How Isabelle Fuhrman Trained to Portray the Dark Side of Athletics In 'The Novice'
Have you ever watched a film where the main character is an athlete and marveled at how on Earth they prepared for that rigorous role? If so, The Novice — and lead actor Isabelle Fuhrman — might blow you out of the water.
The Novice, which first appeared at Tribeca Film Festival in June 2021 and was released on Amazon Prime Video in December 2021, has since garnered attention for Fuhrman's performance as Alex Dall, a first-time rower obsessed with the initial undertaking of the sport. The film follows Dall in her freshman year of college, where her training as part of the school's rowing team quickly consumes the majority of her time. She partakes in few social activities, struggles with her workload, and stays on campus for holidays just to have access to the ergometer (i.e. a rowing machine) and sculls (competitive rowing boats).
As you might be able to tell solely from the above description, this isn't your classic story of an athlete's journey to competitive greatness — rather, The Novice touches on the darker side of sports.
Indeed, this film explores exercise bulimia and exercise addiction — aka compulsive or obsessive exercise, says Haley Perlus, Ph.D., sport and performance psychologist. "Possible signs of an unhealthy relationship to exercise are if you find yourself exercising even when you're sick or injured; if you choose exercise over work, school, or family/friends and social events; if you're afraid of taking time off to recover; if you get anxious when exercise is not available to you; or if you feel guilty when you're forced to miss exercise."
And the conflict at the root of the film is rooted in truth: Up to 84 percent of collegiate athletes reported engaging in maladaptive eating and weight control behaviors, such as binge eating, excessive exercise, strict dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, and the use of weight loss supplement, according to a study published in The Sport Journal. The considerable physical demands of being a student-athlete are believed to contribute to the development of these unhealthy behaviors, according to the researchers. There are rules to help prevent exactly this — for example, the National Collegiate Athletic Association limits students to 20 hours of weekly time spent on athletics — but research shows the rule is frequently violated. (Related: How Manifest Actress Melissa Roxburgh Healed Her Relationship with Exercise After an Eating Disorder)
Behind the Mental Transformation
Dall's struggle with this sort of condition may have been fictional, but this exercise-obsessed lifestyle wasn't far off from Fuhrman's reality while training for the role. Considering she had never rowed before and only had about six weeks to prepare for filming, Fuhrman had to adopt the eat-sleep-train mindset that her character embodied.
"From my first conversation with [screenwriter Lauren Hadaway], she was adamant that in order to make this film the way she wanted to, I had to be the one rowing," says Fuhrman. This meant no extras or stunt doubles, no green screens, no scene manipulation — and it also meant a ton of serious training. (Related: How Lily Rabe Trained to Be Her Own Stunt Double In Her New Thriller Series)
"I love transforming into the characters I play," says Fuhrman. And because she had no prior experience with rowing, she says she immediately connected with the literal novice role (and which, in itself, would account for her own sort of neurotic training schedule). In some of Fuhrman's previous acting gigs, she presents a pattern of mentally and emotionally "transforming" into not just any character, but a harrowing one at that — including her performance as Esther, a tormented adopted child, in the psychological thriller Orphan and most recently, Eleanor in the brooding, twisted horror film, The Last Thing Mary Saw.
"There is a general fascination people have surrounding obsession, and Hadaway wrote the script that takes you inside the anxiety-inducing journey of obsession to achieve a goal for oneself," says Fuhrman. "The script was really a character study… and I had been manifesting a script like this for a while… a character that would mentally take me outside of myself and my comfort zone while also physically requiring me to transform."
Pushing Her Physical Limits
This role, however, required physical transformation, as well. Fuhrman only had six weeks to train before production began, which she said "was especially difficult."
"Within a week, I went from knowing nothing about rowing to spending half a day on the water, in a boat," she says. "The physical discipline of the training really helped me with the emotional side of the character, because you get the sense of the monastic lifestyle of only working out that is a rower's life. You don't drink, you don't go out with your friends, and you are constantly putting your body through extreme pain, so you get that understanding of the self-flagellation of a rower." (See: Why the Rowing Machine Deserves Your Attention)
Just as Dall wakes up to a daily alarm before sunrise, Fuhrman says she would wake up at 4:30 a.m. and roll out of bed to be at the dock by 5 a.m. During her first week of training, she spent three hours of rowing on an ergometer per day at iRow in L.A. Then, she progressed to six hours per day on the water at California Yacht Club, with additional strength and cardio training four times per week. "I was so incredibly sore," says Fuhrman. "I had epsom salt baths every single day, but it didn't feel like they did much."
Fuhrman rowed alongside the rowing team from Trent University in Ontario, Canada in the film, and said she was acutely aware of the fact that she was "so much smaller than all the other rowers." That was part of the story, of course: "Alex isn't naturally gifted or physically predisposed to be a rower," says Fuhrman, who's 5'3", compared to the average of 6' for a woman in an open race, according to U.S. Rowing. Therefore, Fuhrman enlisted the help of Bec Wilcock, a friend and Nike trainer, who coached her into gaining several pounds of muscle. "Our goal was not only to physically change my appearance, but also for me to be able to hold the single scull — a 50-pound boat — over one shoulder with the oars in my other hand, at the end of the film." (Spoiler alert: She made it happen.) When she wasn't rowing or lifting, she was practicing yin yoga on her own to maintain loose muscles.
Of course, going from never touching a rower to then rowing for three and six hours a day, every day, can be a prime environment for overtraining (when someone is training at such a high level of intensity that they're unable to adequately recover between sessions) or overuse injuries (which can typically happen when you radically change your workout schedule in a short period of time or do too much too fast). Before her training for The Novice, Fuhrman typically went for a daily run and did heavy weight training three times a week — so she wasn't truly going from zero to 60. But preventing injury is another reason why Fuhrman worked with professionals to tailor her workout schedule and ensure proper nutrition and recovery time. (See: How Much Exercise Is Too Much?)
"Six hours a day of any exercise can become potentially unhealthy if there is insufficient time afforded for recovery between each bout," explains Fabio Comana, M.A., M.S., exercise physiologist in San Diego.
It's a fine line, but it's doable. "This actress (and many athletes, such as the Tour de France cyclists who ride for 6-8 hours on consecutive days) do just fine over the short term (few weeks-to-months) if the balance of their day is spent in an optimal recovery mode (sleep, eat, hydration, muscle recovery techniques)," adds Comana. (Also read: How Lucifer's Lesley-Ann Brandt Trains to Crush Her Own Stunts On the Show)
The Toll of Diving Deep
Adopting her character's admittedly extreme daily routine was all part of Fuhrman and Hadaway's desire to showcase Dall's "drastic" transformation into a woman obsessed.
"Mentally and physically I felt very strong, but I also felt very fragile and broken, too," says Fuhrman. "It was a full-time job on top of the full time job of being in the movie."
"I think for me — and maybe a similarity between me and my character, Alex — is that it doesn't ever feel like enough for me until I tell myself it is," she says. "In this case, the movie ended filming and that was it."
All her training resulted in her ability to relay a grit-bearing performance on the water. The intensity of the film's racing scenes and training drills were an "honest, authentic" representation of what it's like to be inside a rowing boat, she says. (Related: These Breast Cancer Survivors Found Out That the Road to Recovery Was Actually On the Water)
"It was very important for Hadaway and me to show what it actually feels like for your vision to be tunneling in when your legs feel like bricks, and your butt is cramping, and at the same time your calluses on your hand rips off on the last power 10, and you finish barely able to keep from puking."
While this type of training isn't something anyone should try to emulate in real life, Fuhrman found a lot of purpose — and even joy — in adopting this lifestyle while training for the role.
"I look back on my experience and even though I remember being sore, exhausted, blistered, broken at times, emotionally cracked open… I would totally do it all again," she says. "That level of dedication feeds my creative soul and I love feeling worked to the bone for something I love, and that was the case for The Novice."
If you think you may be suffering from disordered eating or exercise habits, head over to the National Eating Disorder Association's free hotline for support, resources, and treatment options.