This story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In 2005, a 30-something actor on the precipice of superstardom began prepping for a lead feature role that required ample spotlight on his abs. The actor met with the film's trainer and outlined the performance-enhancing drugs, including human growth hormone (HGH), he already had been taking. The trainer, a firm believer that a chiseled physique should be achieved naturally, recused himself from working with the actor.
"He told me that HGH made him feel like nothing else ever made him feel," recalls the trainer, who declined to be identified out of respect for trainer/trainee confidentiality. "He was basically addicted. I told him to find another trainer. He did."
That actor, now an A-lister who continues to cash in on his impressive torso, is just one of Hollywood's growing list of stars who turn to injectable HGH and other performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) amid the ever-competitive world of looking great at any age.
With its fountain-of-youth promise, HGH quietly has become the substance of choice for Tinseltown denizens looking to quickly burn fat, boost energy and even improve complexion. The drug costs up to $3,000 a month. Taken along with steroids ($50 to $150 per month), to help build muscle, the results can be startling.
Hollywood trainer Happy Hill, who has helped sculpt Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Phillippe, estimates that some 20 percent of actors use PEDs to bulk up and define. "HGH is on the scene now more than ever before," says Hill, who frowns upon PED use and stresses that none of his clients partake. "It's hard not to use. Some people, especially the older ones, are looking for that perfect gym body, and they want a shortcut."
As Hollywood struggles to groom a new generation of box-office draws, the 40-plus male star remains at the top of studio wish lists and is expected to doff his shirt like he did a decade or two ago. In fact, the shirtless shot has become de rigueur for tentpole campaigns. The trouble is that six-pack abs are difficult to maintain after the age of 40, "unless you are extremely genetically gifted," notes Hill, who points to the well-showcased frame of one 40-something leading man in a recent studio film as not plausible without a cycle or two of steroids.
Though doping might be relatively new to Hollywood, the sports world long has grappled with the phenomenon. In the past decade, revered athletes from track-and-field star Marion Jones to cyclist Lance Armstrong have seen their marketing prowess plummet after being tied to banned substances. This summer, Major League Baseball has been rocked by the Alex Rodriguez drug scandal. In light of his alleged PED use, he may be forced to forfeit more than $34 million in salary.
It comes as no surprise that few in the Hollywood spotlight admit to imbibing for fear of stigmatization. Oliver Stone, Nick Nolte and Dixie Carter -- who all extol the anti-aging benefits of HGH -- are among the exceptions. Charlie Sheen told Sports Illustrated that he took steroids to prep for his role as a pitcher in 1989's Major League. Mickey Rourke and Arnold Schwarzenegger also have opened up about using PEDs.
"The guy who uses steroids and admits to it earns more respect from me than the guy who uses but insists he doesn't and wants his fans to believe he did things the hard way," says elite trainer Mark Twight, an outspoken proponent of a drug-free regimen, who helped turn Man of Steel's Henry Cavill's abdomen into one of the most-talked-about midsections of the year -- a feat that he says was achieved 100 percent naturally.
As actors are becoming increasingly buff for their roles, more and more are fielding questions about PED use during junkets. On the press tour for Paramount's Pain & Gain, pumped stars Mark Wahlberg, 42, and Dwayne Johnson, 41, insisted that they trained without PEDs. "I went from 165 to 212 [pounds]," Wahlberg told THR at the film's premiere. "It was a lot of work and a lot of eating, but that's what the part required, so that's what I had to do."
USC professor and steroid expert Todd Schroeder says the human body can indeed accomplish some phenomenal results naturally, particularly in one's 20s, when natural testosterone production peaks. But for older actors, especially when they nab a role and are expected to get a ripped body quickly, the temptation to use may be too great. "If someone says, 'Hey, add [PEDs] to this workout,' you can get substantial changes very quickly," says Schroeder.
PED use is legal with a prescription in the U.S., but only to treat such conditions as short stature in children. However, physicians frequently are prosecuted for prescribing them for anti-aging or bodybuilding. Still, it's easy enough to find a conduit, particularly through trainers who inhabit the sketchier side of muscle-building. "You can walk into any old-school gym like Gold's in Venice Beach and get a hookup," says Hill.
Both steroids and HGH injections are easily self-administered. With HGH, a bio-engineered substance, the user pinches a layer of skin and fat -- ideally above the navel or on the inner thigh -- and inserts a small needle into the skin fold. Some PEDs are taken once a week, others require a daily shot, often split into a morning and evening routine.
Those who opt for the needle run the risk of being publicly outed. In 2007, Sylvester Stallone was busted for bringing 48 vials of HGH into Australia. Tyler Perry and 50 Cent were among a group of celebrities whose names surfaced in connection with a steroid investigation in New York in 2008. The Albany Times Union reported that Perry and 50 Cent allegedly ordered performance-enhancing drugs from doctors and pharmacists who were targeted in a statewide probe.
Several talent agents and managers interviewed for this piece chuckle at how steroid and HGH use is the new worst-kept secret in showbiz, the "no duh" cousin of Botox and Restylane, and point to scrawny actors who quickly morphed into he-men for roles. Studios largely have turned a blind eye to the practice, they contend.
In fact, studios might be part of the problem, with their tight schedules and Herculean expectations. An actor typically trains for just one to two months before tackling a body-intensive role, a far cry from the regimen of the professional athletes whose bodies they mirror.
"The pressure to perform in Hollywood is no different than it is in Major League Baseball," says nutritionist and performance coach Mike Dolce, who has helped MMA star-turned-actor Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and CSI: NY's A.J. Buckley get natural results. "These are people whose salaries are partially dependent upon how they look. Unfortunately, for those who take drugs, it's a short-term improvement followed by a crash. Their bodies and hormonal chemistry go to hell."
That contention is backed up by decades of medical research. Steroid use, especially over the long-term, can lead to liver damage. HGH use is considered less dangerous, with the common side effect being water retention, though it also has been shown to increase the risk of cancer, diabetes and heart failure. But perhaps the most troubling byproduct of all PEDs is psychological addiction. "You keep doing more and more, and you're not satisfied with how you look even though you've had significant improvement in your body composition," says Schroeder.
But director Vlad Yudin, who immersed himself in Venice Beach's bodybuilding scene for his documentary Generation Iron (Rourke narrates), out Sept. 20, is less alarmed. "The more actors learn about it, the more they tend to use it," Yudin says. "It comes down to how you use it and who can guide you. Without a proper guide, it can be dangerous. And again, it takes a lot of hard work regardless."
Yudin's take reflects that of the bodybuilding community, which is more laissez-faire about PED use and doesn't test for such substances in competition. Schwarzenegger became a user when he was earning such titles as Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia, which helped launch his movie career.
Even Schroeder sees little harm in one-time use of steroids to bulk up for a specific role. "If it's for a short period of time, if they're doing it two or three months to help them get to a certain point, then it's fairly safe," he says.
Personal health risks aside, there remains a concern among people who track steroid use that Hollywood -- like the sports world -- is increasingly fostering unrealistic body images thanks to the more-ripped-than-ever tentpole star. Those depictions are digested by teens, who, Schroeder says, are more vulnerable to the side effects of PEDs than adults.
A 2012 study conducted by the University of Minnesota found that teens are using steroids and muscle-enhancing substances at higher rates than previously thought. Nearly 6 percent of boys in the survey reported using steroids, while the rate among girls was 4.6 percent.
At least one studio made a conscious effort to keep its leading man squeaky clean. Before Cavill began his grueling five-month preproduction training for Steel, Warner Bros. requested a list of exactly what the training team might ask Cavill to use. Twight gladly complied, given that he believes radical body recomposition can be done naturally when it is guided by experienced trainers and driven by discipline and commitment. For Cavill, Twight recommended only Udo's Oil (a blend of essential fatty acids) and magnesium to aid sleep, the time when growth hormone occurs naturally.
"With Superman, well, that guy better be clean," says Twight. "Because otherwise, it's the kind of thing that turns around and bites your whole marketing campaign in the backside."