Fit for Duty

Photo Source: Stephen Seidel & Whitney M. Cole at Elevation Fitness
Is a surgeon who has spent thousands of hours studying his craft likely to operate with a dull scalpel? As an actor, your body is your tool. You sink time and money into honing your acting abilities. But that work can be shortchanged if your instrument is subpar. Even if your physique has little bearing on the roles you go up for, fitness is an essential component of your work life, whether it means doing a physical task take after take, performing eight shows a week on stage, or making your first impression on a casting director when you walk into an audition room.

"Training and eating well—or eating not well—those are the most obvious tools to become something better or sometimes something that isn't the ideal," says Whitney M. Cole (www.whitneymcole.com), a Pilates instructor and a personal trainer certified with the National Academy of Sports Medicine since 2004. "I've had guys that are jacked request to get leaner, lose muscle to play a character who's ill. It's all about that transformation."

Basics and Benefits

Chris Ciulla, a personal trainer certified with the American Council on Exercise for 12 years and an actor who also teaches business-of-acting workshops (www.actors2la.com), notes that the basic factors of a balanced fitness program are nutrition, cardiovascular work, weight training, and yoga or Pilates. He also suggests that massage or acupuncture can contribute to muscle maintenance, particularly in coming back from injuries.

Cole incorporates principles of Pilates, which focuses on strengthening and working from the core of the body, into her personal training. Los Angeles–based actor Stephen Seidel, executive producer and host of "Renegade Reporting" (www
.renegadereporting.com), has been working with Cole for more than a year to prepare his body for the variety of performance demands he encounters. In the play-turned–experimental film "A Body Without a Head," for example, "we all had to have our shirts off, and that's the last thing you want to be worrying about when you're on stage," Seidel says. "You want to be in the mind of the character, not worrying about your body."

Asked why fitness is important for a performer, Seidel rattles off a list: self-esteem, confidence, physique, breathing, willpower, persistence, self-discipline. "One of the things for an actor is your center; that's where a lot of your emotions reside," he says; the abdominal and core work Cole emphasizes is key for him.

Ciulla, whose fitness philosophy is "functionality first," identifies posture as an overlooked piece of the puzzle. "A lot of people concentrate too much on certain parts of the body. They'll develop compensations and then their posture gets out of whack; their shoulders are hunched forward or their spine becomes out of alignment, twisting left or right or forward," he explains. "If tension is caused by bad posture, that is going to inhibit an actor from maximizing their performance," be it a basic pratfall on a sitcom or on stage, or multiple takes of a sprint that can't be done by a stunt double because it involves a close-up.

Being in good physical condition can also make it easier to pick up a new skill in a hurry. Cole notes, "Someone who is flexible and agile can quickly learn dance steps, a fight scene, or any other physical movements a director plans or spontaneously conceives." Seidel says the work he has done with Cole will help him add a backflip to his repertoire. Caution is warranted, of course: Trying to pick up a new skill very quickly can cause injuries or create gaps in your skill set.

Ciulla, who's also a boxing trainer, agrees that being in shape can make learning new skills easier, but he adds that it's important to be realistic about your abilities. "Say you're a decent athlete and you need to portray a boxer. If you're a good athlete, in one day you can learn some techniques that you might be able to hold on to," he says. "Certain people who are good athletes, if it's going to be for show, they can learn that pretty quickly. But if they ask you in the room how many amateur bouts you've had, 'We want you to get in the ring, and we need to be able to see you spar,' then it might be better to be a little honest, with not only yourself but the producers."

Medium matters too. Ciulla points out TV's quick turnaround: "You kind of have to be very close to what they need right away." But with film "you can be molded," he says. "I had a buddy who was [in] 'Leatherheads.' He was in great shape, but he had to get into a little better shape; he had one month." Cole adds, "If you're on a shortened time window, obviously the best thing you can do is consult an expert."

Get Pumped

The most important consideration in a fitness program is your goals; this is paramount for Ciulla and Cole when they're customizing clients' plans. "It's personal training, and 'personal' is the reason," Cole quips. She starts with a phone call and asks each new client to fill out an extensive questionnaire, then has the client start a food log and set goals. She also asks for a picture to serve as inspiration: "Send me that picture of Brad Pitt" or whatever your ideal physique is.

Seidel says, "The food log was really important, just to really take notice and step back and be aware. I think the awareness is really key—what you're taking in and how you're changing and what you want." Writing your goals down, he says, "makes them much more concrete." "Then you can start a timeline," adds Cole. "It helps to set expectations." Trainer and client say the goal-setting and awareness extend to areas not strictly fitness-related.

Once goals are defined, a plan can be implemented. Naturally, Ciulla and Cole suggest working with a professional who can guide you safely and maximize your exercise time, if it's financially feasible. "If an actor is working on a sitcom four days a week, from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. sometimes, then how's one going to get two or three functional workouts into that schedule?" says Ciulla. "That's where we come in and we become really innovative in getting them to their goals." This may involve going to a set, assigning exercises to be done in manageable bits throughout the day, or suggesting hotel and travel workouts. "I develop 'On the Road Again' workouts for Stephen and other clients who will travel for a week or more and likely won't have access to a gym," says Cole.

But Cole and Ciulla agree it's beneficial to see a trainer even once or twice or irregularly. "Hire a trainer to learn a customized routine to do independently. Get a fresh routine as your budget permits," says Cole. "An ethical trainer will work with you on an ad hoc basis." Ciulla advises, "When you're going through your training session, don't just float through. Learn. Learn how to maximize your own workouts."

Aim for at least 30 minutes of activity a minimum of four days a week, says Ciulla. Cole suggests that actors apply their innate creativity to their fitness regimen, "using your own environment, using an outdoor environment like hills, bridges, rocks, sand, water. I love to do a surf 'n' turf workout; that's fun: You're in, you're out, you're in, you're out." Seidel adds, "We had one where we even just used the jungle gym for the day." Don't count out DVDs or video games either (see sidebar).

For motivation, look to music and friends. Seidel likes creating set lists for different routines, as well as working out with a companion, which helps defray costs and provides camaraderie plus gentle competition. Cole says the biggest incentive comes from the "happy hormones" (the endorphins released through exercise) and from seeing the results of your hard work.

Nutrient Rich

You can't leave nutrition out of this equation. Cole, also certified as a performance nutrition specialist with the International Sports Sciences Association, cites the familiar adage "Garbage in, garbage out." She supplies meal plans, grocery lists, recipes, and restaurant dining recommendations to clients (see Cole's smoothie recipe).

Cole, Seidel, and Ciulla say actors need to take responsibility for their food intake and make good choices. Craft services is one place to watch out for. "A Wal-Mart commercial I shot the other day, this craft guy was phenomenal," says Ciulla. "I'm a dark chocolate fan. It's my vice. He had mounds and mounds of it, and I had my three pieces, and then I had to remove myself from the area. You cannot stand near the craft services guy; before you blink you've already consumed 500 extra calories. The other problem is there's usually a lot of very simple carbohydrate things there. A lot of the breakfast bars and the chewy granola–type stuff is very high in simple sugars. You're not going to burn that off. The only time you should be consuming that kind of stuff is right after you work out."

Journey Into Night

Have enough to digest? Here's one thing more: sleep. "During sleep, your body recovers from the prior day and prepares itself for the next," says Cole. "Operating on less than seven hours a night will put you at a functional disadvantage on set or stage as well as in the gym." Sweet dreams!