A how-to of staying in shape on set

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Andrey Ivchenko, photo by John Hong

As the brilliant Toni Sorenson once said, “If it was easy, the reward at the end would mean nothing.” This statement comes from a woman, mother, and author, who grew up in an orphanage and on the streets and chose a path to victory.

In the entertainment business, victory means booking a new role in a television series, feature film, producing a project you’re passionate about, selling a script you wrote or getting it optioned and made. Most people don’t realize though how big of a part fitness plays into those, especially with actors.

Hollywood, the entertainment capital of the world, has people from all over the world, near and far, looking to pursue their dreams and to make those dreams turn into a reality. Staying in shape while in pursuit of those dreams is not only important for one’s physical health, but their mental health as well. With rejection being one of the biggest struggles someone just moving to Hollywood will have to deal with, it’s very important to always have a healthy outlet for the ups and downs you will face on your journey.

Being an actor in Hollywood isn’t for people with thin skin. It tends to focus so heavily on what its idea of the “perfect image” is as we see daily from network TV shows, to commercials, to magazines, to models on billboards, you get the idea and know what I’m talking about. This business in particular holds people’s image to a much higher standard than one would face living anywhere else in the world. With that being said, the pressures that come with that responsibility are extremely high especially for an actor that will be seen on the silver or big screen.

The reason I mentioned the above is because throughout my experience of being in Hollywood, being a big guy, everyone is constantly judging. When I began this journey, I got into stunts since it seemed like a natural fit – I’m a big guy, 6 foot 3, built, with an accent, and told I could play bad guys all day because I guess that’s the “tough guy” image I give off. Given that that’s the direction I decided to pursue, I had to make sure that my image lived up to the hype. I was in the gym for several hours a day, 6 days a week, eating 7-8 meals throughout the day that consisted of consuming approximately 5,000 calories a day. Believe it or not, eating that much every day and working out that much isn’t easy, even for the big guys that make it appear that way.

As I transitioned into the acting side of the business, I was often told I was “too big.” Too big? I was just told for years I need to be bigger and tougher looking to be the bad guy and now I needed to become less bulk and leaner because now I would be playing more leading man roles, not just henchman types, and needed to be able to be diversified that way if casting or producers saw fit. So, the process began again and now instead of going to the gym six days a week, I was going four days a week and cutting my calories to 3,000 a day. Having been an athlete my entire life since I was a child, serving in the military, and also having a master’s degree in Kinesiology, made finding the discipline to re-write my fitness programs and stick to them pretty easy for me, but they require a lot of discipline! I’d say having discipline when it comes to fitness is one of the biggest skills one can achieve. Setting goals, making plans, and sticking to them. No one ever said looking “Hollywood” good was going to be easy! However, at the end of the day making all of those challenges and sacrifices can be very rewarding mentally as well as physically.

The entertainment business as a whole has put an emphasis on fitness since it was established. From physical comedy actors like Charlie Chaplin, to Steve McQueen, Ronald, Reagan, to action heroes like Sylvester Stallone, Clint Eastwood, and Dwayne Johnson. In addition, there are also actors who perform their own stunts like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible, and Jackie Chan. Staying in shape for these guys is essential to their careers. For example, most people don’t realize what Hugh Jackman went through to achieve his transformation to become Wolverine. His training consisted of two or more hours in the gym six days a week and consuming 5,000-6,000 calories a day to gain all that muscle and then had to transition into a much lower calorie diet to lose all the water weight and increase his cardio, so he could get shredded for the role.

Working on Television shows like Nikita,XIII: The Series, and Warehouse 13, I was grateful that I was introduced to martial arts and gun skills at a young age because it really made it an authentic look for the characters I played on those shows. As well as feature films I’ve worked on like Freezerand Way of The Westthat were both very physical and challenging as well but required a lot of those trained skills that I already had.

In regards to stunt work, it’s not just about looking the part, but being able to execute the part. Doing stunts is tiresome work and requires extremely long hours and repeated choreography and actual physical fighting to get it right. Sometimes they change the whole thing altogether and you have to relearn from scratch all over again but staying focused mentally and physically is the key. You have to be really physically and mentally ready to keep up, stay alert, and be on point for every take and also take direction correctly from the stunt coordinator and the director. There are a lot of moving parts while shooting an action scene so it’s very important that it always be executed properly every time. I have worked through injury, blood, sweat, tears, and I can honestly say it was all worth the challenge in the end. Good work is applauded and recognized in the entertainment business and word of mouth about people can spread very quickly and, in some cases, can even lead you to your next job if you remain humble, keep the right mindset, and positive attitude which is the key to success in this business.

When I booked the feature film Freezer, I was eating about 3,000-4,000 calories a day to get bigger because the director wanted me to look big and intimidating in comparison to Dylan McDermott. And when I booked xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, Vin Diesel and the director, DJ Caruso, also wanted my character ‘Red Erik’ to appear really big and tough, but in some of these scenes my character was going up and down flights of stairs, so I made sure to really increase my cardio training, so I wouldn’t fatigue while shooting those scenes over and over. In addition, it required me to learn motorcycle stunt training which I hadn’t done since I was about sixteen years old. But I’d say because of my fitness level and ability it allowed me to re-learn quickly and efficiently. At the end of the day the stunts they decided to go with were so extreme they hired a stunt double for those that you see in the film, but I was still required to go through the training as if I were the one doing the stunts myself as well. Had I not been fit enough to be up to the task of creating the character vision they had and physically doing the stunts they wanted in those scenes, I don’t know if I would have booked the role at the end of the day.

Fitness, especially today, is a constantly growing trillion-dollar business that’s probably more trendy and popular now than it’s ever been before. With social media and all the pressures of having to post images and videos of your personal and professional life constantly, you frequently feel vulnerable to the pressures that Hollywood gives to always look your best. Regardless though of what the trends are, one thing always remains true which is that being healthy is essential so implement it into your everyday life regardless of your schedule or profession, and also make sure you get enough hours of sleep a night which is a key element that’s more important than most people realize. Resting the body keeps a healthy mind and allows the body to recover. Set your goals, make time for yourself and watch how many doors achieving those goals will provide in your life, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Again, as Toni Sorenson once said, “If was easy, the reward at the end would mean nothing.”

 

Written by Andrey Ivchenko

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