Numlock Sunday: Alex Abad-Santos on how superhero actors really get into gear
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week, I spoke to the brilliant Alex Abad-Santos who wrote “The Open Secret of Looking Like A Superhero” for Vox. Here's what I wrote about it:
Actors are increasingly turning to anabolic steroids in order to attain the figures necessary for movies today. While it’s not legal in the United States to use steroids or performance-enhancing drugs without a prescription, in the movie business it’s not considered cheating the same way it is in sports and obviously isn’t tested for. It’s part of a larger trend, too: testosterone prescribed to American men tripled from 2001 to 2011, and while it decreased from 2013 to 2016 following renewed warnings from the FDA about risks, it’s impossible to study the underground market and HGH is one of the most common drugs to go missing between manufacture and shipping. The long-term health effects of steroids are still little understood, but they’re not looking good: One recent long-term study of steroid-using weightlifters found that of 86 steroid users, three had a heart attack before 45, compared to none of the 54 comparison lifters.
Alex is one of my favorite culture writers, and he wrote a really incisive story about the impacts that PED use in Hollywood and social media has on viewers. His story peels back the façade set up by the industry and speaks the truth all about how pervasive steroids and hormone usage is in the entertainment business
We also talked about the pressures pushing actors towards this, from the demise of the mid-budget movie to the dominance of comic book movies, which bring hyper-masculine superheros from the page to the screen. Also, we talked about his favorite topic, the X-Men.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Alex, thank you so much for coming on.
Oh my God. Thank you for having me. And oh my gosh, this is the first time that we're seeing each other IRL.
I know. It's weird. Again, I've been a fan of your work for a really long time, so it's great to finally get a chance to hang out.
Yeah. I am a fan of yours too. I remember when you were at, was it FiveThirtyEight?
That's the number, yeah.
FiveThirtyEight. I'm always really bad with the number, with remembering which one it is, but I remember being like, "Oh my gosh, this makes my job so much easier when I can link a study on something about comic books." Yeah, it's just very weird that we only are hanging out now.
Yeah. I'm going to chalk it up to the ongoing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, but—
Yes. Blame the pandemic, please.
We'll do that. You wrote a really, really fascinating story that talked about a topic that I think everybody kind of alludes to, but I hadn't really seen actual reporting behind and hard data behind. You talked about steroids, and HGH, and testosterone use among movie stars. What got you interested in the story?
I think one of the first things that got me interested was, I was looking on my Instagram explore page and I was showing my friend at dinner and I was like, "Why am I having chicken nuggets? This guy looks like this." He was huge, his muscles were crazy, his abs were nuts. And then after that, my friend was just like, "Yo, he's on steroids."
And I was like, "Oh." And they were just like, "You know, how everyone in Hollywood is."
I'm like, "Oh, is everyone in Hollywood?"
And he was just basically like, "Yes." I don't want to get sued, but there's a lot of people out there, if you're in an action movie or if you're with your shirt off, that might not be getting those results naturally. Just no matter how much you're at the weight room, no matter what you're eating, you're never going to look like that. And that was it. I was like, "Maybe I should write a story about this."
I liked the story a lot, because particularly there was a part where you talked about, there may have been a time in history where you may have aspired to have the body of the movie stars, but they never were just like, "Oh yeah. No, it's just rest and exercise, I have a meal plan, I have this kind of workout," and they don't talk about them taking a ton of gear. Can you talk a little bit about the cultural place we’re at now?
I think one of the things that is super important, what the doctors and researchers say, is that everything's on social media now. It’s so inundated with all these images, because it's not just a movie that comes out every three months or whatever. People on Instagram are using it, people around you are using it. I think that was the impetus behind it is, well, it's all around us. How is that messing with our own systems and messing with our own brains?
If you look at Wolverine in 2000 versus Wolverine in 2014, and by that I mean Hugh Jackman — again, no speculation about what Hugh Jackman looks like or what he did or whatever — but if you look at those two, it's absolutely nuts. The difference of how jacked he is, how thick he is, how small his waist is. Every vein is rippling and you're just like, "Whoa, when did this happen?" And he's actually 14 years older in 2014, which makes no sense, because as doctors say and scientists say, the older you get the harder it should be for you to put muscle on. It's just like, how are you getting that muscle? How are you maintaining that muscle? How is everyone getting this superhuman aesthetic? It's just not possible without some help.
And there's a health sacrifice that's made. You included some health studies in there. One of them that has stuck out was the risk of heart disease increased not inconsiderably for folks who were taking performance-enhancing substances.
Yeah, I think the craziest thing is that when I was talking to people and I was talking to doctors, I was just like, "Oh, yeah. How do you study this?” And they're like, "We can't study it." I was like, “What do you mean?”
And they were like, "Alex, think about it. You can't pump volunteers full of steroids. You can't pump them full of steroids to an unsafe level, which is what body builders, what some actors, what everyone basically is on. You can't sign up for the super soldier serum." They were just like, "It's actually medically unethical."
A lot of the things that they're studying now actually happens all by volunteers, and they study on animals too. But with those human volunteers, you have people that were in the '80s and in the '90s who took it, and then now they're hitting middle age and up to their 60s, and the crazy part is that now they're finding out those people in their 60s actually might have heart disease or have these hardened arteries, and they also might be more susceptible to stroke. It's hard to get that across to someone who's young, who is like, "Well, if I can become an Instagram influencer and make a lot of money now, I don't care about heart disease when I'm 70. Who's to say there's even going to be a world when we're 70?" Or, "Who's going to say you might get a heart attack anyway?"
It's hard to justify to young people and young men, especially, "Yes, be careful about this thing that will happen in X years, maybe," which is very, very difficult for scientists to get the point across.
Yeah. We've been seeing a lot of that lately, I feel. Risk communication difficulties.
I think the craziest stat, or the scariest thing that someone told me was, there's a leading doctor over in Harvard and he was just like, "Yeah, it's kind of reminds me of what happened with smoking and lung cancer.” There was some point where they were just like, “Oh yeah, they're connected,” and then it was too late, and then all this stuff started coming in. So he said, "Yeah, we're on the crest of that."
It was also really interesting because legally, these things are illegal. People had mostly heard about them through athletics, where they're understandably and justifiably banned because they can diminish the competition. There is no World Anti-Doping Agency of acting, and you kind of allude to that's one reason that this has been so pervasive.
Yeah. Acting is not professional baseball. No one is going to stop you. I doubt that there is a drug test that's happening and also, I think for the people whose livelihood depends on looking a certain way, it's a business decision, right?
Let's say you are an Instagram influencer and you're not even in a Marvel movie, but you're an Instagram influencer, and you're getting paid whatever, $40,000 a post to post, and basically you're selling your body and you want your body to look great, that is what you do.
Or that is what some of them do. I do not want to get you sued. I don't want to get sued. Allegedly that is what some of them do.
We're talking about a percentage that is not 100 percent but is also not 0 percent of people who are involved in the visual arts industry.
It’s an industry that is built on the way they look. So to maximize that and to look the part, that's what happens, in addition to diet, eating, exercise.
It's also interesting because again, this isn't a vacuum. This is aspirational. You wrote a little bit in the piece about the increase in whether it's supplemental hormonal prescriptions, or whether it's actual performance-enhancing drugs that are legal, that have seen a little bit of a surge popularity as well, potentially pushed by this.
Yeah. So I think you and I have probably seen Low T Centers.
Totally, I am a man who is aged 30ish and therefore I have been advertised this relentlessly on every podcast I listened to for the past probably five years.
Testosterone is monitored by the Olympics and whatever, and if it's too high, they will ban you from the Olympics. So yes, testosterone is a performance-enhancing drug. One of the things that I think is a little bit shady — and there probably needs to be a better investigation of this, I think CBS did a good one in 2019, I think COVID derailed it — but it was: who's getting these prescriptions? Because you go to these places and you get a prescription and it's just like, "Well, do you actually have low testosterone, or are you just a normal man who is aging?"
From that investigation, they were just like, "Yes, I think there are a lot of people with normal levels who are getting these drugs, and that cannot be good for you," because with any of these drugs, it could just screw you up on the inside in so many ways.
Overuse and misuse when it comes to the endocrine system isn't always a fun one.
You don't want to be pumping yourself up with a lot of hormones. Compared to everything else we're putting in our bodies, do you really want to add all that stuff?
And to be clear, hormonal therapy is a critical thing for a lot of folks, but they do it under the supervision of a doctor, not a pill mill.
Right. That is where a lot of these drugs come from, is that they were used as part of hormone therapy under the supervision of doctors. The doses are scientific, they’ve gone through trials of these small doses and they use them. I think with human growth hormone, they started with children, and children who didn't grow up fast enough or aren't growing. Then if you talk to doctors, they're just like, "Yeah. No one with normal levels of hormones should be on these things because we don't know all that they can do to you."
To your point, the difference in, think of an action star in 2001, maybe an X-Men movie of sorts, who can possibly say, and then think of an action star 14 to 15 years later, and it's a completely different type of look.
Yeah. To be honest, and I feel like I am part of the problem, I will be like, "Yes, Chris Evans looks amazing."
Because he does!
But then it's also, how much of that is realistic? And nothing against Chris Evans. I'm sure he does the diet, the eating, the whatever, basically ruining his social life to look a certain way. I'm not accusing him of any PEDs or anything, just to be clear. But it's also, that is probably not attainable for the rest of us.
Just the simple fact that we don't have chefs and trainers training us every day. But it's also just of course, if someone finds out that someone might be on a PED — and there have been actors who have been busted with PEDs before — they're going to look on the internet, you're probably going to find some information out there and then you're going to seek it out, and then you have the problem.
I think when we talk about the community, it's also there's a lot of young boys out there who just see this and it's drilled in their heads that this is what men are supposed to look like, and that's led to this increase of what is called muscular dysmorphia and people feeling that they're too small, that they're not big enough. So yes, you will also see them resort to PEDs, and that also makes doctors and psychiatrists very, very nervous because you have 11-year-olds photoshopping their bodies
I think it goes without saying, I think the narrative around women and female celebrities has been the way we talk about beauty and diets and whatnot, it's been like almost to the opposite point that it's almost talked about too much right? With men, it's just like, "Oh, well then it's all just hard work," and it's left in the dark. Whereas women are like, "Okay, well this is the eating disorder. This is X, Y, Z. This is the surgeries." With men, it's always like, "Oh, well this is what men are supposed to look like," and that lack of transparency, I think hurts us.
Yeah. The magazine that presents body dysmorphia for women is called Cosmopolitan, and the one for men is called Men's Health. There's an asymmetry in how it is being described there.
Right. It's a very strange thing that what women achieve to look impossible is all artificial, all fake, whereas with men who look impossible or who have these impossible gains, it's all just “hard work.” It's all “hard work” and “chicken breast.”
Just rice and chicken. I don't know what to tell you.
I love rice, I love chicken. I do not look like that.
I want to back out a little bit just because again, glad to have you on, and specifically it would be a crime to have you on and not talk about X-Men and comic book movies. I guess, one of the motivations potentially for this is that you've gone from action movies being like Con Air, and random shoot 'em ups, to being comic book movies which are pulled directly from a source material that has aspirational bodily forms. How much of that do you think plays into it?
There’s a whole bigger story of the movie business, You covered this and you probably know this. The whole idea of a mid-budget movie is gone.
And the only way studios make movies is just to mine IP, come out with action movies, make sequels to those action movies and just keep these cinematic universes spinning. The only movies that make a ton of money now are the action movies, and it's just, obviously every studio wants an action movie. I think one of the things is that the actors, and actresses too, who are the centers of these movies or who want to get big, you have to look the part, right?
If you want to become a star in Hollywood, you have to be in a Marvel movie, like Chris Pratt. Look at Chris Pratt.
Yeah. He went from a fluffy, fun comedian guy to he looks hard now.
Yeah. This whole idea of this aesthetic, and it's not absolutely wed to this, but I'm sure it's influenced by this. Yes, action movies are everywhere now. They're the only movies that people go to the movie theaters for. Everyone wants to look bigger, bolder, badder, crazier. Did you see Vin Diesel, he sent out an olive branch to The Rock the other day?
Is that what we're calling that? Yeah, I saw that.
No, it was like, "Hey, let's quash the beef and come back for Fast and Furious 10," right?
Yeah. There's something interesting about the photograph though. Would you like to get into that?
Well, someone was like, "Yeah. Did Vin Diesel photoshop himself to look bigger than The Rock?" And people were like, "??? What is happening?" Again, nothing against Vin Diesel, we're not speculating here, but that is just a very funny thing that happens in this climate of everything is an action movie now, or the movie business is an action star business.
Not to bring him up a third time, but I just think that his career is really interesting in this regard, where Hugh Jackman, the minute that he didn't have to keep making comic book movies, he made a musical and then he had fun. You can tell that there were just a lot of career pressures on folks within the industry, who are trying to remain in it, to just get huge.
Yeah. I think with Hugh Jackman, he's the easiest example of what the aesthetic looked like, just because he was there at the very beginning.
And at the very beginning it was like, "Oh, he's hot." They were like, "Oh, Wolverine's so hot. Look at Wolverine." And then 15 years later, Wolverine is 50 years old, still hot, hotter than he was, his body is better than he was. And it's a little nuts because that's not the way it's supposed to work, but yes.
At least we didn't have to pump Sir Ian McKellen full of gas in order to get the Magneto of the comic books, right?
Who knows what'll happen? If there's a reboot, if there's a House of X reboot, and Magneto is now daddy. Magneto now in comic books is always shirtless or in a robe and his pecs are crazy.
It got interesting. Yeah.
Who knows what'll happen when The X-Men finally make it, and if they make Magneto as big as he's supposed to be in the comic books?
Yeah. Screw it, let's talk about this. You've been following The X-Men for a very long time. They are your favorite character; you are, if anything, the dean of X-Twitter and—
No, no, no.
The dean is Connor Goldsmith. I am just an assistant professor.
An assistant professor of X-Men. Excellent.
So clearly there's been a lot of speculation about them and the MCU. Do you want to talk a little bit about the journey that they've had and what's been maybe drawing your eye in the books?
Oh my gosh. Do we have 17 hours to talk about this?
Yeah. Screw it, we'll go.
You know how it is. It's just X-Men, because of the way the film rights were divided. X-Men went to Fox, Marvel kept Marvel, and then basically, X-Men movies made a ton of money for Fox. Fox kept mining that IP. Finally, they're all back together with the acquisition and everyone's just like, "Well, can we get the X-Men movie?" And to me, I think as someone who sees this from it's part of my job to figure out what the schedule looks like and what's happening, it just seems there's no space for The X-Men in the next five years.
It seems like it's going to be a minute. It seems like we got an Eternals movie before we got an X-Men movie.
Oh, the Eternals. Also, remember we got the Inhumans before The X-Men, and it was just like, "Ooh"?
I've told this story once or twice before. I forget if you know it. So when I was at ABC, I was doing a show occasionally talking to people who worked with Marvel for the Marvel adaptations.
And one week, after we're doing this for two years, they pull me aside like, "Listen, hey, we might have an actual show here. You might be doing an aftershow. You might be the aftershow host for a new show that's coming out." And I'm like, "Wow, that's really amazing." They're like, "Yeah, it's called the Inhumans. It's coming out on Friday nights to ABC." And then I think that they got the pilot in and then they pulled me and said, "Actually, we're not doing this. We're not doing the show anymore." So that was my big break that did not materialize.
I don't understand why you have an Inhumans — Okay. For anyone that's read the comic books, there is a central figure named Medusa, whose power is she has very strong hair that also is sentient and she can control it. And then in the very first episode or something, they shave her head.
It’s just like, "What are you doing?"
Well in doing so, they removed the entire CGI budget that had been allocated for hair.
But yeah, X-Men; I think what makes me want to see X-Men come to life is because in the last, I want to say three years, House of X came out with Hickman writing, and Hickman and a lot of writers and a lot of artists, and I don't want to forget any of their names — but yes, it was masterminded by Hickman, and he basically, I guess rebooted, rejiggered, just reestablished The X-Men in a way that I think was very, very smart.
For folks who might not know about Hickman, he ran the Fantastic Four books for a while and did a really incredible job with those. Those are some of my favorite comics. Then he ran the Avengers for a while and completely overhauled the Marvel universe in a way that people actually kind of liked, which is usually not a thing that is said after somebody completely does that.
And they toss him the keys to X, and this is the run that you're talking about.
Yeah. So basically, he came off of Secret Wars, which basically just revamped the entire universe and was like, "Okay, well we're reestablishing that. So here, have a go at X-Men." And for those who don't know, the idea is the revamp is pegged to this woman and character, a beloved character named Moira MacTaggert. We find out that she is a mutant and every time she dies, she basically restarts the timeline and she's been doing this the entire time. And when she restarts the timeline, she also carries with her the knowledge of the previous timelines. So basically, she's just like, "Hey, Professor X, everything's going to go sideways. Everyone's going to get fucked up. This is what we got to do. We got to make a mutant utopia and we're going to create a community on a sentient island and it's going to be great, and this is how we advance the mutant race." Did I get that right?
I would say that you did a fantastic job for about three minutes.
But, it's X-Men, and they're messy and everything in between, of course, all the politics are crazy because it's just Magneto and Professor X have very different views about how mutants should be. Emma Frost has very different views about how mutants should conduct themselves with humans. But yeah, basically the mutants are like, "Well, we ascended to a higher plane. We are awesome. You can't fuck with us anymore." They basically buy off the entire world's governments with medicines and are just like, "Now you're dependent on us. We're the superior race. You're only here because we allow it. Please don't try and fuck with us because we will kill you." Basically they were just like, "Coexisting isn't an option because you guys always try and fuck us up and kill us. So we're just going to take that out of the equation now. Now that we know how everything's going to play out, we're going to take that out of the equation."
There's been speculation, because Hickman's work lends itself well cinematically, that this could be the way that they take he X-Men next.
It could be. Hopefully, I'm still alive and the earth is still here when this happens because like I said, the Disney Marvel schedule of everything that is coming out, it's every three years they do one of these conferences and they're always like, "This is coming out, and this is coming out, and this is coming out." They did one today and Agatha Harkness has her own show, and they're continuing the X-Men animated versions. There's just so much coming out at this point, and if anyone’s doing math and there should be two or three movies a year, we're pretty stacked until like 2025. Right?
Between all the sequels that are coming out, we are very, very busy until 2025. But I do want to see the X-Men because I feel like those are the characters that... I don't know. I just love them. I grew up reading them, I watched the television show all the time, and it'd just be nice to have them get the same kind of treatment that the Avengers have gotten.
Yeah. They're fun. They're heady. The thing that's, I think a little cursed about it at times, is when Marvel was going out of business in the early '90s, the things that they sold were the things that were the most culturally significant, namely the X-Men, Spider-Man and Hulk. Those are some of the best stories. There's a really deep reservoir there, which is one reason that it was so attractive for acquisition. But that's also the exact same thing that's kept them off the board potentially for the next couple years.
Yeah. It's also, let's say hypothetically, if Marvel still had the X-Men, I don't think you would ever see an Avengers movie. You would never see a Scarlet Witch miniseries, because it would fall in that pattern of, "Let's just keep really releasing X-Men movies." It's just like, "We'll keep releasing these trilogies to go around in a circle because they make a ton of money," right?
Yeah. If you did have a Scarlet Witch miniseries, it would be a spinoff of your Magneto miniseries.
Yeah. But it's also what forced Marvel to do this entire cinematic universe. People don't know that the... Casual fans don't know that the Avengers were basically the B team. They were such a B team.
I'm not going to get into spoilers for Eternals, but I was watching the movie with a few friends and then one of them was just like, "Oh, who is this character?" who is revealed. It's like, "Oh, that's an F-list character and a D-list movie." What they're dealing with is remarkable. What they're getting out of it is great because again, Chloé Zhao is a really great director, but it is just wild that the X-Men are the A-team and have been the A-team since the '80s, and then by a twist of intellectual property ownership fate, all of a sudden they're on the sidelines.
Yeah. If you look at the comic book sales from the '80s and '90s, you could have come out with a title that was like X-Grandmas, and it would be a top-10 bestseller because people could not get enough of The X-Men, and it's just, now we're getting Eternals and probably an Eternals spinoff before we get to see Storm and Professor X, and Emma Frost, and all my favorite characters just be goofy in the MCU.
Yeah. The Avengers weren't even the B team. The B team was X-Force.
Yes. We are being very generous to the Avengers when I was calling them the JV or B team. There was Excalibur, X-Factor, X-Force. I forgot X-Tremes probably. There was an X-Men Blue team, an X-Men Gold team. It was literally every X-comic was a top-10 in the '90s.
Yeah. Well, and then here we are now.
Hey, thank you so much for coming on. This has been really great. I love the story. I love your work in general. It's great to talk about X-Men with you for a few minutes, and thank you.
Oh, let's do you. I want to know who your favorite X-Men character is.
Good question. So I was introduced to them through the movies and I was like, "Oh yeah, this Pyro guy and this Iceman guy, they must be the big rivals in the comic," and then they're not. The answer is obviously Magneto. I think that Magneto is the greatest character ever made, and I think he makes a lot of valid points a lot of the time, and I think that it is just a really cool character. I know that he's not an X-Man technically, but—
I mean, he is. In the new world, there are basically no X-Men, everyone's just a mutant.
They domesticated my boy. He's a Brotherhood of Evil Mutant.
You? Emma Frost, is that right?
Emma Frost. Emma Frost was always right. If you look at every comic, Emma Frost is always right. The world would be a better place if we just put Emma Frost in charge. She'd be like, "You know what? We could have just completely sidestepped the decimation of the mutant race if you'd just listened to me."
I think that we're both right. I think that Emma Frost was always right, but Magneto did make some valid points.
Magneto makes all the points. I think especially now, when you think about the political climate and what Magneto says, you're just like, "You know what? Yes." The way things are going and what we've seen so far, I think the older you get, you're like, "Yeah. You know what? He was probably right about this."
All right. So Alex, where can folks find you?
You can find me on Vox, you can find me on Twitter but I'm usually just making dumb jokes. I think Twitter is kind of a hellscape for everyone, I think you should just be making jokes on Twitter and that should be it. I'm also Instagram but, that's just like really weird shirtless content. Yes, so Vox.com, find me on Twitter, and if you want to see shirtless content and you're a homo come visit my Instagram it's it's free for everyone.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.