krav Maga very early on,” the film’s stunt instructor, Simon Crane, explained. “The training, at the early stages, took up about three to four sessions a week, lasting approximately two hours each. When we started filming, we trained during lunch breaks or on the weekends.”
Even though her actual face and body never appeared onscreen, Zoe Saldana went through an absolutely killer training regimen for her performance as Neytiri in Avatar. Not only did the actress need to learn archery, martial arts, and how to ride a horse bareback, she also had to learn in Na’vi, the fictional language featured in the movie.
And the six months she spent mastering those skills were just the beginning, as she then had to learn how to do it all, while wearing a motion capture suit and head camera. All together, Saldana spent a whopping eighteen months preparing for this role.
How intense was Natalie Portman’s training regimen for Black Swan? The actress herself probably sums it up best, “There were some nights that I thought I literally was going to die.” To prepare for her role as the star of Darren Aronofsky’s thriller about a mentally unbalanced ballerina, Portman spent a full year developing the basic ballet skills required to execute the film’s choreography — dancing for five hours a day, every day.
But once production kicked into gear, those five hours of daily dancing turned into sixteen, which, in combination with an ultra-restrictive dancer’s diet, saw Portman shed twenty pounds from her already-thin frame. Fortunately, the actress’ misery had company; her co-star Mila Kunis had to endure a similarly grueling routine.
In the years since Star Wars: The Force Awakens made Daisy Ridley a mega-star, nasty internet trolls plus the pressures of fame ended up chasing the actress off Instagram, where she used to diligently document the workout program that helped her get into Jedi condition (this is why we can’t have nice things, trolls).
But thankfully, some vestiges of Ridley’s hardcore training are still available — on the actress’ official Facebook page, where you can watch video supercuts of her intense workouts, and in the archives of the internet, where writers at sites like Men’s Fitness were awe-inspired by gym sessions that included “air squats, bent-over rows, box jumps, TRX work, and bench presses (among other things).”
Ridley definitely didn’t skimp on the sweaty work that helped make her look like such a badass athlete onscreen — and that’s before we even get to the part where Ridley also had to get handy with a lightsaber, an arduous process the actress discussed in a behind-the-scenes extra from the movie’s Blu-Ray (via The Mary Sue.) Learning to wield the deadly energy blade required three months of sword combat training, but also daily workouts of whatever muscles you use to keep your mouth shut — because the fact that her character ever picks up the Jedi weapon at all was one of the film’s best-kept secrets. Training so intense you can’t even talk about it? That’s hardcore.
Emily Browning wasn’t alone when it came to getting her butt kicked in the gym as she and her Sucker Punch co-stars prepared to star in Zack Snyder’s action-packed fantasy in 2011. According to a report from the AAP (via the Sydney Morning Herald), the actresses’ training routine as an all-day affair, beginning with “4.5 hours of martial arts and empty-hand weapons training each morning under the tutelage of stunt co-ordinator Damon Caro, who prepared Gerard Butler and David Wenham for Snyder’s Ancient Greek epic 300 and Matt Damon in the Bourne films.” And after lunch? “[Ex]-Navy Seals tortured the actresses with weight training, body-weight pull ups, pulling tires and other primitive forms of exercise.”
Browning had the farthest to go in order to transform her body and acquire the combat skills to make herself believable as a warrior, and even her co-stars weren’t quite sure she could do it. Jena Malone described her doubts, saying, “I remember the first day I met her I was like ‘Really? This little thing?’ but she has incredible will power and was willing to go the distance.”
The actress can be seen on a behind-the-scenes featurette looking askance at a set of weights, but that same video also shows her lifting it all, and then some. Of her experience, the actress said, “Learning to fight… was the most fun I’ve ever had on a film, I think. Learning to use a sword — it’s a pretty amazing feeling to be able to do that.”
After dropping 25 pounds from her already-slender frame to play a dying, poverty-stricken French prostitute in Les Miserables, Anne Hathaway was no stranger to transforming her body for a role — but it takes more than a starvation diet to get into the kind of shape that makes a skin-tight leather cat-suit into a flattering, functional wardrobe option. And when it came to playing Selina “Catwoman” Kyle in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, Hathaway had to hold her own onscreen against the famously intense (and seriously ripped) Christian Bale, which meant no skimping on time at the gym.
In an interview with Cinema Blend, Hathaway described how her trainers used combat choreography and muscle memory to completely change the way she moved, saying, “They’ve given me a martial arts exercise that I have to do all the time to teach me grace and proper stance and fluid movement. It looks so gentle, but when you’re actually doing fight choreography it’s ‘Oh my gosh, that’s actually a block. Oh, I’m hitting somebody’s throat right now.'”
According to Shape, Hathaway’s pre-Catwoman program also included a highly regimented, near-vegan diet that had her eating mindfully but constantly, with meals every two hours. And the actress found a good way to make sure she didn’t skip workouts: a hardcore fitness squad in the form of her stunt doubles. Hathaway gushed, “We’ve been working out together and it’s really inspiring to see a girl work out tougher than the boys.”
For Rebecca Ferguson, preparing for her star turn in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was an almost-impossible mission unto itself: to get in butt-kicking, gun-slinging, opera-rooftop-rappelling shape in just six weeks before shooting began.
In an interview with Lifescript, Ferguson’s trainer Sam Eastwood described training the actress six hours a day, six days a week, in the month and a half before the film began principal photography. And considering who her fitspiration was, Ferguson’s goals weren’t exactly easy to attain. “She had to be strong and she had to be able to fight for 10 minutes and go at it again and again and again,” Eastwood said. “Rebecca had to be tough and as strong as Tom Cruise but still have a long, lean, muscle-toned body.”
As for Ferguson, she says that everyone involved in the movie was more or less conspiring to make sure she never missed a workout, from the nutritionist who planned her meals to the chauffeur who picked her up at the airport for her first day on set. “I arrived at Heathrow airport, and the driver took me directly to the gym,” she told Shape. But now that it’s over, says Ferguson, she actually misses the super-strict diet and training regimen she endured to make Mission Impossible a reality. “I’ve actually never felt so pure as I felt during this filming.”
After cutting her teeth as a backup dancer for Madonna, Sofia Boutella was no stranger to working hard and getting sweaty — but she took it to a whole new level when she was cast as the amputee assassin Gazelle in the 2015 action film Kingsman. As the henchwoman to Samuel L. Jackson’s deranged villain, Boutella’s character and her bladed prosthetic limbs (added after the fact with CGI) were serious business that required serious time in the gym to perfect.
In an interview with Coach, Boutella explained her approach to leg day, saying, “The leg work I do is about performing one movement over and over again for long enough until the muscle goes numb — that’s when I know it’s working. It takes me around half an hour so I put on some music and repeat the exercise until I can’t feel myself doing it any more. It’s hardcore, but it’s worth it. The feeling of being able to kick with greater strength each day is empowering.”
Boutella also had to learn a new skill set in order to pull off Gazelle’s extensive fight scenes — which also took some getting used to, although not in the way you might think. “I trained taekwondo every day for three months in preparation for the part, although I already had the flexibility and movements down from dancing,” she said. “I just found it pretty strange to end a routine by punching someone in the face!”
The dedication is real
Despite Hollywood’s reputation for embellishment and subterfuge, there’s nothing fake about the effort these actresses put in to prepare for these physically demanding roles. So the next time you’re watching a superhero movie, or an on-screen dance-off, be sure to take a moment to appreciate all the hard work that went into it before the cameras ever started rolling.