“I didn’t really feel like it would be a great idea for me to come to work putting on some faux suit and be all pumped up with prosthetics,” actress Sarah Paulson said in 2019 about preparing to play the late Clinton scandal whistleblower Linda Tripp in American Crime Story. But when photos later emerged this April of Paulson on set, outlets were quick to emphasize how dramatically different the actress looked. “Unrecognizable” or “barely recognizable” were the most repeated descriptors, as outlets gawked at the slim actress done up in makeup and unmistakeable prosthetics for a full-body transformation into Tripp. “This is going to require a lot of things,” Paulson later said in a 2020 interview with Jimmy Kimmel, who giggled that her preparation would likely require more than “just a perm.” “I’ll be wearing a lot of prosthetics and body transformational accoutrements, if that’s a word I can use.”
Those “body transformation accoutrements” are a reminder of Hollywood’s history in casting naturally thin actors as fat characters. And while show creator Ryan Murphy defended Paulson, telling outlets that she had dedicated herself enough to the role that “she wanted to do it naturally and she gained weight to play Linda Tripp,” the shocked response to the TV makeover emphasized the spectacle that such performances create. When actors wear fat suits for roles, they often stress in interviews that these suits reflect their dedication to a role and to cinematic realism. Fat obscures the actor’s real form and face, the implication is that they are erasing their identity as a name-brand actor for the greater good of the project. But instead of truly disguising a celebrity for an immersive role, the fat suit becomes a spectacle that only draws attention to how thin the star really is, upholding the harsh dichotomy between what bodies are acceptable for actors in Hollywood and what bodies are acceptable only as a costume.
Historically when Hollywood has put a thin actor in a “fat suit,” a term largely derided by industry professionals who prefer to specify the various prosthetics and makeup that go into a character, the suit isn’t typically used to create a human, fully realized fat character but one that is grotesque. When a then-thin Orson Welles wore a rare, early fat suit for his role in 1958's Touch of Evil, he did so to emphasize the immorality of his corrupt police chief character Captain Quinlan. When Terry Jones dines as the character Mr. Creosote in Monty Python’s 1983 film The Meaning of Life, strapped into a fat suit, he eats profusely until he vomits, ultimately exploding.
“They often get used in pretty one-dimensional storytelling,” Kathleen LeBesco, the author of Revolting Bodies: The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity, tells Jezebel. “Usually the storytelling is meant to cast the fat version of a character as the butt of a joke rather than a really complicated individual.”
It was only in the late 1990s and early 2000s that the fat suit reached its peak as a comedic trend. It was an era of pop culture that valorized ultra-skinny young bodies on-screen, a president who was publicly mocked for his diet, and a brewing panic over America’s obesity epidemic. “We’re just too darned fat,” the US Health and Human Services secretary said in 2004, the same year the Food and Drug Administration would launch an initiative to review calorie counts on food labels and encourage restaurants to include them on menus. In Hollywood making fun of fat people was considered “the last safe prejudice,” as one 1996 article described it, and a slate of films in the ’90s and ’00s used prosthetics and costumes to turn actors into outrageous characters whose fatness was portrayed as integral to their outrageousness.
Actors like Tyler Perry, Eddie Murphy, and Martin Lawrence slipped into fat and female drag in movies like Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Norbit, The Nutty Professor, and Big Momma’s House as brash, assuming characters criticized as much for their mockery of fatness as they were for playing into stereotypes of Black women. In 2001’s Shallow Hal, Jack Black’s lead is hypnotized to only see women’s “inner beauty,” which the film translates as Black only seeing fat women as thin women. When he meets Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, playing a fat woman he sees as thin, the film flips between Paltrow’s natural body and scenes of her in a fat suit, still upholding the idea that “beauty” is synonymous with thinness.
“A character kind of becomes defined by his or her fatness and we see that over and over again in different films and television shows where they’re using a fat suit,” says Deborah Harris-Moore, author of Media and the Rhetoric of Body Perfection. Harris-Moore argues that the fat suit is often associated with stigma, from sexualizing a character to portraying them as a sloth. “People become aware of the fat suit’s presence because the actor is not normally fat or they’re in drag, which emphasizes the change even more.” When Ryan Reynolds first appears on-screen as a geeky, retainer-wearing, soda-guzzling fat teenager in Just Friends, just watching Reynolds in a fat suit is clearly meant to incite laughs, as the movie plays off the fact that audiences know Reynolds is a fit, Hollywood heartthrob in real-life.
It’s easy to witness the comedic fat suit movies of the ’00s, which have a cartoonish perception of how fat characters should exist, and point out how detrimental they are to fat audiences and fat actors whose representation in film has long been sidelined by straight-sized celebrities. And fat suit comedy as it existed in movies like The Nutty Professor or in characters like Martin Short’s lispy talk show host Jiminy Glick has largely fizzled out, a testament to the genre’s fad humor. Though Hollywood has made very small strides in casting more fat and plus-sized actors, fat actors can still be cast essentially in the role the fat suit once played, in parts that play off their body size for a cheap gag (take, for example, Melissa McCarthy’s flirtatious role in Bridesmaids, or Rebel Wilson’s turn as “Fat Amy” in Pitch Perfect).
“I think the discourse of body positivity has been mainstreamed enough in the last 15 years that even the kind of person who is not a real, sophisticated critic of the way bodies are represented might now recognize that the fat suit can be a problematic device,” LeBesco says, citing shows like Shrill or Dietland. “There’s been a lot more conversation around who gets to represent what kind of experience in pop culture.”
But fake fatness in film has persisted, though it’s often veiled and defended as an artistic choice, just one tool in an actor’s arsenal to commit to a role that requires a transformation. For Christian Bale’s role as Dick Cheney in the 2019 biopic Vice, the method actor gained weight but still had to wear a fat suit and prosthetics, and that same year John Lithgow also wore a fat suit to play Roger Ailes in the film Bombshell, both projects using added fatness to reflect a person’s morality. Last year Viola Davis wore a fat suit to better emulate the body of 1920s singer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, telling the New York Times that she “reveled in her, I swished my hips every day,” while in character.
Actors who only fit the requirements of a role with extensive prosthetics and make-up spend hours in dressing rooms in order to transform into a version of themselves that is, as the breathless articles repeat, unrecognizable. And yet when productions and actors draw attention to the labor that goes into this characterization, they more intensely highlight the distance between the thin actor and the fatter person they are apparently trying to seamlessly portray. “When we think of casting a character, we’re trying to find someone who fits that character. We don’t want to be thinking that this is an actor playing the part,” Harris-Moore says. “What happens with fat suits is this kind of weird meta-casting that deliberately draws attention to itself... it naturally draws attention to the fatness itself.”
The media spotlight on that distance feels deliberate, and the actor’s transformation becomes a sort of sideshow to the actual movie, as actors are sure to remind audiences of how intense the process of existing in a fatter body can be, given how obviously different their own body is. “We spent hours and hours getting that big fat body right,” Lithgow told the press about Bombshell, adding that the production decided he really “needed man boobs.” “Linda had a very specific way of holding her body, that is very different than mine,” Paulson said of working with a movement coach to nail down her characterization of Linda Tripp. “I saw it on the air, paused it and went screaming into the other room,” January Jones said of seeing herself in the fat suit she wore as Betty Draper in Mad Men, a character development written to hide her real-life pregnancy.
Sometimes the actor frames wearing a fat suit as a freeing or even educational moment, a sort of respite from their apparently tortuous experience existing in their own, thin body. “It was the hottest I’ve ever been,” Chris Hemsworth said of the 60 to 70-pound fat suit he wore in Avengers: Endgame as Thor after he “ate his way through his emotions,” a suit he found “hugely liberating.” After walking around in her fat suit for Shallow Hal, Paltrow told reporters at the time that the experience was “so sad, so disturbing,” because nobody would make eye contact with her. In a 2006 article, film critic A. S. Hamrah theorized that actors are drawn to the fat suit to “make themselves lovable.” “When an army of personal trainers exists solely to help Julia Roberts work off last night’s dessert, the fat suit provides a way for actors to show themselves doing the one thing they can’t do: eating to excess, behaving the way they think their audience behaves,” he wrote.
But the actor’s fat suit is less an elaborate attempt to appear relatable and more of a tool to actually further advertise their real, sainted thinness. When fat is made an accessory on an actor’s frame, it literally objectifies fatness, and actors talk about their body in character from an awed, even uncomfortable distance. The more actors draw hard lines in the sand between their own figures and the figures of the characters they play, they continue to perpetuate the idea that these bodies are abnormal in the sets and spaces they frequent as Hollywood stars.
“There’s more of a spectacle if you have someone like Chris Hemsworth,” says Barbara Plotz, author of Fat on Film: Gender, Race and Body Size in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema, about Hemsworth’s fat suit while playing Thor. “The audience knows, actually it’s a super [muscular] fit guy, but look at how he’s fat here. The comedy is based on this gap between the very normative body and the fat suit.”
Whether they’re playing ridiculous fictional characters or embodying real-life personalities, actors will always be here to tell the audience how isolating and unusual these transformations are, while outlets and movie-goers lap up the details, all along with the comfort of knowing their favorite stars are still acceptably thin underneath it all.