‘The Umbrella Academy’ Star Tom Hopper on Struggling With Self-Image


Tom Hopper has made a career out of being the built British bruiser. Towering at 6’5” over his onscreen colleagues in Black Sails, Game of Thrones, and The Umbrella Academy, the former rugby player is a rare breed in Hollywood. A studied dramatic actor, he’s found himself one of the new go-to gents in the action world.

“Growing up in that team sports environment, I really respond to a challenge,” says Hopper, over Zoom while on set in Vancouver.

So when the challenge is, say, be a hulking knight or an elite SAS soldier, Hopper trains like he’s going to war. Doing that for a decade has been a unique learning experience for the rising star. Not just physically, but also mentally in dealing with expectations from himself—and everyone else.

Now Hopper is hoping to share what he’s learned with others, both on social media and through campaigns with companies he believes in—like Viome—which helps improve gut health by adjusting food habits.

Men’s Journal spoke with the actor about his bumpy road to clean eating, struggling with self-image, and exciting projects he has on the horizon.

Men’s Journal: What was your introduction to fitness?

Tom Hopper: I was a skinny boy growing up. I remember when the rugby season came around, I was playing with all these kids who were bigger than me. They were massive, and it’s the kind of sport where size really matters. I remember even at that age thinking, ‘I need to hit the weights.’ But the Internet wasn’t around like it is today, and if you wanted to get information, you had to go into actual shops to buy fitness magazines.

I actually remember emailing some random bodybuilder I found in one of the magazines to ask him if creatine would be beneficial for me when I was a teenager. That just goes to show you how desperate the measures were. I was walking around with this very specific idea of what a real man was supposed to look like, and it led me down the wrong path. I was going to the gym with a real unhealthy mindset, thinking only of aesthetics.

How did that initial mindset impact the start of your acting career?

I realized early on there’s a niche opening in the marketplace for British dudes who are super fit. At the time, the majority of those guys were coming from America. I’m 6’5” and figured if I put on some real muscle I could brand myself in the action world. I dedicated myself to that process fully like it was sports training camp. That’s really what started me on this whole fitness journey. It wasn’t long before I was auditioning for all these big movies and TV shows.

Were there high expectations regarding your fitness for a role?

The biggest turning point in my career way when I got Black Sails. The movie 300 had just come out and there was all this hype around how jacked everyone was in Zach Snyder’s film. It was definitely a moment in the culture. So, in turn, with us playing these brutal pirates, this image was expected of us. I think there was pressure to look a certain way. Some of it was self-imposed because of what we were seeing in Hollywood. But the studio would also check in and get sent photos to make sure we were sticking with our plans. They set us all up with a personal trainer, James White, who ran the Roark gym in Cape Town, South Africa, close to set. That was the first time I felt the pressure to look a certain way for a role.

How did that affect you behind the scenes?

On the outside, and to everyone watching the show, I looked very fit and healthy. But during that time, I was feeling sluggish and found myself nodding off in the middle of the day. It was a real rollercoaster, from feeling great to completely crashing. I was wondering why I couldn’t get to where I wanted without such a struggle, and for a while I was blaming genetics. Eventually I decided I needed to take more control and really investigate why I was feeling the way I was.

There was another time we were preparing for a promo shoot for Black Sails, and we all went maybe a little too extreme with the calorie counting. I’m surprised my lovely wife stuck around to become my wife after that period because the diet made me a horrible human being. After one of the photo shoots, she bought me a special lunch to celebrate. I blew up at her because I wanted very specific “treats,” and she bought the wrong ones. She said, “Do you hear yourself?” I had to step back and really reevaluate what I was doing.

The Umbrella Academy star Tom Hopper fights an opponent with onlookers
Courtesy of Netflix

What did you begin to work on?

I learned a lot about training from James during our sessions, but where I was really struggling was my nutrition. Back in the day, nobody was talking about it the way they do now. It was just about getting a certain amount of calories, and less about where they came from. I was eating burgers with cheese and fries to put on weight. There wasn’t a lot of sense about it. I had a friend, who always felt great, who told me to just try eating clean for a while. I decided to give it everything I had.

How soon did you feel the benefits?

The difference was pretty instantaneous. It was crazy to me how much better I felt when I was consuming real food and staying away from all the processed snacks I was craving. I was addicted, and the only solution I saw was to go cold turkey. That’s when I realized how much power they had over me. Passing by those shops, I was in actual pain from walking away without buying anything.

I started to see how unnatural it was for me to be craving those sugars so intensely. They’d created a massive imbalance in my body. I was being ruled by them. That was an awakening. I decided to wean myself off it all. Not an easy task with an addictive personality, but once I turned that corner, I actually became addicted to feeling good—to not waking up with headaches and not being tired all the time for no reason. I became addicted to enjoying my workouts again.

What was the hardest snack to give up?

Haribo gummy bears. I used to walk past the shops with Toby Stephens, who played Captain Flint on Black Sails, and he’d say, “Oh mate, I need some gummies.” And I would be right there with him.

Any recent challenges on the wellness journey?

During the start of The Umbrella Academy, they wanted me to bulk up and turn myself into a bit of a monster. Then, just a few weeks before filming, they decided we were going to use this massive muscle suit. I immediately had to lean down after putting on so much mass. That led me to experiment with things like fasting and the keto diet.

I don’t think most people stick to the true principles of keto, which is checking your body constantly for whether or not you’re in ketosis. For me, it’s something I dip in and out of. I’d feel great for a few days, then start to deplete a bit. The intermittent fasting worked straight away. Even when I’m not sticking to it firmly throughout the day, I’ll practice in the morning—including on set when there’s usually a breakfast laid out and someone’s asking what you want to eat. I got into the habit of telling them I wasn’t going to need anything until the afternoon.

It was around the end of the first season when I first came across this company Viome. I read they were doing microbiome testing for your gut based on your stool. At first I was a little standoffish about the concept, but eventually reached out to them.

What was the turning point?

A friend, Bobby Maximus, had used them to fix a serious stomach issue he was having. They helped him find out what foods had a negative impact on his system and basically healed his gut—with food. That got me curious.

Not only was I researching ways to improve my own health, but also for my son Freddie, who’s autistic. What I learned is that bad gut health can make the symptoms of autism more severe. At the time, my wife and I were going through quite a tough time with Freddie, and we were looking for anything to make our lives easier. So we decided to do the microbiome tests together as a family, and when we received the results we committed to following them.

I liked how simple they break down foods that are helpful, foods that are fine, and foods that are like poison to your body. I was surprised to find that bananas were a food Freddie was supposed to avoid, yet it was a superfood for me. So when I was having one I’d naturally just share it with him—with no idea it was affecting him differently and causing these problems in his gut. We noticed an immediate improvement in his behavior. It was really quite shocking how quickly things changed, from his mood to sleep patterns.

How about your dietary shift? Were you feeling the benefits too?

I definitely started to see similar effects for myself. Beforehand, I’d spent a lot of energy avoiding carbs. But once I learned some of them were on my superfood list, I realized I’d been depriving myself of some positive nutrition. I was eating carbs and looking and feeling better than I ever had. I also learned to enjoy real food—because once you lose that addiction to sugars and additives, you start to really be able to taste stuff again.

The gut is constantly evolving. So when you take the test six months or a year later, you’ll see how much things can change. Sometimes foods that were on your avoid list are now fine for you to enjoy again because a specific issue has been resolved. What I’ve learned is that it’s all about making positive shifts and adapting your eating habits when necessary. I went into Season 2 feeling like a new man.

And mentally?

Absolutely. I know a lot of people are struggling with mental health, especially after the year we’ve had. We all know the obvious things that can help, like exercise. But I don’t think people talk enough about how the wrong foods can make things worse. How, for example, the vagus nerve—which connects your gut to your brain—isn’t just a one-way street. People used to think if you were feeling bad it would manifest itself in how your stomach felt. Now we know this nerve is more like a highway. An upset gut can have a negative effect on our mental health as well.

How do you deal with all the attention paid to your appearance?

I’ve struggled a lot with body dysmorphia. No matter who you are, there’s this image in your head of what you think you should look like as opposed to what you see in the mirror. For me, the way out is being content with the best version of me and pursuing it fully—and not some guy on a movie poster.

I know if I put up an Instagram post where I’m shirtless, there will be toxic comments that aren’t productive. I’ve gotten better about “posting and ghosting” these days, where I’m not really reading any of it. That time is better spent elsewhere.

What drives you to be so open on social media about your training and other wellness pursuits?

I understand I’m one of those guys who’s been branded to look a certain way. But I also want to be able to say how easy and fun the journey can be—and that so much can be done by implementing very simple lifestyle changes. People ask me all the time how I have the discipline to stay in shape. How can I enjoy life while being so restricted? I’m actually having fun with every part of the process—and enjoying every bite of real food I’m tasting.

Have there been any adjustments in your training for upcoming projects—including Season 3 of The Umbrella Academy and the Resident Evil reboot.

I always like to keep the training fresh, so I’m constantly changing the kind of movements I do. I’ll pull new programs on social media from people like Marcus Filly, my friend Bobby Maximus, and Ben Patrick. I like people who do something different and go against the status quo, especially when it works. I’m working out consistently, so when it comes to putting on mass—like for Resident Evil—it just means eating more of those good foods I’m already on. I think people are really going to enjoy the reboot, especially fans of the game.

Going into The Umbrella Academy, I had a shoulder injury which occurred while doing a pretty standard lift. It was just one of those silly things when the weight just doesn’t move right. I did stem cells and PRP, which helped heal it up nicely, and I adapted my training to put less stress on it without sacrificing what I’d built so far. That was difficult, especially because of how taxing the muscle suit can be on my arms, but I was able to make it work. This is my favorite season we’ve done so far.

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