Aaron Williamson is a health advisor and fitness trainer to the film industry. He has helped craft the physical transformations of Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained, Zac Efron in Neighbors and Josh Brolin in Oldboy. He recently finished molding Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke into legendary action heroine Sarah Connor for Terminator: Genisys. Find out more at aaronwilliamson.net.
Were you a fan of the Terminator movies growing up?
Oh, for sure. It was a little surreal getting the phone call to come train the cast. I remember calling my dad and telling him about it because we used to watch Terminator all the time. The movie’s iconic, the Terminator’s iconic, Sarah Connor’s iconic. The whole franchise is just amazing.
How did you go about taking actress Emilia Clarke, who plays a physically delicate queen on Game of Thrones, and crafting her into an action heroine?
It was a challenge and I was excited about it because it’s the type of character that I like to train someone for. Sarah Connor represents this strong, powerful woman who can basically take on the world. It was so cool to be a part of helping this young, amazing actress become this hardcore iconic figure. And it started with some hard, hard training. This process is about flipping a switch and embracing the fact that it’s going to be tough and there will be some pain & discomfort associated with it. But that’s the fun part, right?! Pushing those new limits to transform your body.
Where do you start with that?
Emilia came in from L.A. to start training and we had a good chunk of time before production started, about four weeks. We spent hours a day in the gym. We would start our morning off doing cardio, whether high intensity interval training or low intensity steady state type stuff, maybe on the treadmill or some Stairmaster work. She’s a phenom on the rowing machine too; I couldn’t even keep up with her on it! That would basically be our first session and then we’d break. We’d sit back in the break room to regroup for a bit and relax, eat and get ready for round two. We weren’t able to split the training up throughout the day so we had to maximize the time we had, which was typically early mornings.
The training was different. You’re not going to get the look Sarah Connor has by training with free weights and dumbbells alone. So we were very creative to help her have a lean, toned look and to be able to run and carry heavy weapons. Emilia’s not a tall or very big woman, but she’s gotta carry some pretty heavy-duty weaponry during the film. The approach in the gym was very functional.
What was training like during prep for the film?
Cardio was typically forty-five minutes to an hour. We might take about a twenty-minute break, we’d do a shake and we rotated her foods around quite a bit. Hemp protein, some chia seeds. We’d throw in a brown rice cake or maybe some fruit just depending on what we were doing for the day’s training. After the cardio, we’d go into the ‘dungeon’ and do a lot of functional work, a lot of TRX, ropes, kettle bells. All your non-traditional free weight stuff. And then two days a week we would try to focus on getting free weights in. We wanted to have that long, lean muscly look, so it was steady combination of functional training, metabolic conditioning and strength training.
The functional fitness makes so much sense for the character because in Terminator 2, Sarah Connor builds this physique in an institution where she’s flipping her bed up and doing inverted push ups and pull ups. She’s not exactly working out in a traditional gym.
No. We might go on a circuit with box jumps, we’d hit TRX squats, we’d do plank push ups, we’d do a set of kettle bells where there’d be swings or stiff leg dead lifts. When you’re circuit training, you’re going to be able to keep an actor engaged better than if you’re sitting on a bench curling a dumbbell. Out of all the training I’ve done in my career, I’ve spent more time with her than anyone else, so she put in some hours, especially during pre-production. And on top of our training, she would leave from the gym and go straight to stunt training. She would just have a completely physically exhausting day of non-stop stunts, weapons, training with me, cardio and then I had her on a low calorie diet on top of it. That’s tough. I have a lot of respect for her.
How did the training change during filming?
The training time got cut down obviously. The obstacle was the energy because on top of working the long day, she would have to get to set maybe two or three hours earlier to get ready. Her days were so long. When you factor in how much sleep she was able to get before she was back in the gym with me, I don’t care who you are, it will be tough. What made it even more difficult for her was that the schedule started on night shoots for 6 days a week. Talk about throwing your body off!
What was your plan for nutrition?
We’d have meals prepped and protein shakes ready. But low calorie is low calorie. You’re going be hungry. It can be a little stressful for an actor because you’re trying to memorize pages of dialogue and be in the scene, you’re tired because you’re not sleeping, and you’re hungry. She put in so much work for this character and that’s even more reason why I’m so excited to see the finished product. On set, it looked like a hell of a performance covering every area of the emotional spectrum: sad, hurt, angry, commanding. She can pull it all off. In the trailer, she looks strong and powerful. I’d like to think that we accomplished our goal.