Bummed out about Ryan Braun? Let down by Lance Armstrong? Not to worry. The next time your favorite athlete flunks a performance-enhancing drug test, laments the tragic loss of his unborn twin or calls for a thorough investigation of a nefarious masseuse, try this simple trick.
Pretend you're watching a movie.
Hollywood is juicing. Like, at glow-in-the-dark levels. According to a feature story in this month's Men's Journal, average physiques for male actors are out. Big biceps, bulging pecs and ripped inguinal creases -- the V-shaped ligaments above the hips, and thanks to the magazine for explaining a natural phenomenon that, as a sportswriter, I've never actually seen in the mirror -- are in. And to get the buff, athletic look needed to save the world in Captain America or swing a broadsword in Game of Thrones, some actors are boosting their training regimens with the same drugs used by actual athletes:
… there is an easier way to go from flabby wimp to sinewy screen predator. Sometimes a superhero's journey begins with the needle prick of a syringe full of human growth hormone (HGH), testosterone, or steroids …
Of course, none of this is exactly new. In a Hollywood Reporter article published last year, trainer-to-the-stars Happy Hill went Full Canseco, estimating that 20 percent of actors use PEDs. Mickey Rourke says he used steroids for his role in The Wrestler. Charlie Sheen told Sports Illustrated that he did the same before appearing in Major League. (Talk about method acting.) In 2007, Sylvester Stallone was caught bringing 48 vials of HGH into Australia; a year later, Tyler Perry and 50 Cent were among the celebrities who allegedly ordered PEDs from doctors and pharmacies in upstate New York. Nick Nolte and the late Dixie Carter -- no, really -- have praised the anti-aging properties of HGH, while former Saved by the Bell star Dustin Diamond once accused co-star Mark-Paul Gosselaar -- no, really -- of using steroids.
Three years ago, I asked BALCO mastermind Victor Conte about the striking physical transformations of actors such as Chris Evans (Captain America) and Chris Hemsworth (Thor), both of whom went from thin to thick while crediting nothing more than diet and exercise. Kind of like Barry Bonds.
"[PED use is happening in] more than just sports," Conte told me. "Rappers are doing this. They're all ripping their shirts off with six-pack abs. In mainstream movies and action hero type stuff, it's rampant.
"I'll see photos of these guys. You can tell in a heartbeat if they're using. Guys just don't all of a sudden put on 25 pounds of muscle in two months for a movie role. And it's not going to happen just from growth hormone. You're using testosterone or some derivative of an anabolic steroid."
That said, there's a difference between doping for show business and doping for, well, The Show.
Let's try a thought exercise. Imagine this: a top performer signs on with a storied franchise based in a major metropolis. He needs to be strong. Fit. Durable. Because the pressure to produce is immense. Results are everything. Big money is on the line. To meet and exceed expectations, our performer trains diligently, building and sculpting his physique -- and maybe, allegedly, reaches for some pharmacological help.
And no, I'm not talking about Alex Rodriguez.
A few years ago, Tom Hardy was cast as the villain Bane in "The Dark Knight Rises." This dude. Trapezoid muscles flaring like the head of a 'roid-raging cobra. A baddie who can believably beat down ol' Batman himself in a fistfight. After bulking up for the role, Men's Journal reports, Hardy was asked if he used performance-enhancing drugs.
"No, I took Smarties," he said. "What do you f---king think?"
What happened after Hardy's anabolic semi-admission? Zilch. No Congressional hearings. No 60 Minutes tell-all report. No mad scramble from the Warner Bros. Studios Department of Investigations. No legal slap-fighting, public relations posturing, scorched-Earth campaign of leaks and counter-leaks. No one invoking role models and asking but what about the children? Nobody peeing in a cup and then throwing the guy who has to hold said cup under the bus, even though said guy's job already requires collecting pee in a cup, so really, does anyone need to pile on?
To the contrary, Hardy's film came out as planned. Made a bundle. If audiences had a problem with the actor's turn as Bane, it was only because his much-publicized vocal redub made Batman's otherwise fearsome face-smashing nemesis sound like a jaunty mashup of Sean Connery and Zazu from The Lion King. Moviegoers cared that Hardy looked the part, but they didn't feel angry and betrayed over what it allegedly took to get that look.
Frankly, I'm starting to think they have the right idea.
Among film fans, Pumping Iron was A-OK. The epochal Dutch-Dillon anabolic handshake from Predator is remembered fondly, not with shame. Following his juiced-up performance as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, Rourke wasn't suspended from moviemaking for 50 weeks. He was nominated for an Oscar. When John Rambo emerges from a
vat of baby oil Vietnamese river cradling a rocket launcher that's smaller than his biceps, well, that's entertainment! Nobody gets bent, even though there are perfectly good reasons to do so. Even though those perfectly good reasons are exactly the same as the ones in sports.
Consider competition. That's why we hate sports PED use, right? Because drugs are unfair. Because they give users an edge over non-users, and sophisticated dopers an advantage over got-these-pills-from-a-guy-in-Guadalajara dabblers. Well, guess what: Hollywood is no different, and hardly immune to the laws of supply and demand. Just as there are more aspiring cleanup hitters than Major League Baseball roster spots, there are more unusually handsome Los Angeles-area baristas than film-franchise-worthy Marvel superheroes. (Sorry, Daredevil.) A buff body can be the difference between the warning track and the upper deck -- or between getting noticed by a casting director or moving back to Nebraska. Here's Men's Journal:
… Michael B. Jordan, who got his break as The Wire's sensitive kid Wallace and raised his profile in last year's Fruitvale Station, knows he needs to be able to bulk up on command if he wants to break into the A-list. "You've gotta be ready to take off your shirt," he says, and he will as the Human Torch in next year's Fantastic Four movie. "They want to blow you up and put you in a superhero action film. Being fit is so important … The bar has been raised"
… Gunnar Peterson, the trainer who for decades has maintained the physiques of Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and others, agrees. "For male action heroes," he says, "it's an arms race now" …
Once upon a time in Hollywood, male leads weren't expected to have the veiny musculature and minimal body fat percentage of Olympic decathletes. No longer. James Bond has gone from Connery to Daniel Craig; Batman from Michael Keaton to Christian Bale. Comic book films reign supreme. So do comic book physiques. Peterson has a message for young actors who think they can make it on good looks and screen talent. Great. Now take off your shirt. Oh. Well, maybe you can be the friend. Or do an indie film. Moreover, actors often have as little as eight weeks to get in shape for a role. And that time is money. As Men's Journal notes, "an out-of-shape actor can force a director to recast roles, reshoot scenes, or use [computer-generated] effects, often at great expense." Given that in shape can mean adding 15-20 pounds of lean muscle, is it any wonder that some actors reach for a syringe?
A few years ago, actor Jeremy Jackson auditioned for the lead role in a Conan the Barbarian remake. Hulking Game of Thrones actor Jason Momoa landed the part. According to Jackson, filmmakers told him he was too small. Best-known for playing David Hasselhoff's teenage son on Baywatch, Jackson hoped to break in as an adult action star. He began taking a cocktail of PEDs -- including a drug normally reserved for pre-slaughter cattle -- and ultimately gained 40 pounds, garnering notice in tabloid magazines and on celebrity news websites.
"All of the sudden, Star Magazine is saying 'Jeremy Jackson, best beach body,'" he told me in 2011. "Or TMZ is going, 'holy crap.' When they catch me coming out of the water and take a picture, that's one step closer for me getting in a movie. That could be hundreds of thousands or even a million dollars. I don't know who wouldn't think about taking another cycle when that happens."
Is Jackson any different from a skinny minor league pitcher trying to earn a call-up by adding a few testosterone-infused miles per hour to his fastball? Not really. The Hollywood Reporter notes that older actors are using PEDs to prolong their windows of box office bankability, because while shirtless shots have become "de rigueur for tentpole campaigns," "six-pack abs are difficult to maintain after the age of 40." Meanwhile, Men's Journal reports that stuntmen use steroids as recovery drugs, a way to bounce back more quickly from "jumping off buildings, battling ninjas, or swinging a battle-ax at ogres all day -- or, worse, playing the ogre who gets bashed in 20 consecutive takes." For sports fans, all of this should sound familiar: it's Bonds hitting 73 home runs at age 36 with a BALCO assist, or former Denver Broncos tight end Nate Jackson admitting that he once injected HGH in an effort to heal a gruesome, career-threatening muscle tear.
Then there's the matter of role modeling. Sports fans don't just dislike athletes using PEDs -- they dislike the idea that those same athletes will influence their children to do the same, which everyone in the medical community agrees is a bad idea. Yet arguably, movie stars possess much greater cultural sway. Only don't take my word for it. Ask Harvard University psychiatry professor Emily Fox-Kales, an expert on body image and the author of Body Shots: Hollywood and the Culture of Eating Disorders.
"These images of perfection, whether you're a celebrity ballplayer or a celebrity blockbuster star, they present an image that's really impossible," she told me a few years ago. "I think the bigger danger is not to the movie stars themselves, but to the people who watch and follow them.
"[In movies, actors are] digitally morphed. The cinematography makes them look even bigger. They put oil all over their pecs like the guys in 300 so they're glistening. It's an ideal that the average male could not achieve normally, unless he does something dramatic to his body. That's how you get into steroids. That's how you get into a very interesting newish thing, "bigorexia," an actual diagnosis we give to people who have the same kind of distorted body image that someone who is anorexic does. It's like reverse anorexia. A guy might be very bulked up and huge, but he looks at himself in the mirror and sees this very scrawny, not big enough image."
By doping, actors are essentially cheating. Worse still, they're setting a lousy example for the kids, and the kids are the future, and now I yield the floor to my distinguished colleague from the great state of Virginia. Still, Arnold Schwarzenegger juiced his way from Pumping Iron to the original Conan to Terminator 2 to governor of California. Meanwhile, Lance Armstrong went from seven-time Tour de France winner to narrowly avoiding a federal indictment to groveling before Oprah. Sports and film fans have widely divergent standards when it comes to PEDs, and the more I mull it over, the more I wonder if moviegoers have it better. Smarter, even.
After all, in sports and Hollywood alike, we basically want to see the impossible. Warp-drive spaceships. Running backs who bounce back from catastrophic knee injuries in a matter of months. Giant kaiju fighting equally giant robots. Cyclists who not only survive scaling the Pyrenees, but dominate the ascent. Athletes who look like Greek gods. Actors who look like athletes. The difference, I think, is that film audiences are more realistic. They suspend their disbelief, knowing that super-heroic entertainment requires superhuman measures. A CGI effect here. A shot of Winstrol there. Moviegoers also ascribe morality to stories and characters, but seldom to actors themselves. The play's the thing. Sheen might be an off-screen train wreck, but he gets plenty of work.
Sports fans, on the other hand, are mostly moralists. They want to believe. They want athletes to be good performers and good people, and want the former to reflect the latter. Games themselves are soaked in this ethos; the play's the thing, but only when it's done the right way. Sports are a projection of the world as we'd like it to be, a fair and just playground where hard work and genetic gifts are appreciated and rewarded; steroids are offensive because they remind us of the world as it actually is, a place where good faith and a mouthful of Smarties are seldom enough. Maybe that's noble. Or maybe it's just misguided, and a surefire way to ruin the show.
For six months prior to shooting Man of Steel, actor Henry Cavill followed a demanding diet and fitness plan designed by Mark Twight, a Utah-based trainer who works with American Special Forces teams and sculpted the Spartans in the two 300 movies. At one point, Men's Journal reports, Man of Steel's producers contacted Twight, requesting a list of every supplement and substance he had Cavill ingesting. No steroids, the producers insisted. Nothing illegal. Our most American hero can't be suspected of doping. Or can he? Had Cavill been caught with an empty syringe and a bogus HGH prescription in the Fortress of Solitude's bathroom stall, I doubt it would have mattered. Filmgoers want to see Superman. Nothing more. It's easier that way. Sports fans should take the hint. The next time a flame-throwing relief pitcher gets busted for juicing, don't be disappointed that he isn't a real-life man of steel. Make believe that he's Charlie Sheen.