A Look at How We Talk About Actors vs. Actresses Losing Weight for Roles

Nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Billie Holiday, Andra Day's "extreme" weight loss for the role made headlines.

By Tierney Bricker Apr 21, 2021 4:27 PMTags
Watch: Happy Birthday, Billie Holiday: E! News Rewind

When it came to Joker, there wasn't much to laugh about.

While many were focused on the 2019 film's controversy and conversation about gun violence and safety, there was also another somewhat alarming Hollywood trend highlighted in the press surrounding Joker's release that didn't get as much attention as it should: The coverage of Joaquin Phoenix's 52-pound weight loss to play Arthur Fleck, the sad sack comedian who will eventually become Batman's ultimate foe. 

Headline after headline (hey, including one from us) documented and dissected the actor's extreme method of dropping the weight in order to inhabit the role, one that earned Phoenix an eight-minute standing ovation after the film's world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, some of the best reviews of his career, and, of course, the Oscar that made it all worth it.

Now, two years later, Andra Day is nominated for her first Academy Award at the 2021 Oscars for her portrayal of the iconic titular jazz singer in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. But, once again, much of the coverage surrounding the Golden Globe winner's performance is about the "extreme" diet she adopted to lose 40 pounds for the role

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(Before we go any further and delve into sensitive subject matter, if you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237.)

While both Phoenix and Day's respective interviews on the weight loss for their acclaimed performances made headlines, there is a stark difference in how critics discussed their transformations.

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"Almost inhumanly gaunt, skin pulled tightly over the bony ridges of his spine and ribcage, Phoenix offers a theatricality more alien, and more accidental, than the character usually possesses," The A.V. Club's reviewer explained of Phoenix's take on the iconic villain.

"The actor's physicality here is something to behold," a critic for the NY Post noted, before adding, "It's never quite clear why Arthur's so emaciated, but the way he contorts his spindly frame, and occasionally stretches it out into a joyful, Kabuki-esque dance, is mesmerizing."

When it comes to Day's performance, however, most critics made mention of how the singer, making her feature film debut, wholly embodies the troubled, heroine-addicted Holiday. They just do it in far less grandiose ways, unconsciously reiterating the way in which women are supposed to look onscreen: thin. 

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"She's not caked in makeup or prosthetics, and her character's rasp sounds like she was born with it" the Post's critic wrote. "Day's Billie is frail, but powerful, and her singing voice melts you."

The Associated Press' reviewer, meanwhile, stated, "Day's body is angular and lean and seemingly always prepared for blows to rain down, a piece of gum and a cigarette ever-present in her mouth. But she is also liable to punch back and rip into anyone crossing her."

Just as critics were clearly mesmerized by Phoenix's emaciated frame and the impact it had on his performance, the 46-year-old was equally as captivated by his weight loss' impact on his own life and psyche.


"Once you reach the target weight, everything changes," the Oscar nominee told The Associated Press. "Like so much of what's difficult is waking up every day and being obsessed over like 0.3 pounds. Right? And you really develop, like, a disorder."

Key word there: disorder. 

"But I think the interesting thing for me is what I had expected and anticipated with the weight loss was these feelings of dissatisfaction, hunger, a certain kind of vulnerability and a weakness," he continued. "But what I didn't anticipate was this feeling of kind of fluidity that I felt physically. I felt like I could move my body in ways that I hadn't been able to before."

Phoenix also talked about his weight loss during a banter-filled (well, as much as Phoenix can banter) chat with Jimmy Kimmel on his late-night talk show, saying there was " something very empowering" about the experience.

"In the beginning, you're exhausted," he explained. "You look at a flight of stairs and it takes like 30 seconds. You have to talk yourself into it and say, 'I can do this, I know I can do this.'" But then "once you reach your target weight, I don't know what happens, it's incredible. You start to feel energized and excited.'"

He added he didn't socialize with anyone or watch TV as a way to avoid commercials featuring advertisements for food. 

Can you imagine if an actress were to discuss losing weight for a role in the same way? If it did happen, it wouldn't be with Kimmel; she'd be seated across from Oprah Winfrey.

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Throughout the interview, Kimmel makes small jokes, and it's a bit startling to hear extreme weight loss and talk of disordered eating feeling liberating receive laughs from the audience. Especially when you look at the stats and see anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, according to a 2011 study, with the South Carolina Department of Mental Health reporting 8 million people in the U.S suffer from disordered eating—7 million of them being women. 

But Phoenix is far from the first actor to use his extreme (and arguably dangerous) weight loss as talk show fodder and in-depth profile morsels for the media and readers to chew on. 

There's a tendency in Hollywood to reward male actors with trophies for their extreme methods, ones that are talked about constantly and praised during their awards season campaigning as they show an actors' dedication and commitment to their craft.

In 2013, both Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto earned Oscars for their celebrated turns in Dallas Buyers Club, , the real-life story of a Texan (McConaughey) dealing with AIDS in the 1980s by smuggling alternative drug treatments into the U.S. from Mexico. With each playing characters suffering with AIDS, both McConaughey and Leto lost startling amounts of weight. 

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Leto dropped about 30 pounds to play Rayon, a role that would win him the Best Supporting Actor statue at almost every major awards ceremony.

"I got down to 116 or something," Leto told E! News at the time, explaining, "I just basically didn't eat. I ate very little."

He stressed that such extremes felt necessary for the role, saying, "I had done similar things with weight, but this was different...I think the role demanded that commitment…It was about how does that effect how I walk, how I talked, who I am, how I feel. You know, you feel very fragile and delicate and unsafe."

But his co-star lost even more weight, with McConaughey revealing he dropped almost 50 pounds for the role that would lead to the McConaissance. 

"The dieting was pretty hard-core. I was losing 7 pounds every week," McConaughey told the Daily Mail of getting down to 143 pounds. "I'd have a Diet Coke, two egg whites in the morning, a piece of chicken, then another Diet Coke...that was rough."

The Magic Mike star was also working out, telling HitFix, "I'm doing cardio but I'll tell you what, the more I've learned is—and I think it comes with age too—is it's 90 percent diet. It's 90 percent amount and then what you're eating because right now I'm not losing any more weight if I burn 1,500 calories, two hours of cardio in an afternoon, or if I don't. It doesn't matter. It's a matter of how much I eat or how little I eat." 

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A constant refrain from the actors shedding serious weight for these serious roles is that it's necessary for the story, with their directors often encouraging the method practice. (Joker director Todd Phillips, for instance, reportedly wrote in production notes that he wanted Phoenix to look "hungry and unhealthy.")

For 2016's SilenceMartin Scorsese directed his leading men Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, both playing Jesuit priests traveling for two years in the 17th century, to look like two men who have been on an arduous journey. Driver would end up losing almost 50 pounds, while Garfield dropped 40 pounds in their hunger to work for the legendary director. 

"It was great in retrospect, and even at the time," Driver told W Magazine. "It was like a physical thing that I can control, whereas obviously, in acting, you can't control anything, but you can control your physicality, and, you know, that's a thing you can focus on, because all the other elements are beyond your control."

Celebrity Weight Loss

The Star Wars actor then added production eventually brought in a coach to help the two stars "control" their hunger more.

"It's not fun," Garfield told E! News at the time. "But ultimately [it's] very very satisfying and fulfilling. You learn a lot of information from emptying out." He added he wanted audiences to be shocked by their emaciated frames, explaining, "I think it has to be. It's the truth of what these guys would have gone through."

In 2014, Jake Gyllenhaal lost 30 pounds for his applauded turn as a creepy photo-journalist in Nightcrawler.

Rather than work with medical professionals, the actor decided to just stop eating.

"I would try to eat as few calories as possible. I knew if I was hungry that I was in the right spot," he explained to Variety. "Physically, it showed itself, but chemically and mentally, I think it was even a more fascinating journey. It became a struggle for me."

He'd also run the 15-mile distance from his house to the set, with co-star Riz Ahmed telling The Canadian Press, "He'd have a bowl of luxury chewing (gum) and they were, like, really elaborately flavored, to trick his brain into thinking he was having a meal. So he was on his exercise bike having chewing gum and, like, almond tea with one calorie."

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But no actor has lost (and gained) weight for roles more jarringly than Christian Bale, the king of physically transforming himself for films.

Bale's most extreme transformation came in 2004's "The Machinist, with the actor losing more than 60 pounds to play an insomniac in the psychological thriller. At his lowest, Bale was just 122 pounds.

"It's an amazing experience doing that," he told The Guardian. "When you're so skinny that you can hardly walk up a flight of stairs...you're, like, this being of pure thought. It's like you've abandoned your body."

His diet was made up of vitamins, a single apple and a can of tuna a day, , meals that were also meant to fuel his cardio sessions.

"I was intrigued by a perverse nature of mine just to see if I can go beyond what I've been told is actually safe and OK, and see if I could push the limits," Bale explained. 

For a majority of these actors, the weight loss served almost as an experiment, with most using words like "fascinating" or "satisfying" when reflecting in interviews. That's why it's so startling to compare their experiences to those of their female counterparts who discussed how losing weight for work impacted them, often in terrifyingly negative ways

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"I did some pretty extreme things for the character," Day, 36, confessed to W Magazine in February. "There was the drastic weight loss—I wanted to have a body that looked like that period in time."

To achieve that shape, the Grammy winner admitted, required  some pretty unhealthy practices. "Starving myself made me very weak on set and slowed me down in a way that really helped with the scenes with heroin," she told W. "Then I started smoking cigarettes; it made me feel like Billie. I'm very fast, and she's like molasses. Smoking helped to drop me into those dark places."

She also elaborated on the weight loss, noting, "I was originally 163 when I started. I got down to 124. I don't necessarily recommend but to me, I didn't want my body to look like a gym body of 2020 or 2019 at the time. For me, it was important having a period body."

Andra Day Reveals the "Heartache" and "Trauma" She Channeled to Play Billie Holiday

For Black Swan, stars Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis also took on intense diets and training regimes to play ballerinas and both women reflected on the psychological impact it had on them. 

"I could see why this industry is so f--ked up, because...I would literally look at myself in the mirror and I was like: 'Oh my God! I had no shape, no boobs, no a--,'" Kunis told the Daily Mail. "All you saw was the bone. I was like, 'This looks gross.'"

She would later reveal to Howard Stern she dropped to 95 pounds by eating under 1,200 calories and smoking cigarettes: "I don't advocate this at all. It was awful."

Portman, who earned an Oscar for her turn in the film, admitted to EW of her 20-pound weight loss, "There were some nights I thought I literally was going to die." 

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She revealed to the Daily Mail she was "barely eating" and working out 16 hours a day. 

"It was the first time I understood how you could get so wrapped up in a role that it could sort of take you down," she told EW.

For some actresses, losing weight for a role can trigger and unearth previous disordered eating issues. 

Not long after revealing she had suffered from an eating disorder, Lily Collins took on the role of an anorexic girl in 2017's To the Bone and admitted to being "terrified" of the possible impact the movie could have on her.

"Although I was in recovery for several years before the movie, preparing for the film allowed me to gather facts about eating disorders from professionals," she told Shape magazine. "It was a new form of recovery for me. I got to experience it as my character, Ellen, but also as Lily. I was terrified that doing the movie would take me backward, but I had to remind myself that they hired me to tell a story, not to be a certain weight. In the end, it was a gift to be able to step back into shoes I had once worn but from a more mature place."

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But she revealed that her skeletal frame didn't alarm everyone, and that she even received compliments from people who were unaware she had dropped weight for a film. 

"I was leaving my apartment one day and someone I've known for a long time, my mom's age, said to me, 'Oh, wow, look at you!'" the actress told The Edit. "I tried to explain [I had lost weight for a role] and she goes, 'No! I want to know what you're doing, you look great!' I got into the car with my mom and said, 'That is why the problem exists.'"

Another actress who has opened up about her struggles with an eating disorder is Zoe Kravitz, the Big Little Lies star admitting to Nylon that part of her motivation for taking on her role as an anorexic young woman in 2014's The Road Within was her own experience.

"I struggled with an eating disorder in high school and into my early 20s," she explained. "That's part of what actually attracted me to the role; I think it's really important to talk about body image and the struggles a lot of women have with food—especially in the entertainment industry. I related to her in a lot of ways."

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In a 2015 interview with Complex, the star revealed her struggles with anorexia and bulimia, which she called "awful diseases," began in high school, saying, "I think it was part of being a woman, and being surrounded by [fame]...I don't think it was about the fame, but I think it was definitely about being around that world, seeing that world. I felt pressured."

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But losing the weight for the role proved even more mentally challenging than Kravitz imagined. She revealed her parents getting "really scared" about the path she was taking, and she dealt with thyroid issues after filming due to malnourishment.

"It was f--ked up, man," she said of not being satisfied with her weight loss even when she was just 90 pounds. "You could see my rib cage. I was just trying to lose more weight for the film but I couldn't see: You're there. Stop. It was scary."

In a 2018 interview with Sunday Life, she said, "It's still a journey for me. My body is something I'm conscious of."

But the star knows the importance of speaking out about her struggles. 

"I talk about it publicly," she explained, "because I think it's really important for young women and men to know you're not the only one going through this."

(This story was originally posted on Oct. 8, 2019 at 4:01 p.m. PST)

If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237.