Ethan Suplee stopped taking his shirt off at the beach around age five. “Suddenly my body was not good,” the actor recalled in a recent interview. Instead, he told me, he would watch his friends play on the beach as he sat frozen and clothed. He wanted to join them, but wondered, “How do I get to the playing with them without people seeing me?”
Suplee has been a TV and film regular since the ’90s, in projects like Kevin Smith’s Mall Rats and ABC’s Boy Meets World. He played Seth Ryan in American History X and then, in 2000, came Remember the Titans. Since then he’s starred in series including My Name Is Earl and The Ranch, and in March, he’ll appear in the controversial Blumhouse pic The Hunt. But last month everyone was talking about Suplee for a different reason: his body transformation. After all, he did just launch a new podcast, American Glutton, to talk about our cultural relationship with food—and how he became so shredded.
Suplee was five years old when he first learned that people tend to worry about and judge fat bodies. He’d gone to visit his grandparents in Vermont—and when he arrived, “there was this moment for them of going like, ‘What the hell has happened to this kid?’” He wasn’t even severely overweight at the time, he noted, so much as chubby-cheeked.
“I was made to take all my clothes off and get on a scale, and there was just a lot of discussion,” Suplee said. “…That was the first time I ever had food, from a point of authority, be restricted from me.” In the future, Suplee would find it uncomfortable to eat in front of other people; if he ever wanted seconds at dinner, he felt he needed to sneak them out of sight. He wasn’t sedentary, but also wasn’t active—wasn’t interested in being active. And Suplee was never really bullied in school. “The few times that it came up,” he said, “I kind of would just fight with people—physically fight with them. And so if somebody said something to me that I found to be rude or insulting, I would tell them to go fuck themselves.” In his early 20s, Suplee developed substance use issues; in 2002, he got sober. Throughout that time, his weight fluctuated.
One pivotal moment for Suplee? Dating Brandy Lewis, whom he married in 2006. As he rediscovered the world through Lewis’s eyes, Suplee wanted to be more active—to walk around museums and go for hikes. He eventually realized that some of the things he wanted to do might require a physical transformation—but, he stressed, it was his choice alone. “It makes me feel slightly emotional even discussing it in these terms,” Suplee said. “There was never a point, not once, when [Lewis] suggested weight loss—suggested that these things that she wanted to do with me, I couldn’t do… It was only that I had total love from her that I was kind of, was even in the right headspace to do it.”
There was one other spur for Suplee’s weight loss: While he was dating Lewis, but before they married, Suplee found himself in a confounding conversation with Jim Caviezel, aka Jesus Christ in Passion of the Christ. Suplee described the encounter on the first episode of his podcast, saying that Caviezel took an empty seat next to him on a transatlantic flight. According to Suplee, Caviezel lectured him on how he’d spent his life emulating Jesus Christ—and how those who don’t do so are going to hell. Suplee, Caviezel allegedly implied, was not emulating Christ.
“I will say this,” Suplee told me, “I don’t think there was a bit of malice in him having that conversation. I think it came from compassion.” That said, Suplee added, he believes he and Caviezel differ in that Suplee doesn’t make a habit of applying his own morality to other people. And although Suplee did not find the God angle very compelling, he did find himself describing the conversation to Lewis afterwards, determined to make sure no one would ever speak to him that way again.
It wasn’t Caviezel’s comments that inspired Suplee and brought his eventual success; it was the support he received from Lewis. “Had [the weight loss] been her idea initially, I just don’t think it would have worked,” Suplee said. “Had my wife felt any bit of shame for me—had she felt what I felt, I don’t think I’d get through it.”
Lewis not only holds Suplee accountable as he works toward his goals, but also makes sure he keeps his goals in perspective. At one point, for instance, she gave him a “severe talking to” after a biking accident, when he’d begun to take the exercise too far. Suplee had been riding his bike for 40 hours per week, and had reached what he now describes as an unsustainable weight when he crashed and injured his knee. Lewis put her foot down, and Suplee cut his cardio time way back, opting instead to eat more and lift weights. He gained weight, this time mostly muscle.
“It wasn’t really until I gained weight again that people were like, ‘God… You’re much more interesting to us like this.’”
“It wasn’t really until I gained weight again that people were like, ‘God… You’re much more interesting to us like this,’” Suplee said. And yes, he clarified, someone literally said that to him: “I believe it was literally, ‘You’re much more interesting the way you look now.’” His response? “I kind of was like, ‘Yeah, you know, I don’t disagree with you.’”
What’s striking about the way Suplee tells his story is how carefully he avoids sounding prescriptive. In the first episode of his podcast, he expresses distaste for the concept of universal truths—in health and in general. He describes his journey as precisely that—his. Although he hopes his podcast can help people with similar goals succeed, he stresses that he’d never press those body goals on anyone else.
“I see someone like Lizzo and I have just pride and feel such warmth towards her and what she’s doing,” Suplee said. “I see little girls who wear cut-off midriff shirts and have their tummies out and I feel pride for them. I don’t even have the guts that those people have today.”
“I don’t think anybody should ever be made to feel like they have to wear a shirt at the beach,” Suplee added. “It’s a shitty, shitty feeling. And I will still wear a shirt to the beach. I still feel that way. And if we can get away from that, then we would be better off.”
But things are a little different now. Whereas before Suplee was a five-year-old made to feel conspicuous, his transformed body has now attracted actual news coverage. Before he released his podcast, Suplee took a hike in the park without a shirt on. Nobody was stopping him; nobody was laughing; nobody was pointing. But just as Suplee became comfortable hiking shirtless, his podcast released. “Suddenly I had paparazzi taking pictures of me in front of my house, taking pictures of me at the gym,” Suplee said. “I was like, okay, I’m done with my shirt being off. I’m not ready for a photograph of that to be floating around out there.”
“I hope I am one day. I don’t know… I don’t get too hung up on it.”