Oldboys: How Midlife Action Stars Get Ready to Fight
The old-man action boom has a trickle-down effect: Meet the trainers who get unlikely heroes like Bob Odenkirk and Liam Neeson into ass-kicking shape.
BY JAKE KRING-SCHREIFELS for GQ Magazine
March 25, 2021
In the summer of 2018, the director Ilya Naishuller visited 87eleven, the Hollywood “action design” studio responsible for some of the wildest fight sequences in recent memory. There, he witnessed a striking juxtaposition. At one end of the building stood Keanu Reeves, rehearsing fight scenes and perfecting his choreography for John Wick: Chapter 3. At the other end, inside a small, makeshift room full of cardboard boxes, Bob Odenkirk was falling onto a mat.
Odenkirk, then 55 and best known for his comedic work on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, was “sweating like crazy” through a grueling workout, Naishuller remembers. From afar, the director used his camera to capture Odenkirk absorbing contact, practicing punch combinations, and giving everything his middle-aged, unchiseled body could muster. Though it was a rough sketch of what Reeves—a mid-50s peer—was accomplishing across the facility, the scene gave Naishuller chills. “I’m looking at Bob, thinking, Isn’t this way more exciting?” he recalls. “I’ve never seen him do this.”
Nearly three years later, Odenkirk’s unlikely transformation makes its big-screen debut in Nobody, Naishuller’s Wick-inspired entry into the reliable old-man-revenge subgenre. As Hutch Mansell, Odenkirk plays a libido-less husband and unengaged father; a break-in throws him back into a lethal underworld, filled with foreign adversaries he thought he’d left behind. As novel as “Mr. Show whoops ass” might sound, the project slots neatly into recent Hollywood history.
Ever since Liam Neeson unleashed a particular set of skills in 2008’s Taken, studios have realized that there’s a ton of money in turning middle-aged dads into cut-up killing machines. Gerard Butler, Denzel Washington, Jason Statham, and Bruce Willis: All have moved seamlessly from being in-their-prime action stars to over-the-hill (but still-in-their-prime!) action stars. The boom has trickled down a little further, to the stuntmen and trainers who help old dudes fight like young ones. In effect, their roles become even more crucial to productions, adapting to the unique challenges, precautions, and timelines specific to whipping older actors into cinematic shape. “I think it’s great for both of us,” says Mark Vanselow, Neeson’s longtime stunt double and trainer. “I think we both take a lot of pride in creating something unique with each project, with each character, and making it work.”
Like the best action movies, Nobody gets right to the point—it supplies a mixed diet of hand-to-hand combat, gun fights and car chases, each made more impressive by the relative ease in which Odenkirk navigates them. “He didn’t want to just come in and do something OK,” Naishuller says. “He wanted to do as much as he could to make it as special as possible.” To achieve his seamless pivot into action, Odenkirk spent two years overhauling his physique, committing to intensive training alongside stunt performer and actor Daniel Bernhardt. The goal was to make sure he could perform “99 percent of his own stunts,” Bernhardt says, eliminating the need for stunt replacements and providing Naishuller with longer takes for an extra layer of realism.
With the support of producer and 87eleven co-founder David Leitch—himself a former stuntman, and now, with his 87eleven partner Chad Stahelski, one of the brains behind the John Wick franchise—Bernhardt tailored beginner martial arts training around Odenkirk’s television production schedule, gradually and cautiously conditioning him into a well-oiled workout machine capable of memorizing complex fight sequences. The personalization and time investment—the hallmarks of 87eleven’s training method—aided the actor immensely. By the time they got to set, Bernhardt says, “[Bob] was so prepared, he knew every single move.”
Because Odenkirk had never headlined an action movie, his at-home workout regimen had mostly consisted of biking and hiking. Bernhardt kicked up the intensity, and the pair began a screen-fighting crash course that focused primarily on an appropriately middle-age concept: hip rotation. “Everything is based on hips—how you turn your hips when you throw a punch, when you take a reaction,” Bernhardt says. “We started with absolute basics, and I watched his body to see how he moves and I kind of created the style of how he fought in the movie.” As they progressed, Bernhardt worked in boxing sessions and flew to Albuquerque, where Odenkirk was filming Better Call Saul, to train the star on weekends. Once pre-production officially began, Bernhardt increased workouts to five-hour daily sessions, combining fight choreography in the morning with natural weight training in the afternoon.
Despite playing such macho, “seen-some-shit” characters, the last thing older actors want is to be put in literal, physical harm. “The one thing [Bob] told me was he didn’t want to get hurt, that was very important for him,” says Bernhardt, who also monitored Odenkirk’s stretching and hot tub routine. “We wouldn’t lift a heavy bench press. That was not on the table. It was all about movement. Every exercise I taught him had something to do with what he had to do in the movie.”
That safeguarding philosophy is echoed by other Hollywood trainers, who know that sustaining or exacerbating a preexisting injury can potentially delay months of production. Aaron Williamson, a former marine who has trained stars including Dwayne Johnson and Jamie Foxx, saw that dynamic first-hand on the set of 2012’s Bullet to the Head, when Sylvester Stallone sprained his knee on the first day of production. “Those older injuries really creep up,” Williamson says. “When they jump back into it, they want to just go full-bore and you’ve kind of got to ease back into it, otherwise you do get hurt.”
As a preventative measure and helpful diagnostic, Williamson makes sure his older clients all get bloodwork taken before starting any sessions with him. When preparing Josh Brolin to gain and abruptly lose weight for 2013’s Oldboy, he used a blood panel to determine the actor’s food sensitivities and removed inflammation-causing elements from his diet, making the rapid weight fluctuations much easier to control. “When you’re young and you’ve got your hormones running optimally, then training is pretty seamless—you just eat right, train hard, get sleep, drink enough water and you’re good,” Williamson says. “But when you’re getting into that older age, you might have to get some bloodwork done to see if your thyroid is good, or your testosterone and growth hormones are in check.”
Sometimes, trainers must adapt on the fly. Vanselow, who has worked around Neeson’s injuries throughout their two decades of stunt doubling partnership, has put his multi-hyphenate role to good use. Working closely with stunt coordinators and the director, he often adjusts fight choreography as necessary to solve issues in real time. “If you have a bad shoulder, we’ll put a move in that doesn’t torque that particular injury,” he says. Occasionally, those adjustments sell Neeson’s acting work, too. “As he’s taking roles that are consistent with his age, we’re constantly changing [fights] to make it consistent with the character,” Vanselow adds. “In the middle of the fight, he has to take a breath or he’s more tired, which resonates with the audience.”
Ultimately, the most important thing for aging actors is time. Longer training periods build endurance, which allows filmmakers to shoot the same action scenes repetitively throughout the length of the day. Extra prep also gives actors new to fight scenes, like Odenkirk, more chances to refine their gunplay and combat sequencing. For Nobody’s signature bus fight scene, Odenkirk’s preparation—which included months working with Bernhardt to memorize every choreographed punch and reaction—allowed Naishuller to film a variety of angles using only a handful of takes. “Basically, every time in an action scene where we cut to the next shot, we cut because we want to cut, not because we have to,” the director says. “And that’s a wonderful approach if you’re afforded that luxury.”
Vanselow credits the stunt geniuses at 87eleven (and its production arm, now called 87North, responsible for Atomic Blonde and the John Wick franchise) for laying the groundwork, convincing studios of the importance in letting productions spend longer with actors—even seasoned stars like Reeves and Neeson—who aren’t as spry as they used to be. On Taken, for example, Vanselow remembers being afforded time to train and rehearse in both Los Angeles and Paris, a commitment that has continued as Neeson keeps extending his kinetic career. “[Studios] see the value,” Vanselow says. “I want to see the actor playing the role, as opposed to their stunt double. That’s how I’ve made my living, but I’d rather see Liam doing the action than the back of my head.”
Odenkirk, meanwhile, hasn’t stopped training in quarantine. All of his preparation has re-informed his routines and supplied a healthier lifestyle—the hidden benefit to getting lean in middle age. “From the first day until today, he’s the same,” Bernhardt says. “Now I’m thinking I want to keep [him] in shape because I know there will be other movies like this.”