How Tom Hopper Gained Over 20 Pounds of Muscle for ‘The Umbrella Academy’

Over the years, Tom Hopper has had a number of superhero scripts end up on his doorstep. It’s easy to see why: The British actor has an imposing frame—standing tall at 6’5”—not to mention biceps the size of softballs. You don’t need a heck of a lot of CGI to make Hopper look heroic—or any, really. You could just slap a shield on his chest. But for Hopper, the goal was to find a role that didn’t just give him a reason to pump iron and wear a superhero suit, but give him a complex story line with some drama to sink his teeth into. That opportunity finally came in the form of Luther Hargreeves, aka Number One, in Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy.

“I was really drawn to his origin story,” Hopper told Men’s Journal. “Here’s a guy who’s built like a gorilla, but underneath is a broken man. The world is on his shoulders, by his own doing, and he’s struggling with the responsibility.”

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Hopper is no stranger to physical roles, having starred in a number of hit action-driven series like Black Sails and Game Of Thrones. They primed him for large-scale stunts and fight sequences. It doesn’t hurt he also happens to enjoy training like a beast. We caught up with the actor to talk The Umbrella Academy training and more.

What made The Umbrella Academy the right fit?

Signing on to a show like this, you’re committing to a lot of time and multiple seasons, so I wanted to make sure I would be able to live with this person for a while. I wanted to be able to see the character development. I enjoy the fights and the gadgets, but I’m more interested in the inner struggle of a superhero: the traumas, the humanity inside them, the elements of their personality. That’s why I always enjoyed the character of Batman, because he’s so damaged in so many ways as Bruce Wayne. This pilot came to my door and it ticked all the boxes for me. Here’s this guy, who’s just a specimen of a man, who’s not really able to deal with the position he’s put himself in. That element really interested me. Outside of that, the whole theory and plot of the show is so quirky and different, I was instantly drawn to the other characters as well and their relationships.

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What were the initial conversations about bulking up?

[Number One] is this huge, bulging figure with muscles everywhere. The initial conversation was about me putting on a large amount of mass, and trying to mimic his look as closely as possible, with the aid of a few prosthetics. I started lifting some major weight and eating a major amount of food. I wanted to do the diet as clean as possible—no junk food or easy calories—so that meant just a ridiculous amount of consumption. I was putting away sweet potatoes and avocados all day long. I was probably eating three avocados a day, just to get the calories in. I went back on creatine for the first time in years as well just to help get that extra mass on. So often people try to take shortcuts with these kinds of transformations, but that’s not the way I like to approach it. I was lucky that I had about three or four months to prepare after I was cast.

Did you work with a trainer?

I’ve worked with some great trainers in the past, but I’m a pretty obsessive guy and I’m also an absolute stickler for research. I don’t just want to be told the best way to do something; I want to know for myself, too. So in this case I didn’t really work with any trainers for the physique-building portion. I did my research and figured out the best process for me. I will say I felt even more comfortable with that decision given I was bulking up, and I’ve always found that easier than shredding. As long as you know the right exercises to be doing to grow those muscles, and you know enough about nutrition to make productive meals, you’re in a great place.

Tom Hopper in Netflix series 'Umbrella Academy'
Tom Hopper in Netflix series ‘Umbrella Academy’ Courtesy of Netflix

How did the routines differ from your usual workouts?

I always incorporate heavy lifts into my routines, but [they were especially crucial] for this. I think it’s good for the body to be challenged by heavy weight every now and again. [But] I will say I’m past that part in my life where I want to lift as heavy as possible and see how high I can make the numbers on the plates. Now it’s about longevity.

So often people try to take shortcuts with these kinds of transformations, but that’s not the way I like to approach it.

How did you feel about wearing a bodysuit for Number One?

So the whole prep period of that first season, I trained hard to look like him as much as possible. I probably put on about 10 kilos (22 pounds) of muscle. Cut to two weeks outside of shooting, the show runner approached me and said, “I think we’re going to have to do prosthetics.” I was like, “What?!” But then they realized it would take somewhere around two hours to put on those prosthetics every single day of filming, which would have been a ridiculous amount of time. Ultimately they made the decision it would be easier for everyone on the production side to have me in a muscle suit. I was fine with it, but I had bulked up quite a bit, so I was just huge underneath this suit, which was uncomfortable for a while to walk around with. I don’t think people realize how taxing it can be to move around in it. I’m sweating all day long. It’s like wearing a weighted vest that covers your whole body.

How did your training change once the bodysuit came into play?

Once I heard the call, I worked on getting back down to fighting weight, where I usually like to sit—around 90 kilos (198 pounds). If you look back at the first season—and look at my face—you can see the change over the course of filming. I’m a lot trimmer by the beginning of the second season. While I was leaning out, the muscle stayed for the most part because I put the fat on the right way when I bulked up. There was no bloating. I stayed below 10 percent body fat during the entire production.

[In the second season], I was training to improve my ability to be agile and move fluidly with the suit on, because it’s fairly heavy. That was aided by my usual routine, which incorporates a lot of functional training with kettlebells and free weights. I like to have a big focus on time under tension work. I believe it’s one of the best ways to maintain muscle tone. On top of all that, I added fight training—martial arts or boxing. I will usually analyze the scripts and see what kind of fight sequences are coming up, then work with my fight trainer to figure out what drills to do for it. I will usually do that fight training two or three times a week. There are some massive fight sequences in this season, so I doubled down on that. I also found it helpful to see how my body performs in those fight drills, because it’s a great indicator of overall fitness.

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How did you feel about Netflix using just a photo your actual arms to tease the second season of The Umbrella Academy?

[Laughs.] I was a little surprised at the attention. I guess my arms have their own Instagram account now? find it hilarious. But I certainly will take the compliment.

The Umbrella Academy’s second season hits Netflix on July 31