When Stephen Madsen emerges from the swimming pool in Muriel’s Wedding the Musical, the sight of his Olympic Games-ready body almost stops the show.
He’s so… perfect.
Madsen, who managed to make a splash fully clothed in Heathers and Rent, both at Hayes Theatre Company, and more recently as an expletive-spouting inmate in Sport for Jove’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, says he has been sculpting his body for the role of Russian swimmer Alexander Shkuratov for almost a year.
Classical acting manuals are conspicuously lacking in advice for actors who need to bulk up. Meisner on the perfect six-pack? Nothing. Stella Adler on optimal workout recovery times? Zip.
So in the interests of advancing the acting craft (no, really …), Audrey asked Stephen and fellow Sydney Theatre Company actor Matthew Backer (the hunky, shirtless Puck of Kip Williams’ 2016 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream) to share their behind-the-scenes bodybuilding tips.
Stephen, how did you prep your body for Muriel’s Wedding?
I knew when I was cast that I would have to look like an Olympic swimmer so I had the time to make diet and exercise adjustments. I ride my bike to and from STC every day and I go to the gym 5-6 times a week. I’m a vegetarian with a very fast metabolism so I have to eat a lot of food to increase my muscle mass (small portions, 5-6 times a day), beans, oats, nuts, lentils, brown rice and leafy greens. I take vegan protein supplements after workouts.
It’s been a focus for me in this production because I don’t get a lot of scene time to establish a character, so having that physicality as immediate information for the audience about who this person is feels important to me. Luckily, I’ve always been pretty fit, so I didn’t have to do a complete body overhaul.
Did you swim to get that Olympic swimmer shape?
I’ve been swimming when I can and I tailor my gym workout to target muscles that swimmers have – shoulders, back and chest for that triangular, V-shaped look. I’ve done plenty of internet research and talked to some of my more athletic friends.
Is it like being a body builder? Do you need to fast before a show?
I don’t fast because I need a ton of energy to get through an eight-show week. Bodybuilders can dehydrate before competitions but I need to drink water throughout the show to maintain my voice.
I try to cut down on sugars and processed foods but I still eat plenty of complex carbohydrates and healthy fats. I have an active lifestyle so I’m always doing a lot of cardio and the show itself is very physically challenging.
Do you pump up just before you go on?
I do push-ups and sit-ups as part of my warm up for the show and we have some free weights in our dressing room to pump up before we go on. You also rely on good lighting to boost the physical work you’ve done. There’s a vanity element to all of this but it really is part of the storytelling and it helps me to feel and move like an athlete.
That first reveal is very … slick. Is that body oil?
I have a spray bottle to make me look wet when I come out of the pool. It’s just water because I have a quick change into the wedding suit. I can’t do any body makeup or contouring because I have to protect my costumes from marks.
Would you consider putting on weight for a less-fit character?
For a good role, I’d definitely consider putting on weight. I’ve never been asked to before. If I had to gain a lot of weight I’d want to work with a nutritionist to make sure I was being healthy and safe. I’ve always admired Christian Bale’s body transformations for roles. Perhaps sometime in the future!
Matthew, how did you feel about getting your kit off in A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
When Kip [Williams] first suggested Puck should introduce the audience to the fairy world with a slow, menacing strip tease down to black stockings, sparkly hotpants and lipstick smeared nipples and mouth, I laughed!
But I didn’t really find it confronting because our take on Puck was one of someone who took pleasure in being watched. Investing in that heightened sexuality helped with getting my kit off each night.
I liked shocking the audience as I slowly stripped, eyeballing them all the way. It was actually pretty thrilling.
Did you do anything special to get in shape?
I always try to eat healthy especially when I’m in a show like our version of Midsummer as it involved so much running around. I also try to get to the gym as much as I can and hit the old protein shakes after every session.
Was lipstick the only makeup you used? Or was there body contouring?
No contouring or makeup. The amount of running we did in that show kept a nice sheen of sweat on us and lighting designer Damien Cooper gave me some helpfully focused down-lighting in the striptease to accentuate parts of my body. That’s always a big help.