Modern screen heroes come in many guises, but whether a leading man is cast as a mathematician, a surgeon or a scientist, the likelihood is that, once the shirt comes off, he will be equipped with both a firm abdomen and bulbous biceps.
A new appetite for leading men who, whether or not they are playing professional athletes, appear to spend half the week in the gym is now concerning even established actors. Last week Outlander star Tom Brittney complained about the emphasis on achieving a “built” body before auditions. British drama schools are also tackling the pressure on students to conform to a muscular type.
“It is real and prevalent, and we are very aware,” said Vanessa Ewan, a senior lecturer in movement at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.
Speaking to Radio Times, Brittney admitted some of his roles were now dependent on a strict gym regimen and diet. “It’s tough. And I would hope the industry pulls back from that,” the actor said. Last summer the comic Noel Fielding also confessed he got more work when he looked thinner. Hard luck on a host of Bake Off.
Such sentiments were echoed this weekend by a group of male acting students who fear, like Brittney, that appearing in peak condition is now part of their job.
“Of course there is a responsibility to look after ourselves as we train,” said Russell Scott-Dickson, 21, a Belfast-born student at Arts Educational Schools in London. “But there is a pressure to look that bit leaner, because it is going to help. And agents say to us that our image is the most important part of the package. We all deal with it differently, but it can obviously lead to problems like body dysmorphia or eating illnesses.”
The fad for “bulk and muscle” that trainee actors and tutors identify is the latest in a succession of key screen looks. In the 1950s, bare-chested stars such as Johnny Weissmuller of the Tarzan films, or Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity, were broad rather than toned. They were replaced in the 1960s by the clean-cut, preppy looks of Robert Redford and Paul Newman, while in Britain during the late 1980s what really counted was having the undernourished, rarefied outline of a Rupert Everett or a Julian Sands.
The new age of brawn has been ushered in by Aidan Turner’s Poldark, Idris Elba’s Luther and Richard Madden’s Bodyguard. Even the languid and cerebral Holmes in the BBC’s Sherlock, as played by Benedict Cumberbatch, annoyed some viewers with his unfeasibly developed upper arms.