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Stunt Master

Warning: Do not try these stunts at home. Do not attempt to fight bitter enemies with a large, medieval hammer. Thor is not a real man. He’s a comic-book superhero, a god of Norse mythology. Regular men are not physically equipped to endure such battles. Chris Hemsworth, an imposing 6-foot-3-inch heavily muscled actor, plays Thor on film, and even he isn’t comfortable doing all the superhero’s fight scenes, the most demanding of which are reserved for only a select few individuals — individuals like Bobby Holland Hanton, Hemsworth’s stunt double in the recent release Thor: The Dark World. 

Hanton, unlike Thor, is a real man. He doesn’t possess superpowers or inhuman strength, and he doesn’t quite possess the size of the 200-plus-pound Hemsworth, either. At 6-foot-1-inch and a typical bodyweight of 182 pounds (or “13 stone” as they say in the U.K., where he resides), Hanton didn’t just wake up a Marvel Comics character one morning; he had to spend the better part of 2012 becoming Thor.

“It was a very intense eight months of the year for me last year,” Hanton says. “There was a lot of training involved, more than I’d ever done before, and I was very strict and focused on my diet. Chris is naturally bigger than me, so I had to work extremely hard to get the same kind of look as him to achieve being a stunt double for that movie.”

Hanton, 29, is used to doubling larger-than-life characters, though. In a stunt career that officially began in 2008, Hanton has been James Bond (Daniel Craig), the Green Lantern (Ryan Reynolds) and Batman (Christian Bale), among more than a dozen others, in their most dangerous moments on-screen. A gymnast since childhood and an acrobat performer as a young adult, Hanton already possessed several of the necessary stuntman skills by the time he committed to the profession at age 21. He became proficient at other talents required by the English stunt register — including kickboxing, swimming and scuba diving — by sheer determination and focus over multiple years of training. 

He used this same focus to transform himself into Thor after his stunt boss tipped him off a few months before shooting that there was an opportunity to double for Hemsworth. Such prep time isn’t typical for a stuntman, but in this case, the movie had been pushed back slightly from its original shoot date, which bought Hanton some much-needed time. “To be totally honest, you don’t often get a massive heads-up about a job you could potentially be doing three, four, five months down the line,” Hanton says. “I had a bit of time to get in shape before we started shooting, so I was very lucky.”

Over the course of two-and-a-half to three months of prep time, six weeks of rehearsal and five months of filming, Hanton’s training was as regimented as it was grueling: two workouts per day, five to six days a week, in addition to stunts he was doing for the movie. He typically squeezed in an hour of training on his lunch break and then another 30 to 45 minutes in the evening after work. The earlier session entailed bodyweight exercises like chin-ups, dips and push-ups, while the later workout focused on building up his shoulders and arms to match the parts of Hemsworth’s physique that could be seen popping out of his Thor costume. (See sidebar for sample workouts.)

“The key for me wasn’t trying to be as big as Chris but instead to try and be as lean as possible, which made me look bigger than I actually was,” Hanton says. “With my gymnastics background, I’ve always tried to lift my own bodyweight to start with, and then if there’s a certain area on the actor that’s bigger than others, I’ll focus on that. With Thor’s vest, the arms are exposed, so that’s what I focused on — my shoulders, biceps and triceps. But I also did the bodyweight stuff so I could still move and be agile. The look is very important, but more important is being able to move and do the job you’ve been asked to do.”

Photo by Sam Trimming

From a physique standpoint, stuntman Bobby Holland Hanton’s goal for doubling Chris Hemsworth’s Thor character was to achieve gains in size while staying as lean as possible. To do this, he combined traditional bodyweight movements with all-out incline sprinting on a treadmill in circuit-training fashion. Workout 1 is a routine he did regularly as part of an hourlong afternoon training session. 

“It’s very difficult,” Hanton says of the workout. “I used to do all the bodyweight exercises, only without the sprints, and I found I wasn’t as lean. When I introduced the sprints, the whole thing became so much more difficult to sustain. I started out struggling with three or four sets, and then at my peak, I got up to six or seven sets, which would take me about 35 minutes.”

In the evenings, Hanton did a shorter 30- to 45-minute workout (Workout 2) dedicated to adding size to his shoulders and arms. He also included a bench press in the routine. “The stance of Thor is quite heroic,” he says, “so keeping the chest a good size brings the shoulders back and brings that character out in me. 

“Not everything works for everyone, but I’ve found a formula where I can put size on or lose it if I need to for a role. I’ve put on muscle mass before, and I’ve also had to be lean, but I’ve never had to have lean muscle mass at substantial size like I did for Thor.”

Workout 1

Workout 2

For Hanton, the training wasn’t the most challenging aspect of becoming Thor; the diet was. He kept his eating disciplined throughout prep and filming, the only exception being on Sundays, when, he admits, “I would spend a good three to four hours eating whatever I liked.” Aside from that, the emphasis was clean whole foods like turkey, chicken and tuna as protein sources; healthy fats from avocados, nuts, and coconut and olive oils; and complex carbohydrates like brown rice, sweet potatoes, quinoa and vegetables. 

“I would eat small amounts every two hours and eat within 30 minutes of waking up,” he says. “And I was eating carbs all the way up until going to sleep to keep my size up. The diet was very, very strict. I steered clear of fruits, and the only fluids I drank were water and green tea.”

The end result of the training and diet was borderline heroic. On the Thor set, Hanton was 196 pounds, up 14 pounds (or 1 full stone) from his starting weight. And it was all muscle because he was leaner, too. “I was down to around 6 percent body fat, which is the lowest I’ve ever been,” Hanton says. “People thought I was much heavier. They thought I was about 210, which I wasn’t. It’s more of a visual, really. I found a formula with doing training that made me agile and able to move freely without feeling heavy and having a diet that made me look 210 when I was really 196. It all worked out brilliantly.”

His efforts in the gym and kitchen had him almost completely covered. The only things missing were a couple of inches. Hemsworth is listed at 6 feet 3 inches or 6 feet 4 inches tall. Hanton is 6 feet 1 inch tall. No training program can make you taller, but 2-inch lifts in your shoes can. Easy enough — until you try and do fight scenes in them. 

“I have to tell you, it was the first time I ever had to wear lifts in my career, and it felt like I was trying to do stunts in women’s high heels,” Hanton says. (His other unlikely secret weapons on set? Dove Men+Care products to wash all the makeup off.) “That was very difficult. But I found that by wearing them every day — even if I wasn’t at work, I would wear them religiously — I got used to them and it made me completely forget about it and think about the job at hand. By doing that and almost going method in that respect, I managed to wear them and carry on doing what I needed to with no injuries.”

The key to being a successful stunt double is the ability to look and act like someone you’re not: to fight as a fictional superhero against fictional enemies; to step briefly into lead roles in place of some of the biggest names in Hollywood; to pull off 6 feet 3 inches, 200-plus pounds when you’re only 6 feet 1 inch, 196; to be a wiry James Bond one year and the massive Thor another. 

How is it even possible for one man to play Bond and Thor? “What makes it possible for me are three key factors: my diet, the amount of training I do — and also 2-inch lifts,” Hanton says.