Ramin Karimloo: The Body That Jean Valjean Made

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Ramin Karimloo is in his element at the Columbus Circle Equinox as much as he is on the Imperial Theatre stage in Les Misérables. Strolling into the gym in gray bike shorts and a matching tank, he moves with confidence but never cockiness — a kind of combined authority and humility that lends itself well to playing the heroic Jean Valjean eight times a week.

It’s a few hours before a matinee show on a recent Sunday, and Karimloo is offering me a glimpse into the work that goes into creating his brawny take on the character, an impassioned performance that earned him both a 2014 Tony nomination and a reputation as one of the most virile leading men on Broadway.

“Going to the gym is like a vocal warm-up — it gets my voice in gear,” he says, tossing me a towel. “If you have a tired body, you’ll have a tired voice.”

“Should I bring the towel along?” I wonder aloud.

Karimloo grins, a twinkle in his eye. “Yeah,” he confirms. Apparently I’ll need it.

Having received his earlier text message promising we would “kill our legs” today, I should’ve known this afternoon would involve some serious sweat. Karimloo’s workouts, which he receives from Canadian trainer Collin Joseph as part of a 16-week program, are the latest in a series of regimens that began sometime after Les Mis producer Cameron Mackintosh saw Karimloo shirtless in his London dressing room just before a curtain call and said, “Somebody’s in their 30s, darling.”

“He wasn’t wrong,” remembers Karimloo. Although not terribly out of shape, the then-skinny actor hadn’t given much thought to fitness even during his first go-round with Valjean, touring the UK and in the 2012 West End production. It wasn’t until the Broadway-bound Toronto production in 2013 that Karimloo began, as he puts it, “packing on muscle.”

“I started enjoying the workout,” he adds. “It became a non-negotiable part of my day.”

Listening to Victor Hugo’s novel (the show’s source material) on audiobook also provided an incentive for Karimloo to amp up his fitness. The author describes Valjean as “a man of medium stature, thickset and robust, in the prime of life.” Karimloo says that last comment in particular stuck with him. “He’s about 48 when he gets released [from prison], and I was 34 and was like, I’m not in the prime of my life!”

The many trainers and lifting programs over the past two years — among them Beachbody’s Insanity workout, former bodybuilder Dalton Brown, and England-based trainer Scott Francis — have helped turn Karimloo’s body into a machine. “They’re all champions in their own right,” he says. “Whether it’s geography that forced me to switch or variety, I just want to be athletic.”

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Valjean the athlete, he adds, tells the story differently. “I think there’s more gravitas, which obviously comes with time and age,” he explains. “But there’s a different discipline to me as well.”

That goes for offstage as well as on — food, for example, used to tempt Karimloo considerably. “Once I started fueling my body with better things, the cravings became fewer and far between,” he explains. “Let’s say I crave Nutella. I’ll go for it. But after a spoon or two, that’s it. Whereas before, I had the whole jar.”

He eats six well-rounded meals a day plus protein shakes — 3,500 calories total — and is allowed one cheat meal a week. “I love pizza,” he confesses. “Burgers aren’t so bad! If you don’t have the bun.”

Just how attainable is this sense of discipline for the rest of us? Ultimately, Karimloo says, having the proverbial great body comes down to whether “you and your doctor are happy.”

“You need to have the body you’re happy with,” he says. “You can have a clean bill of health and be a size 16 or 20, and you can be unhealthy at a size six.”

At this point, we’ve completed leg extensions, presses, squats, deadlifts, and hamstring curls. Throughout each exercise Karimloo is completely at ease, only occasionally muttering an “Oh my God,” here, or “Ouch,” there.

“How are you with box jumps?” he asks. Here we go.

“Leg day does take it out of you,” he admits between sets. “I always said I never want to be a martini glass. You always see a lot of stars who build for a part; a lot of that is superficial. You can pump up in a short amount of time, but it won’t last.”

It seems Karimloo’s impeccable body — and his dedication to maintaining it — will last for quite a while. His Broadway run as Valjean concludes later this month, but he’ll continue the work the character demanded of him throughout the run of his next project: the new musical The Prince of Broadway in Tokyo.

Karimloo finishes the box jumps and wipes sweat from his neck, preparing to bike down to the theater. Did I mention he bikes 16 miles total every day?

“And now, a three-hour show,” he says with a smile.

I’m tempted to respond, “Break a leg!” — but think better of it.

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The Workout

How to Get the Jean Valjean Bod

Karimloo’s current workouts can be done at most gyms (and come courtesy of trainer Collin Joseph, collinjosephfitness.com). In addition to or instead of biking before a workout, Karimloo does 20-40 minutes of cardio work: sprints, battle ropes, or his favorite: the StairMaster. “It takes your full bodyweight, you’re constantly stepping,” he says. “So if I you do 40 minutes, you’re drenched. That’s where I learn my lines for auditions. I take my script up there. After 40 minutes, you’ve done it — you’ve learned your lines.” Don’t forget to hydrate between sets!

Styled by James Brown III.
Clothing by
Lululemon.
Makeup by
Alex Michaels.
Assistant photographer:
Mitch Dean.