Extreme body transformations have long been a draw to any film. From bulking up for a superhero role, to become sickly looking for a harrowing drama, there is something inherently interesting in watching a movie knowing the changes the actor has gone through. Although CGI seems to be increasingly relevant in an actor’s performance, body transformations will always retain their impressiveness when made in real life.
In both the case of actors ‘bulking up’ or ruining their bodies, there is an element of authenticity that is added to the film. In the case of superhero adaptations, with the latest example being David Harbour in ‘Hell Boy’, one has to consider the popularity these figures are gaining, not only as characters in a movie, but as somewhat of a symbol of strength. Actors who play superheroes, whether that might be fair or not, are held to higher standards than regular action stars. This is partly because they are seeking to embody larger than life ideals to which comic book fans have been devoted for years. People who have been engaged by these stories since childhood are going to be protective of these characters: seeing an actor making an actual change in their life to get closer to that portrayal is certainly going to be appreciated. In simpler terms, it might take away from the movie to know that Hell Boy is quite flabby in real life.
The lack of authenticity is felt in cases in which CGI or heavy costumes are used instead.
Another reason for preferring actual transformations over CGI is the weight it adds to the performance. Learning to feel powerful while training like a superhero, or degrading your body while preparing to play a troubled human being can help enhance the performance. A great example of a truly transformative role was Charlize Theron playing Aileen Wuornos in ‘Monster’. While makeup and fat suits, with the aid of CGI, could have achieved virtually the same look, two benefits were sparked by her transformation. Firstly, the audience, whether consciously or not, could appreciate the dedication the actress put in the film. Secondly, the actress was able to deliver a much more grounded performance, while respecting the role. The same could be said about Matthew McConaughey and Christian Bale in their dramatic weight losses respectively for ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ and ‘The Machinist’. If at its highest form acting is an exploration and representation of the human psyche, costumes might feel distracting to that purpose.
The lack of authenticity is felt in cases in which CGI or heavy costumes are used instead. In ‘The Dark Hour’, in which Gary Oldman played Winston Churchill, could had been more interesting had the main actor been the right built for the role. These extreme interventions, like the use of a fat suit, can feel forced and like the actor is just doing an impression, especially when of the person being played belongs to a grounded context. However, in movies like ‘300’, where the cast famously was ‘aided’ by CGI in their appearance, the performances are not hurt by the decision: that ultimately comes down the tone being intentionally close to that of a videogame.
Therefore, when the aim is to portray a character as authentically as possible, it is definitely worth an actual body transformation from the actor involved.