How Gwendoline Christie got ripped to play Brienne of Tarth

Brienne of Tarth, like several of the characters on HBO's fantasy saga Game of Thrones, is not a role that could be played by simply anybody. Brienne's outsized physical details are too important for the character, too well-defined, and too beloved by readers to change. So kudos to the casting department for finding what many consider to be the perfect actor for the role of Brienne in Gwendoline Christie. 

Tall, confident, and intimidating, Christie fits in the role of one of Westeros' most powerful, noble, and disrespected knights like a hand in a glove. But even considering her natural aptitude for the role, Christie had to put in a lot of work to make the look perfect. Here's how the six-foot-three actress and model got her body into the shape of a committed, lifelong warrior.

She has a gymnastics and dance background

When it comes to working out, progress comes from breaking bad habits and replacing them with healthy ones. If you have a foundation of athleticism going for you, even on a hobbyist basis, you'll be miles ahead before you ever even set foot in the gym. All told, Christie had a great foundation, acknowledging in an interview with Stylist that "at a time" she could have pursued a career as a professional gymnast. 

"From the age of 7, I just loved dancing. I did ballet, tap, and rhythmic gymnastics," she said. "I did lots of dancing and was obsessed with it. I lived and breathed it. I loved the discipline of dancing coupled with the total freedom of letting one's spirit go. And then I had a back injury when I was 11 and had to stop." 

The injury precipitated a change in interests, which would lead to a career as an actress and a position, today, as a rising star in the fantasy genre both on TV with Game of Thrones and in movies with roles in The Hunger Games and Star Wars.

She started training before even being offered an audition

When the Game of Thrones series was still in development and in the early going, with many favorite characters yet to be cast, content-starved fans of the Song of Ice and Fire book series made a hobby out of dream-casting every last role. According to a GamesRadar interview, fans of the series took to the Internet and pegged Christie as an ideal actor for the role — well before the second season in which she's introduced. Online fervor was strong enough that some people took the step of contacting Christie's agent on her behalf, enthusiastic about her suitability for the role. The fans' online support pushed her to try out for the show, and in the months before the audition, she was already hitting the gym to get herself in fighting shape. 

"Over six weeks a dear friend of mine worked with me," she said. "I started working out and lost a stone and a half" — about 21 pounds of excess weight. The prep work, coming off a stretch of her life during in which she was not hitting the gym regularly, paid off, despite the difficulty. 

"I had to make a substantial leap physically to even be considered, let alone exceed the capacity of those around me who were competing for the part," Christie told Vogue.

She works with personal trainers on every detail

One benefit of getting a high-profile role on an expensive HBO production is that your physique is going to get some serious Hollywood help. Once Christie landed the role, she had the benefit of working with personal trainers commissioned by show producers to whip her and many of her fellow actors into a downright medieval shape. 

In the early days of training, she worked with trainer Phil Learney of Ultimate Performance to put on more than 14 pounds, putting in sessions with the trainer "three or four times a week," the actress said. "He tailored my workout specifically so I'd develop the kind of body structure of someone that rode horses and did sword-fighting." 

She also worked with another London-based trainer named Dalton Wong, who was tapped by HBO to provide fitness instruction for a number of Thrones stars like Tobias Menzies, who plays Edmure Tully, and Kit Harington, who plays Jon Snow.

She trained her body for knightly acts

Dalton Wong, who drew up workout plans for Christie as well as a number of Game of Thrones actors, told The Washington Post that the routines he's developed with the castmates of Westeros are "not your classic sort of bodybuilding training," instead focusing on movement-based work that aimed to emulate the sort of actions classical swordfighters and horseriders would naturally be doing over the course of their days and duties. Which makes sense — it's not like the buff men and women of medieval times had the luxury of doing four-day splits down at Ye Olde Gold's Gym to get good and yoked. 

With these trainers and others, Christie honed her skills to the point where she could believably portray a knight on-screen, mounting horses and felling foes with practiced ease. "I was given extensive horse-riding lessons, so that not only was I confident on the horse, but I could ride," Christie said. "And a brilliant stunt coordinator called CC Smith taught me how to fight and swordfight. My physicality was altered so I was much heavier in the way I walked, less upright and a lot more masculine." 

The latter work, which Wong calls "postural work", is focused on strengthening the core and back muscles — "the muscles in between the shoulder blades, the muscles all up the back," he said. "Riding a horse while it's galloping, you have to have very good posture, you can't be hunched over. So you have to have a very good, drawn-in, shoulders-back, chest-up posture."

She cut out alcohol and changed her diet

Booze can be a lot of fun, and in the messed-up land of Westeros, it's probably extremely helpful when it comes to getting through the day. But it's also a luxury the best knights must abstain from. Christie, in taking up the mantle of one of the world's strongest, took the idea of abstinence to heart. 

There's no getting around it — alcohol is a killer for diets. Not only are you not getting anything beneficial out of it nutrient-wise, alcohol calories disrupt fat metabolism, inhibit muscle growth, and lock you into a two-steps-forward, one-step-back weight loss routine, at best. Giving up alcohol for the sake of her training was a concession Christie was more than willing to make. "I don't think I've ever wanted anything as much," she said of her motivated mindset at the time. 

Prior to netting the role, she says her lifestyle was "getting quite comfortable. I was even developing a bust — all those jacket potatoes and bars of chocolate were paying off." But once the role of a lifetime was on the line, she snapped into healthier habits, and cut herself off from the cozier things in life. "I completely changed my eating habits and didn't drink for about two months, just in the service of this part," she said.

She lost weight and gained it back in muscle

Although standing an impressive six-foot-three may have given Christie a leg up over other actors competing for the role of Brienne, it wasn't the only physical attribute she needed to put on a convincing performance. To stay true to the character, Christie didn't just have to look strong — she had to be strong. "I wasn't someone who went to the gym, but a big part of this character is her physicality," she has said. "She's not just tall, but big, broad, phenomenally strong. She's extremely athletic, a master swordswoman and horse-rider." 

To portray Brienne, she needed to look as though she could really do the things Brienne could do — and that takes muscle. But rather than just pack bulk onto her frame and call it a day, she began by cutting out excess fat, the ideal way to go for an aspiring TV star, considering that trying to build muscle without losing fat first risks leaving you with more fat than you had when you started. 

Getting in shape is about so much more than hitting an arbitrary number on a scale — a 200-pound person who's out of shape is going to look a lot different from a 200-pound person who's been bodybuilding, after all. In the preparation for the role of Brienne, Christie first lost 21 pounds, shortly after gaining back about 14 in muscle. So while she her weight remained roughly the same, the results left her body dramatically stronger and more fit.

She embraced the masculine aspects of the role—and it wasn't easy

One difficult part about accepting the role of Brienne is that she's rarely described with flattering terms. While readers of the books have come to love her spirit, the characters that co-inhabit her world treat her so savagely she was gradually led to see herself as "the ugliest girl alive — a great, lumbering beast." So while Christie did work to get her body stronger, she also took steps to look and move in a more masculine way. 

Unlike Brienne, who feels at home in a suit of armor, Christie's aesthetic has long tended toward the feminine, and getting ready for the Game of Thrones role necessitated stripping some of that away. "It was frightening," she said of the process. "Imagine; I used to have really long blonde hair, always wearing heels, lots of make-up. I had been someone who was highly feminized and had chosen to look that way, partly because I was six-foot-three, but also I was into that aesthetic." Becoming Brienne, she said, put her in the position of "confronting elements of myself that I didn't want to confront." 

"To see yourself displayed as unattractive, large, masculine, it's quite tough," she said. Despite her reservations, Christie took the work in stride, even though she privately wept when her hair was cut for the work. Regardless of the difficulties, she says, "I love a challenge, and I love defying limitation, gender stereotypes and people's expectations of me as an actress."

Her outfit in the role is very real and very heavy

Brienne's battle against the Hound, Sandor Clegane, is one of the highlight duels in a show chock-full of them — a knock-down, drag-out fight on the side of a muddy mountain between two combatants armed with heavy swords, in full armor. The result of two months of dedicated preparation, the scene is a visceral bit of action filmmaking — every blow lands with an impact you can feel from your couch, and it's made all the more impressive when you keep in mind that the swords and plate mail that they're working with aren't toys. "Try that in one hand," Christie said to a Vogue interviewer, pointing to a nearby potted plant. "That's just the hilt. And the armor weighs 30 pounds."

Speaking specifically of the Hound fight, which was filmed over the course of three days, Christie told Entertainment Weekly that "it was one of the f****** hardest things I've ever done in my life. My hands were like tramps feet — like swollen." And though that fight was uniquely one of the more complex duels the show has ever staged, when Christie shoots her scenes, she's still almost always wearing that armor, always carrying that sword — notable, harrowing exceptions aside. It's a grueling load to bear over a workday, and if it doesn't keep her in shape on its own, it's definitely a motivator not to let her physical conditioning slip. Not until her time on the show is good and done, anyway.

She learned kickboxing and yoga

Christie is one of the few performers remaining in Game of Thrones' sprawling cast who is actually on record as having read all of the books, and in doing so before seeking the part of Brienne, she knew what kind of body and mind she'd need to cultivate if she wanted a chance at snaring the role. She resolved to do whatever she had to to get fit for the role, even taking on some new athletic practices in the process. 

"I read the books and I really, really wanted to play the part," Christie said to Edit Magazine (via Winter is Coming). "I started kundalini yoga, kickboxing and running, and completely changed my diet. I felt I wanted to undergo what was necessary for the part." Both activities have unique, worthwhile benefits. Yoga practice is beneficial for everybody in a number of ways, and kundalini yoga in particular possesses benefits for both the body and the mind, increasing mindful awareness while shoring up physical vitality. 

Kickboxing, whether sparring a person or pounding a heavy bag, has full-body muscular and cardiovascular benefits that can't be matched by isolation work, resulting in a toned body that can endure strenuous exercise for longer periods of time — which, when you're working long days as an actor shooting fight scenes from every angle, is everything you want when it comes to what your body can put up with.

She's impressed many famous fans with her discipline

For all her hard work, Christie has been rewarded with worldwide renown and an ever-more-successful career, and her fanbase now reaches to the highest halls of power in both politics and sport. Former US President Barack Obama is on record as a fan of the show who's flexed his authority to both get advanced access to upcoming episodes (an extremely Lannister-esque move, frankly) and to inquire the producers directly about the status of Brienne's character between seasons. 

In the celebrity world, pop singer Madonna has brought Christie specifically on stage to compliment her in front of a crowd, getting to the heart of Christie's appeal by saying "You know why I love you? Because you're a tough b****." She's even gotten some love from notably-frightening former heavyweight champion boxer Mike Tyson, who once greeted her on a red carpet and reportedly asked for a selfie with her holding him in a headlock. 

For being a hard-working performer who put in the extra effort to bring a beloved, inspiring character to life, Christie deserves the admiration. Hopefully she makes it to the end of the series relatively unscathed…