There's a moment in "Pompeii" when Kit Harington's gladiator emerges into the arena in a cloud of dust, the music swelling as his body becomes visible through the haze. It's a dramatic moment, a hero's introduction, and yet the first thought that popped into my head was, "Damn, he's been working out."
As Logan Hill writes in Men's Journal, that's no accident: Today's male stars take on extensive physical training and dietary restrictions in order to get the perfect-looking (as distinct from actually perfect) body. "If I wasn't playing some young hero who can swing a sword, I wouldn't care what my upper body looked like," Harington, best known as "Game of Thrones'" Jon Snow, told Hill. "Playing these hard warriors, it would be a mistake to not look muscle-y." (One suspects the assistance of, if not some discreet CGI, at least some carefully placed charcoal smudges to enhance Harington's abdominal definition.)
Among other tricks of the trade, actors drop to the ground for a quick set of push-ups to get the blood flowing to their muscles just before the cameras roll, and spend the days before a nude scene or fight sequence dropping their body fat to dangerously low levels. (Matt Damon famously lost 40 pounds without a trainer for 1996's "Courage Under Fire," and nearly caused permanent heart damage; Jared Leto packed on nearly 70 for 2007's "Chapter 27" and developed gout.)
It's a fascinating read, especially for details like how for "Oldboy" Josh Brolin put on 28 pounds in 10 days and lost 22 of them in three by taking saline pills to gain water weight, using methods that weren't available to say, Robert DeNiro when he shot "Raging Bull." And it reveals the extent to which the appearance of fitness, like the coveted inguinal crease -- "the twin ligaments hovering above the hips that point toward a man's junk" -- takes precedence over the real thing. (You wonder how Burt Lancaster, a natural athlete who was bulky but by no means "cut," would fair in today's climate.) There's a class and power divide as well: Actors can afford the service of a full-time trainer, sometimes for as long as year, to get them into shape for a part. Their stand-ins and stunt men, by contrast, are more likely to resort to steroids and human growth hormone, whose side effects can be damaging and even fatal.
This is nothing new for actresses, of course; trainer Harley Pasternak says he "practically lived with" Halle Berry for four years. But there's no hint of men undergoing the surgical procedures or Botox injections that even middle-aged women use to keep themselves marketable; you can liken the one to the other, as Hill does, but the analogy only goes so far. It's interesting, in fact, that the touchstone for the cinematically ideal physique is Brad Pitt's sinewy frame in "Fight Club," which was shot when the actor was in his mid-30s. That same scrawny look doesn't look quite as good on Pitt now he's hit 50, but he, at least, can afford to let himself go a bit.