We first noticed him 16 years ago as an above-average-looking man on a quirky US sitcom, but none of us really saw Rob McElhenney until “the Dance”. It was 2018, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia had been on air for 13 seasons. Viewers had come to expect the odd and unexpected from “the gang”, but nobody expected the sight of a shirtless McElhenney leading a partner in a lengthy, rain-soaked, extremely dramatic pas de deux – a scene best described, to quote one viewer at length, as “pure art... one of the most beautiful [four-and-a-half] minutes I’ve ever seen in my life. I don’t think I can recall a dance sequence that ever left me in tears. What’s interesting about perception is how we really don’t know each other. When I say ‘each other’, I mean everyone on this great, green, spinning shit-wheel. Everyone has a secret, or a talent, or something that is inside of them that needs to come out. That was the first time I really looked at [McElhenney] in a way that was very different.”
Us, too. And what we saw wasn’t just another above-average-looking man who had transformed his body – losing 30kg and getting shredded into eight-pack shape – but a man of hidden depths and boundless ambitions. As his Always Sunny co-star Danny DeVito whispers towards the end of “the Dance”: “Oh, my God... I get it.”
McElhenney, now 44 and a father of two, has been busy working through those depths and ambitions ever since. Always Sunny, which he co-created and stars in with his wife, Kaitlin
Olson, will enter its 15th season when it returns (hopefully) later this year. He also co-created and stars in Mythic Quest, the Apple TV+ sitcom that answers the question: “What would happen if you crossed League of Legends with The Office?” Its second season is airing now. Meanwhile, somehow he managed to find the time to buy Wrexham AFC (that’s right, the National League football team in Wales) with Ryan Reynolds (yes, the Deadpool actor), who happens to be the teary-eyed Always Sunny fan quoted earlier. The two actors became pandemic friends, and since they both know a little about physical transformations and life as a modern man, we thought it might be interesting if Reynolds, also 44, interviewed McElhenney for Men’s Health. Reynolds kindly agreed, though he had to start with a confession.
Ryan Reynolds: We’ve never met, which is the weirdest thing, because we Zoom and text every day. We’re kinda like work spouses. Everything we’ve done has happened during the pandemic. You were somebody I’d always admired, because you’re an engine of creativity. Then I saw “the Dance”, and I couldn’t not reach out. Like a classic fanboy, I DM-ed to say how much I admire you, and I sent you a case of Aviation Gin, because I’m nothing if not a pusher. [Reynolds is co-owner of Aviation Gin.]
Rob McElhenney: I was in Mexico and I’d posted a photograph of my wife and me drinking tequila. I remember getting a DM from you, and you were, like, “Stop drinking that shit. I’m going to send you a case of Aviation Gin.” And I thought, “OK, that sounds good. I’ll drink anything.” Then you said, “Oh, by the way, I’m a big fan of yours.” I said, “Obviously I’m a big fan of yours.” And we became text buddies.
RR: I have very limited experience interviewing anyone, but one thing that I’m genuinely curious about is your wild body transformation. This is what you wrote about it: “Look, it’s not that hard. All you need to do is lift weights six days a week, stop drinking alcohol, don’t eat anything after 7pm, don’t eat any carbs or sugar at all. In fact, just don’t eat anything you like. Get the personal trainer from Magic Mike, sleep nine hours a night, run three miles a day and have a studio pay for the whole thing over a six- to seven-month span. I don’t know why everyone’s not doing this. It’s a super-realistic lifestyle and an appropriate body image to compare oneself to. #Hollywood.”
RM: So, that was when I got into really, really good shape. I’m fascinated with the presentation of the human body, and the way that it has been presented for the last 30 years or so, and what is considered attractive versus what is considered realistic. For Always Sunny, I spend a lot of time in writers’ rooms with comedy writers, and our job is to tear each other apart and to tear the culture apart – what’s going on in the cultural conversation, and how can we satirise that in a way that nobody else is really doing? I just thought: “Well, I want to try to build a body that’s absolutely ridiculous and truly impossible to keep up unless you devoted your entire life to it.” People ask, “How did you get that ripped?” Everything I named in that post is exactly what I did, and it’s a completely unsustainable lifestyle.
RR: It seems like you’re still in pretty good shape. Rather than just dwell on the superficial aspect, one thing that strikes me is that you must really like acting. When I see Christian Bale lose 929,000lb for one role, I think, “That guy right there was literally born to act.” I do not like acting enough to become my own shadow. Sometimes working out to be that ripped is not healthy. I just feel like if I did end up in that position, I would not trust myself to not actually eat my children. I wouldn’t blink. I’d go home and I’d bite one of their heads off. I’d deal with the prison sentence and the media fallout as it came. I think it’s a very interesting line to walk, you know?
RM: Without a doubt. I had gotten to the point with Always Sunny – because we had been doing it for so long – that I used it as an opportunity to keep challenging myself and to learn new things. People might think that it’s ridiculous that I would spend the better part of four months training, and learning how to dance, for a [four-and-a-half] minute sequence. And to me, it has nothing to do with the sequence and everything to do with the four months that led up to it, because it was just such a fun challenge for me and something I had always wanted to do. But it’s also interesting: I’ve been doing [Always Sunny] for a long time, and now I’ve got [Mythic Quest], and we’ve got the football thing going on. But by far the thing that people ask me about more than anything else is my body transformation.
I’m sure you’ve experienced this, too, but the people who were most fascinated by my body when I was in great shape were dudes. Women couldn’t give two shits. In fact, my wife really was displeased with the way I looked, because she felt like I was trying too hard, and I was. I was! There’s this fascination that men want to look like that and want to be that aesthetically pleasing to other men. I’m talking about straight men as much as men in the gay community. It’s interesting that it’s not based in sexuality or sex appeal and more about this body image that we’ve sort of grown accustomed to. It’s the thing people find fascinating, because it relates to their lives. So much of it is wrapped up in health, but also aesthetics and sex and all sorts of things that make us human, and it’s something we’re all grappling with in different ways every day.
I consider myself a very disciplined person. I eat really clean. I work out hard. I work really hard. I spend a lot of time with my family. I take my kids to school every day. I try to stay as regimented as possible. But if I don’t have whatever that thing is for people – that cookie, that pizza, or that Manhattan I like to drink every single night – I will be miserable. And I know that about myself. That’s actually a sustainable lifestyle for me. I see the Rock, or Kumail [Nanjiani], or whoever it might be who’s in crazy-good shape, and they say, “Oh, I have a cheat meal every Friday.” Great for them. I’m glad that works for them. I have a cheat meal every single day, because that’s sustainable for me. I think that is why Kaitlin probably enjoyed me being heavier than she did me being really ripped – it’s a more fun lifestyle. When I’m in crazy-good shape, I don’t think that’s healthy looking.
RR: That dovetails into my next question, which is: what are the expectations of men in Hollywood besides not being knuckle-dragging poo-throwers of antiquated power structures?
RM: I don’t know. I don’t want to cry foul too much, because women have been held to a very difficult and specific standard for so long – and continue to be. Men have had the benefit of not being held to such a stringent standard, aesthetically at least. However, I will say – and I hear this from a lot of men, and I think it’s a little bit less taboo to talk about – that men, too, are held to a standard of masculinity that’s impossible to live up to, or is probably essentially unethical to live up to: that sort of quiet, masculine tough guy who’s both jacked and ready to throw down at any moment, but also sensitive... but not too sensitive.
And aesthetically, the superhero stuff hasn’t helped. We now have this ideal of being the biggest dude or the most ripped guy in the room. Brad Pitt, for example, in Fight Club – that’s the body type that I hear more men talk about than anything else. But Brad Pitt in Fight Club is probably 70kg soaking wet – he’s just all sinewy muscle – and I bet if you stood next to him back in 1999, or whenever that movie was made, he would seem frail, because the ideal body type now is fucking jacked. So I don’t know. Do you?
RR: No, I don’t know. I don’t know if there are a lot of rules now.
Men’s Health, butting in: Speaking of ideal body types, Rob’s trainer [Arin Babaian] told us that Rob wanted to look like a fire hydrant.
RR: So, you want to be pissed on all day?
RM: [Laughs] Yeah, we were in the middle of COVID and I was, like, “I don’t have anything to get in shape for, but I have all this pent-up energy and anxiety just from being locked in the house, and I’m looking to work out for the sake of just alleviating that.” Then, as a joke, I said I wanted to look like a fire hydrant, or like a bulldog. It was really just a function of “Hey, what is the heaviest weight I can lift?”
RR: I can’t do the heavy-heavy thing any more. My body just sounds like a symphony of muscles snapping.
RM: Well, I think, for me, it’s probably a midlife-crisis situation. I’d never been athletic my entire life. I was always too small, or too slow, or just not athletic enough, so now I’m saying, “What’s the next physical challenge?”
RR: Mailbox. You should go for a mailbox.
RM: Dump truck. [Laughs.] No. I just played golf with our mutual friend Jason Bateman again yesterday. Jason will play golf four times a week now. So, whenever he calls me, I’m, like, “OK, I’ll go play with you.” This is the stereotypical old-man thing, but I want to get really good at golf. Maybe just because it’s a challenge, and I’m not good at it. It’s the complete opposite of lifting heavy. You have to become less muscular and more flexible. So, I’m going to start doing a lot more yoga, a lot more Pilates, so I can beat the shit out of Bateman.
RR: Why don’t you fuck off with the golf and learn some football? We need to know football. We own a football team!
Men’s Health, butting in again: Wait – so you guys went from total strangers to Instagram friends to buying a Welsh football club together in the span of, what, just a year?
RM: We literally would just text back and forth for a while if we thought something was funny, and I always thought, “He seems like a great person. I think we would be great friends, but I think that he would also be a great person to work with.”
RR: I would say the same thing of you. One thing I heard about Rob, which I found to be really attractive in a business partner, is character. This is a strong moral and ethical character. But also the work ethic. I could be a moron and still see the work ethic. Talent can wax and wane, but work ethic, man, and discipline: you can out-discipline people. Rob is kind of an island unto himself, and I have great respect for that.
RM: I remember saying to Kaitlin, “Do you think it’s a good idea if I ask Ryan if he wants to be a partner?” And she said, “Well, that depends on whether or not your ego can take sharing space with Ryan Reynolds.” And the truth is, my first thought was, “Ooh, you’re right.” But that’s the kind of partnership we have: recognising what my strengths and my stretches are, and vice versa.
RR: We don’t know anything about running a football club. The best leaders I know often say, “I don’t know.” I do it all the time. I make sure I’m working with people who can help me grow and help me learn, too. I’m very comfortable sharing power and sharing money. I’m very comfortable stepping aside when needed and when there’s a dearth of equity, both inside and outside the industry. I never would have guessed this in my early twenties, but those kinds of things are the most freeing things. I see those qualities in Rob, and it’s a really nice partnership in that context. I feel like I see him, and he sees me, and I feel like I can be vulnerable with him, and I feel like he can be vulnerable with me. To me, masculinity in 2021 is so much about allowing yourself to acknowledge your deficiencies, allowing yourself to be vulnerable, allowing yourself to just be who and what you are, instead of this other thing that maybe our dads conditioned us to believe in.
There’s an ancient Chinese proverb – I’m not in the business of spouting Chinese proverbs, but this one sticks with me: “Who knows what’s good or bad?” I live a little bit by that. As in, you don’t know in the moment what’s good or bad. When I look back at my life and the things that really hurt me, they’re all things that became incredibly precious and important assets later on.
That leads me to my next question: what is your vulnerability? Not physical vulnerability, but the one when you close your eyes, you find yourself dwelling on.
RM: That’s a good question. Um...
RR: Like, for some people, it’s not being good enough. For some, it’s shame.
RM: I think I would be remiss, or even untruthful, if I didn’t recognise that there is a certain amount of need for me to please people and to want their approval. Whose, I don’t really know. But it’s definitely external. I don’t know if that’s something that drives me on a conscious level, but there’s a reason I chose my profession, seeking that level of validation.
RR: Most people in showbiz, to a greater or lesser extent, have a greater thirst for validation. That’s also the drive. I know from my experience that what I love about what I do happens between “Action!” and “Cut!” In between “Action!” and “Cut!” I don’t feel any physical pain, I don’t feel any emotional pain, unless it’s required in the scene. I feel present. It’s one of the few places outside of looking at my children that I feel completely settled in the here and now. In other places in my life, I have to cultivate that.
RM: Do you experience that when you’re working out?
RR: Yes. Working out to me is a meditation. I’m counting. For the next 20 reps, all I’m going to do is count. And if I lose count, I’m going to stop and I’m going to start again. To me, that’s meditation.
RM: I think that is such a big part of the appeal. It’s funny, I was just talking to Kumail, who’s a good friend of mine and who got in fucking insane shape for this Marvel movie [The Eternals], and I keep seeing him on Instagram and he’s not really going back to normal Kumail. I was, like, “You’re going to have a tough time going back, aren’t you?” He said yes. Part of it is, sure, the aesthetic pleasure. But really it’s because he feels so good, like this is the way he’s supposed to feel walking around. It’s also the meditative process of working out. It’s finding yourself in that zone. It’s painful and it sucks sometimes, but even if I was in pain for that hour or 10 seconds, that’s when I didn’t feel anything other than the moment itself. That eventually becomes a drug, where you want to chase that, because it feels like it’s when you’re truly living.
RR: Yeah, when our lives feel so out of control, I think there’s real control in that. There’s also the idea that there’s nothing – your body, a movie, a novel, whatever it is that you’re working on – you don’t ever really finish. You abandon it at some point. These are never-ending projects. You don’t just get into the best shape of your life and then stay there. Our bodies age, they oxidise, they break down. We have to continue to figure out new and inventive ways to carry on, and I find that really interesting.
In particular, as you get a little bit older, the greatest secret – and the one that has been most liberating to me – was that as soon as I stopped trying to be right all of the time, everything clicked. Everything. When I stopped trying to be right and instead to be loving, or instead to learn something, everything else – all of that insecurity – fell away. That artifice and bravado vanished. I really started finding projects and life fulfilling in ways that I hadn’t before, which is part of what our Wrexham journey is about. I don’t want to be right; I want to learn.
RM: One hundred per cent. And there are so many different manifestations of that, if you’re aware of it. For example, my size. I’m 5ft 9in. I joke about it a lot, but am I actually insecure about being 5ft 9in? No, I’m not. And the reason I’m not is that I hit a certain point in my life when I realised that I wasn’t going to grow any more. That’s it. So, what the fuck am I going to do? Am I going to spend the rest of my life lamenting that? Or am I going to go, “Well, this is who I am, and I guess if you can’t get on board with that, then there’s nothing I can do for you.”
Not only does that liberate me and make me feel OK about myself, but you also realise that nobody gives a shit except me. Nobody! Nobody!
RR: That’s the most sage advice, by the way. Nobody gives a shit. I remember talking to other actors, who would ask me, “Oh, should I be on social media? I feel like people think I’m selling out.” I’m always, like, “It’s OK. Nobody gives a shit, so do whatever you like. Go on Instagram. Start telling people about who you are; don’t tell people who you are. They’re not going to give a shit either way. Do whatever makes you happy. Find your North Star. Go. Fly.”
RM: That is such a great lesson, and to bring it back to golf – because that’s what I’m doing now – I have this golf instructor, and we were playing a round and I hit some shot, and I turned to him and said, “Ah, I just shanked it.” And he replied, “I’m sorry. I don’t care.” And I went, “Oh...” Then he just kept walking away.
RR: Well, that’s just insensitive!
RM: No! It was great. Because it was a part of the lesson. If you get so wrapped up in why you made a mistake and then you turn to somebody to look for some level of validation, you’re looking in the wrong direction, because the only way to look is inward.
This story appears in the July 2021 issue of Men's Health UK. Out now!
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