Director Rawson Marshall Thurber on Getting in Shape for His Family

December 1, 2021


If you don’t know Rawson Marshall Thurber, you definitely know his work—he’s written and directed a string of hit movies, including 2004’s Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and more recent blockbusters like Central Intelligence and Skyscraper. His latest flick, Red Notice, stars Ryan Reynolds, Dwayne Johnson, and Gal Gadot and is now Netflix’s most-watched film of all time. But Thurber has also found success in a very different arena: the gym. (The photos don’t lie.)

Unlike most Hollywood fitness transformations, Thurber didn’t hit the gym to fill out a superhero costume or show off on camera. Instead, he’s taking the long view—adopting a fitness-focused lifestyle so he can be an active father for his three young kids for years to come. It’s tough work, but worth it.

“That physical engagement with my children just matters to me more than eating a donut,” he tells Men’s Journal.

A little over a year after embarking on his fitness journey, it’s clear the sweat is paying off. We talked with Thurber about his approach to fitness, working out with his wife (“I couldn’t have done it without her”), how the gym compares to Hollywood, and more.

Men’s Journal: When did you first get into fitness?

Rawson Marshall Thurber: Well, I’ve always been athletic. I played collegiate division three football for one year before I hung up my spikes and focused elsewhere. I’ve always loved sports, so I’ve been in the gym off and on for most of my life.

But in terms of this most recent fitness journey, it started while I was in Atlanta making Red Notice. I was talking to my wife, Sarah, and we were sharing what we wanted our goals to be. For me the main goal is to be a healthy and fit father for a long time to come. I started having kids a little later than most, and I want to be in my kids’ lives in a meaningful way for the next 40 years. I thought, “No time like the present to start.”

That was really the main motivator. My wife is also athletic, she used to be a pretty serious ballerina. We decided to go on this journey together, and that’s been the best part of it: sharing this with her. The mission was to get in the best shape of my life, for myself but mostly for my family.

How did you get started?

I had never had a trainer before. To me it was always like, “If you need somebody to count reps for you, then you have a motivation issue.” I just never really saw the value in it. Then I saw my friend Kumail Nanjiani’s transformation, and obviously the world reacted to that with such overwhelming enthusiasm and joy.

When Sarah and I talked about doing this together, I thought, “If we’re going to do this and we want to really achieve, maybe it’s about finding somebody who can be our Sherpa to that mountaintop.”

So I reached out to Kumail, and I said, “Congratulations, so thrilled for you, and what do you think of your trainer, Grant Roberts?” He said, “I love him. Let me introduce you.” That was the key—meeting Grant and having him not just count reps for us, but guide us through the building process and the various stages.

We considered a couple other trainers, but when we met with Grant and spoke with Kumail, it was a no-brainer. He was the right guy for us, he had the right approach, and he understood our goals.

Rawson Thurber sitting on a bench in the gym
The Riker Brothers

What does your typical fitness routine look like?

Sarah and I, with the help of Grant, have started working out in the morning four times a week for an hour. We put the kids in the car, drop them off, and drive right to the gym and work out.

Obviously, you alternate the parts of the body that you’re working on. Usually it’s either a piece on top and a piece on bottom, or there are alternating muscle groups. So if we were working on our chest, we might do chest then triceps or biceps, something like that. Or we’ll do a shoulder workout with some hamstrings.

Working four days a week allows us to double up on a muscle group. Whatever we want to emphasize, we do twice a week. My wife and I usually have differing opinions on what to double up on. And Grant, because he’s a smart man, will split it. So Sarah would get to double up on legs, and I’d get to double up on shoulders or chest or something else. He keeps it peaceful.

She and I are both very happy with the results. I know this is going to sound corny, but the best part has been sharing this with my wife and doing this together. When she’s tired, I help her rally. And when I’m tired, she helps me rally. We had a close marriage before, but doing this together has brought us even closer.

You’re no stranger to the gym, but does this go-round feel different because of those long-term goals you’ve set?

Oh, completely. Anybody who has kids will tell you that it changes your life in the best way. It changes your priorities: What mattered to you before you had kids does not matter in the same way after you have kids. When I was younger, I was in the gym to get stronger, bigger, faster for whatever sport I was playing. And then after I stopped playing sports, it was about just sheer vanity more than health. How do I look good with my shirt off? But now it’s just become a deeper life goal.

Rawson Thurber using a machine in the gym
The Riker Brothers

Have your kids noticed a difference since you started?

No, they don’t notice. The only thing they notice is when Daddy goes out to the garage to ride the Peloton, that’s pretty much it. Or if I’m on the rowing machine, my daughter sometimes likes to go for a ride.

Do you have a favorite exercise?

I’m a big fan of shoulder work. I really like lateral dumbbell flyes and doing landmine shoulder presses. We’ll load plates on a 45-pound bar that rests at a 45-degree angle. You squat down, pick it up, and press it above your head. And then if Grant wants to get really mean about it, he’ll turn it into a thruster where you squat down and push up with your glutes, then with your arms, so you get the whole body.

Do you have a fitness icon? Anyone you really look up to?

Mathew Fraser [five-time CrossFit Games Champion] is up there for me. I’ve made three movies with Dwayne Johnson, so it’s not lost on me that he’s been in the gym once or twice. And then Kumail—the dedication and willpower it takes to make that kind of transformation is really inspiring.

Rawson Thurber carrying weights
The Riker Brothers

How do you stay fit during production?

Actors get plenty of time off to go work out. As the writer-director, you’re never not needed on set; you don’t have any off days. And you’re usually there very early and very late. For me, the only real way to do it was to wake up before call and do something, even if it’s just 15 minutes. Something is better than nothing—that was my motto going in. Even if it’s bodyweight exercises, even if it’s a hundred pushups and a hundred air squats, that’s something.

How does fitness fit into your work as a writer and director? Do those two sides of your life complement each other in any way?

They’re analogous in that, when you’re in the gym, it takes the same level of focus, dedication, and commitment that it takes to write a screenplay. Part of writing a screenplay is consistency. Some days are not your best, just like in the gym. Some days you have a great six-page day, and other days it’s a page and a half and it’s terrible. But you sit your ass in the seat and you grind.

When I’m making a movie, I always try to remember what my goal is and what I love about it. With Red Notice, my goal was to entertain the world. I wanted to give them two hours of laughs and fun, thrills and chills. When you have a big enough “why,” you can manage almost any “how.” When you keep your eye on the prize, you can deal with all the little stuff because you know what your eventual goal is. The same with working out. My big “why” is I want to be a healthy, vital, and vibrant father for the next 40-plus years in my life for my kids. That’s what gets my ass in the gym.

One of your most beloved films is Dodgeball, which is almost an anti-fitness movie—the Globo Gym team are the bad guys. Did you draw on any of your gym experiences when writing and making that film?

I think I’ve been in enough gyms and worked out enough with people who take it too seriously that it was easy to write White Goodman and the Globo Gym Purple Cobras. I always felt more like an Average Joe myself, so that was super fun to write. Having spent time in the gym during my inglorious sports career, you get to see all sides, and I definitely drew on that for Dodgeball.

Red Notice has a lot of really high-intensity fight scenes. Does being fit help you write or direct those action scenes?

I don’t think being someone who focuses on his own fitness helped me write action sequences; I think loving action sequences helped me write them. But the real key factor is having a fabulous stunt team. We had George Cottle for a stunt coordinator, and we had three incredible stunt doubles: Tanoai Reed, who’s the stuntman of the year, Jonny James, who’s Ryan Reynold’s double, and Stanni Bettridge for Gal Galdot. They’re all fabulous, fabulous athletes. Ryan, Gal, and Dwayne are also incredibly fit people. You can’t find more gifted physical actors than those three, I think.

Rawson Thurber lifting a barbell in the gym
The Riker Brothers

Red Notice has been a huge success. Why do you think it resonated with audiences so well?

I think a big reason for Red Notice‘s success has been that the movie itself is really fun. It’s big stars, big action, big laughs—it’s for everybody, and we made it that way. I can’t tell you the number of messages I’ve been getting where someone says, “My husband and I watched it with our teenage kids and we all loved it.” Or, “My wife and I watched it with our parents and our 9-year-olds, and we all loved it.” Those messages are just so heartening. It’s a movie for people who love movies, and it has no agenda other than to entertain. And I think two hours of fun, joy, laughter, and action is what the world wants right now, considering the last couple years have been real, real tough for everybody.

This is your third film with Dwayne Johnson. Have you ever worked out with him?

Never. I’m still waiting on my invitation to the Iron Paradise, but be careful what you wish for. I think if he did invite me, I’m not sure I would go. I get tired just watching his videos.

What’s harder: building a successful career in Hollywood or getting a six-pack?

Having a successful career in Hollywood comes down to three things: hard work, luck, and talent, probably in equal measure. The only one of those you can control is hard work. Getting abs—that is tenacity and hard work as well. But you don’t need luck or talent to get abs. So maybe it is slightly harder to have a successful career in Hollywood.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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