Alan Ritchson Goes Big

Lauren Larson

February 27, 2024

Alan Ritchson Goes Big
Article taken from Men's Health
Alan Ritchson Goes Big

Hollywood told him actors don’t break past 30. But he kept working, and at 41, after decades of near misses and tiny roles, the Reacher star is busting out.

MY SENSE OF men’s measurements has been badly warped by height inflation on dating apps—anything above five-foot-eight is a mystery to me—but I know Alan Ritchson is tall. Tall tall.

I meet the 41-year-old in the basement of a house where he’s doing our photo shoot, halfway between Atlanta and his log cabin in Jasper, Georgia. A large, plastered-over beam drops down from the basement’s ceiling, and everyone else moves under it easily. But whenever Ritchson approaches the beam, I feel the same bolt of stress as when a particularly large truck is about to pass under a particularly low overpass. His swoop of coppery hair barely clears the beam each time.

He seems taller than his six-foot-three frame. (That’s six-foot-eight on Hinge.) Perhaps it’s because of the size of the rest of him: With even the slightest movement, at least a dozen muscles visibly activate. Or perhaps it’s because his identity has been so fused with that of former military police officer Jack Reacher, whom Ritchson plays on Amazon Studio’s hit series Reacher.

The character is famously enormous. His creator, author Lee Child, dryly explains that Reacher follows a long tradition of male writers making their heroes one inch taller than they are—Child is six-foot-four. Size is so central to the character that when noted short king Tom Cruise played Reacher in a film adaptation, he was met with skepticism. Child says, “There was a huge amount of pushback from the book fans and so on, saying, No, we need a man mountain here.”

Ritchson makes everyone and everything around him seem dainty. When he’s done posing for photos, we adjourn to a den and squeeze onto a slightly-too-small love seat. On his left wrist, he wears a thick Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore watch. On his right wrist, two silver bracelets, one sparkling with gemstones, move fluidly over a tattoo of a lotus flower. Around his neck, he wears a silver chain with two rings. So bejeweled, he toes a dangerous sartorial line between rock-star pastor and off-duty celebrity, but his face—the cologne-ad glower, the total symmetry, the strong cleft chin—marks him as the latter.

He’s always had the look, but the celebrity is new. And as celebrity tends to do, it is compounding rapidly. Reacher’s second season became Prime Video’s most-watched title during its premiere weekend in December; in February, Ritchson starred opposite Hilary Swank in Ordinary Angels; and he has a role in Guy Ritchie’s The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, out in April.

In a crowd of lanky whippersnappers, Chalamets and Elordis who broke out by age 25, Ritchson is an unlanky outlier. His decades-long road to Reacher-dom was strewn with professional, physical, and mental-health land mines. What clicked?

HIS SIZE SURELY helps. But he has not always looked so invulnerable. As a late-blooming teenager in Niceville, Florida, he was bullied, especially once a tumor began pushing his chin bone out. “When you haven’t hit puberty and you’re 17 and you’ve got a face growing out of your face,” he says, smiling, “it fortifies a sense of kindness that I’m grateful for.”

He had his chin bone shaved down, and shortly thereafter he met his now wife, Catherine, in a ballet class. It was months before he spoke to her. Finally, he recruited a friend to find out whether she had any interests that might serve as an in and learned she enjoyed ice skating. “After the millionth time of us sitting next to each other, inches away, tying our shoes—so now it’s super awkward—I was like, ‘So I heard you ice-skate.’ ” Ritchson is an ultra-animated storyteller, and as he recounts their interaction he sounds as joyful as a teenager telling a friend that he and his crush had spoken at long last. “She was like the sweetest thing in the world.”

After graduating from high school, he studied theater arts at Northwest Florida State before moving to Miami to model. For a few years, he was a Forrest Gump of early-aughts cultural touchstones. He posed for Abercrombie & Fitch in the randy Bruce Weber days. In 2003, when he was 20, he auditioned for American Idol. “There was this one guy, his name was Alan Ritchson, and he was totally hot,” Paula Abdul said in his debut episode. He made it to the second round but was cut after a too-confident performance of “On Broadway.”

He pivoted to acting in 2005, scoring a part as Aquaman on Smallville. So began a long cycle of high expectations and profound disappointments, the volume of false starts exceptional even in Hollywood. He was told he would star on an Aquaman spin-off. “The town was like, ‘You’re riding a rocket right now,’ ” he remembers. “ ‘This is going to be a real wild ride. Your life is about to change.’ ” The role of Aquaman went to Justin Hartley instead.

He kept gathering small roles and finally nabbed a multi-season run as bombastic football captain Thad Castle on the Spike TV sitcom Blue Mountain State. This time, he thought, he’d made it. “I just sort of expected that there would be a cornucopia of comedies for me to choose from, and nobody really wanted to see me for anything.” He was becoming jaded, and he was tired of being the “loud funny guy.”

Next, he auditioned for 2011’s Thor. He still sounds rueful when he describes his performance. “I didn’t take it seriously,” he says. “I was like, ‘They’ll throw me the part if I look like the guy; nobody really cares about acting.’ ” After the audition, the casting cabal told his team the role had been his to lose but he hadn’t shown that he had “the craft.” Chris Hemsworth would be Thor, and Ritchson would simmer for another decade.

Tormented by the fumble, he practiced the scenes for three weeks with an acting coach following the audition. Then he asked to join an exclusive acting class with Deborah Aquila, who cast The Shawshank Redemption and who is now executive vice president of casting at Paramount Television Studios and CBS Studios. He was not, as he had expected to be, a shoo-in.

“All I had to go on when he came in was—bless his heart, this man, I love him—he was so earnest and he really, really wanted to take the next step,” Aquila says. “He had done Blue Mountain State, and I watched episodes of it. And I was scratching my head going, ‘How am I going to help this man?’ ”

She assigned him a monologue, researched more of his work, made pro-and-con columns, and allowed him to join. Aquila recalls the eagerness with which Ritchson approached the process. “I remember that face. He kept looking at me, like saying, ‘Yeah? We’re good?’ With those twinkly eyes,” she says, laughing.

The class was Ritchson’s Batman Begins moment. As Bruce Wayne emerges from Ra’s al Ghul’s monastery in the mountains ready to fight 600 men, so too did Ritchson emerge from Aquila’s class with an understanding of “the craft.” He still faced disappointments. There was, for instance, the time he auditioned for a role in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire that ultimately went to Sam Claflin; Ritchson was told that he was too old for the character and, at 30, unlikely to break out.

But his IMDb swelled with brief appearances on major series—Black Mirror, New Girl, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine—and he found a lucrative niche in superhero movies. In 2014, he played Raphael in the live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And three years later, he auditioned for the lead on the show Titans. “I was so confident. I was like, ‘This is the best damn audition I’ve ever had in my life. There’s no way they can do this show without me,’ ” he says with mock bluster. He was so sure he’d gotten the gig that he bought a Tesla. The role went to Brenton Thwaites instead. Ritchson was told he was too old again. For years, he had been reaching for lead roles and falling just short.

But the foundations had been laid for his performance on Reacher—a performance that should not be nearly as captivating as it is. The character is the antithesis of the “loud funny guy.” When Ritchson’s Reacher speaks, he is like the quiet talker in a meeting: economical and sinister.

“For all his mountainousness, something baffled and childlike is looking out of his eyes, and when he walks, he looks not at home in the world,” The Atlantic writer James Parker wrote in a review, impressed by Ritchson’s “unexpected depth.”

Aquila points out that the actor often seems to pause before taking action. “That’s a thinking person, right? Because that person has seen stuff,” she says. “That’s how the backstory serves you.” Child was drawn to the same transcendent quality in Ritchson’s audition. “The physicality was dead on,” he says. But it was more than that. “You could see him thinking; you could see him three seconds ahead of everybody else, just kind of patiently waiting for everybody else to catch up.”

Hollywood noticed. “I had about 50 offers the weekend after season 1 of Reacher opened [in 2022],” Ritchson says. “I knew my life had changed.”

RITCHSON’S PHYSIQUE HAD changed, too. Before the show, he’d followed the same circuit since his teens: He would run to a park; do pushups, pullups, dips, and situps; and then run home. Occasionally he’d visit a gym for a few sessions if he felt he was getting too skinny or if he wanted to get bigger to play a superhero role.

He began weight training in earnest—two hours a day—for season 1 of Reacher, with instructions to gain 30 pounds. He also hired nutrition coach Daniela Kende (the wife of Pete Ploszek, Ritchson’s co-turtle Leonardo in TMNT) to help him eat better. At the time, he was dining at Mastro’s in Los Angeles several times a week, “eating filet mignon and prime rib and king crab.” He is an intuitive eater, he explains, and gives in to his cravings. If he wants a hot dog, he does not question why he wants a hot dog—he simply procures one. Before Kende’s intervention, he says, every day was a cheat day. Now he follows an 80–20 balance: 80 percent of the time he eats clean, and the remaining 20 percent he eats his preferred Mastro’s fare. He gained his prescribed pounds, and he felt better.

But along with the deluge of offers Ritchson received at the end of the first season, he says, he got a phone call from an executive at Skydance Television, which coproduces the show, informing him that he’d lost too much weight. He’d tried to keep up his lifting cadence while shooting, but working seven days a week was demanding.

Ritchson had more time—a year and a half—between the end of the first season and the beginning of the second, and he needed it. He was “utterly fatigued and broken,” and he had an injured shoulder. A few months after he finished shooting season 1, his doctor suggested he try testosterone-replacement therapy. Though he still exercises five days a week—“people can think what they want, but I work out very hard”—he says TRT has made it much easier to maintain his gains.

He has little patience for any stigma around supplemental testosterone. He recently heard someone describe it as “steroids with a doctor’s note,” and he balked. “I guess it is,” he says now. “I didn’t even know that it was considered an anabolic steroid to some people. It was just: There was a hormone that was missing for me, and I needed it.”

He returned to Reacher like a kid coming back to school after a summer growth spurt. Some viewers thought he’d gotten too big. But others liked his new aesthetic. “The more grizzled look works for me much more than it did for the first season,” one Redditor wrote. “Like he has grown into the role.” He has graduated from Abercrombie to Carhartt, at least.

That rugged appearance has helped him move into the dramatic realm. From the variety of post-Reacher roles offered to him, he decided to play beleaguered father Ed Schmitt in Ordinary Angels, in which a determined woman (Swank) rallies a town to help Ed save his daughter’s life. The film was a swerve. “I needed a stark juxtaposition,” he says with a shrug; he wanted to portray someone who was unlikely to drown an assailant in a vat of wet cement.

Ritchson had only a month and a half after Reacher to lose as much weight as he could. Swank didn’t know what he looked like before meeting him on set. “He wasn’t as big as I thought he was going to be, per what I was told.” When she realized how much he’d transformed his physique for the role, she was stunned. “It’s such a great reminder not to pigeonhole people. Because we can be so much more than people allow us to be when they give us the opportunity.”

Even with the success of Reacher, and even with roles that better demonstrate his range, he is aware of the precarious ness of Hollywood. “The industry’s funny. It can’t be relied on. You have to be very patient with it,” Ritchson says.

And there are challenges that his current momentum, fanned by the success of Reacher, has not erased and never will. When he was 36, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and since then he has been learning to monitor and manage it. Every week, he sees a psychiatrist, who tries to detect any symptoms, and his wife and his assistant, who both have a deep understanding of the disorder, know what to look for and how to help control his behavior.

At home, his manic episodes manifest in relatively harmless ways. “It’s this thing like”—his voice gets quiet and his eyes get a glimmer—“I gotta find a perfectly white pair of shoes that look like a tennis shoe but aren’t. Three days later, eight pairs of shoes show up that are all identical. And I’m like,‘Oh, shit, I’m manic right now.’ ” The consequences can be more severe on the job.

Although depressive periods are more common than manic ones for many people with bipolar disorder, Ritchson deals with the latter more often, and he says he can exhibit symptoms on set in problematic ways. “When I’m feeling depressed, it doesn’t really matter, because I am so focused at work. I could go weeks without people even knowing I feel a certain way,” he says. “When I’m manic and I feel like something isn’t living up to its best potential, it usually comes out in a very—not in a mean way—but in a ‘this has to be better’ way. Like a very, almost obsessive ‘this has to be better.’ ”

The stunt coordinator for Reacher resigned after the first season, Ritchson says, because he felt the star was being too reckless and wasn’t following his instructions. When the coordinator didn’t want him to do a fight scene, for instance, Ritchson would refuse to leave the set. “I was like, ‘I’m doing the fucking stunt.’ It was manic behavior.” (The coordinator ultimately agreed to return to the show.)

But from his bipolar disorder, Ritchson has built a sense of identity insulated from the capriciousness of an acting career. Five years ago, he says, he was haunted by suicidal thoughts, and he found that talking about his mental health openly—on his YouTube channel, InstaChurch—gave him a greater purpose. The possibility that sharing his experiences could make others feel less alone in their own tunnels of mental illness has pulled him out of those periods of suicidal ideation.

He has found other ways to detach from acting. Soon he’ll head back to his cabin to have dinner with his wife and their three sons. “I have brisket waiting for me, and the best mac and cheese, from a place called Bigun’s, and fried okra, and mashed potatoes and gravy, with key-lime pie for dessert.” A mountainous repast, à la Reacher.

And maybe tomorrow he’ll race his Ducati V 4R along the winding mountain roads in Georgia, a pastime he considers meditative rather than terrifying. “It’s like a mental bath.” The V 4R is a track bike, the fastest Ducati you can legally have on the road, and it tops out at 186 miles per hour. (He also has a Harley-Davidson Sportster S in Toronto, where he is buying another house and shooting season 3 of Reacher. “I carve through traffic like it’s a game of Tetris,” he says.)

He doesn’t mind that his career has moved slowly. But he loves going fast.


Most Reacher thing Reacher does?
“Eats like a horse.”

Favorite chess piece?
“Queen—most powerful.”

Favorite workout anthem?
“ ‘Hi Ren,’ by Ren. It’s the greatest song ever.”

Frenemy exercise?
“Weighted lunges.”

Amount you bench?
“I’ve actually been asked this question a million times and I’d never tested myself until a week ago. I threw up 355. I did it six times, so that was not my max. I didn’t feel safe doing more, because I was alone.”

Best cheat meal?
“Mac and cheese. For sure. Love mac and cheese.”

Script developed by Never Enough Design