How Isabelle Fuhrman Trained for 'The Novice'

Her extreme training for the role helped her physically and mentally transform into her character, a college freshman newly obsessed with the sport of rowing.

Have you ever been engrossed in a film that revolves around an athlete and wondered about their intense preparations for such demanding roles? The Novice, starring Isabelle Fuhrman, is likely to astound you. Premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival in June 2021 before its release on Amazon Prime Video in December 2021, The Novice has been generating buzz for Fuhrman's portrayal of Alex Dall, a novice rower driven by her new-found fascination with the sport. The plot traces Dall's freshman year in college where she becomes absorbed in her training as part of the college rowing team. Her social life dwindles, she grapples with academic pressures, and she remains on campus over holidays just to avail herself of the ergometer or indoor rower, and sculls or competitive rowing boats. As evident from this description alone, The Novice deviates from the typical narrative of an athlete's triumphant journey in the competitive world – it rather sheds light on the darker aspects of sports.

Isabelle Fuhrman's film, 'The Novice,' delves into the harrowing reality of obsessive exercise and exercise bulimia, as explained by Haley Perlus, Ph.D., a sport and performance psychologist. Warning signs of an unhealthy attachment to exercise include working out even when feeling unwell or injured, prioritizing exercise over work, education, or social activities; fear of taking rest days, anxiety when unable to workout, and guilt when missing a training session.

The movie accurately portrays a real-life issue: research in The Sport Journal reveals that as much as 84 percent of college athletes engage in harmful eating and weight management practices. These behaviors range from binge eating, excessive exercising, extreme dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, to using weight loss supplements. The intense physical requirements of being a student-athlete are thought to facilitate these detrimental habits, note the study's authors.

While there are regulations in place to curb such issues — like the National Collegiate Athletic Association capping weekly athletic hours at 20 — studies indicate that these rules often go disregarded.

Behind the Mental Transformation

While Dall's journey through an exercise-focused lifestyle may have been a work of fiction, Fuhrman's experience as she prepared for the role was quite similar. She had never participated in rowing before and had a short period of approximately six weeks to get ready for the shoot. To portray her character authentically, Fuhrman had to immerse herself in a routine that revolved around eating, sleeping, and training. "From the moment I spoke with screenwriter Lauren Hadaway, she insisted that I must be the one doing the rowing in order to capture the essence of the film accurately", Fuhrman recalls. This implied no utilization of extras or stunt doubles, no usage of green screens or scene alterations. It also necessitated rigorous training.

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Embracing the complexity of her roles, Furhman enthusiastically shares, "The thrill lies in embodying the characters I play." With no background in rowing, she relates to the challenges faced by a beginner, which led to her exceptionally demanding training routine. Fuhrman has repeatedly exhibited her knack for stepping into challenging roles that require significant mental and emotional transformation. Instances include her portrayal of Esther, an emotionally scarred adopted child in the horror thriller Orphan, and more recently, Eleanor in the dark, disturbing drama, The Last Thing Mary Saw.

"Obsession intrigues people and Hadaway's script provides an insight into the unnerving journey of striving to achieve personal goals," Furhman explains. "The script primarily focuses on character analysis...I've been seeking a script like this for some time now...a role that would push me beyond my mental boundaries and comfort zone while simultaneously demanding a physical transformation."

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Pushing Her Physical Limits

This role necessitated physical metamorphosis as well, with Fuhrman having a mere six weeks to prepare before filming started. She comments on the challenge saying, "I went from being completely inexperienced in rowing to spending half my day on the water in a boat within a span of one week." The rigorous physical training aided her in understanding the emotional aspects of her character. It gave her insight into the ascetic lifestyle of a rower, which involves relentless body training and abstaining from social activities and alcohol. This gruelling regime allowed her to grasp the self-imposed hardships that rowers endure. (See: The Rowing Machine and Why It Demands Your Attention)

Isabelle Fuhrman, in preparation for her role in "The Novice", had to push her physical limits. She started her day as early as 4:30 a.m to reach the training dock by 5 a.m. Initially, she trained for three hours daily on an ergometer at iRow in L.A before progressing to six hours of water training at the California Yacht Club. This was done alongside strength and cardio workouts four times a week. Despite her daily Epsom salt baths, she constantly felt sore. In "The Novice," Fuhrman rowed with the Trent University rowing team from Ontario, Canada, and noted her physical disadvantage being smaller than other rowers. As per U.S. Rowing, the average height of a woman in an open race is 6', while Fuhrman stands at 5'3". However, this served the narrative of her character, Alex, not being naturally gifted or physically predisposed to be a rower. To meet the physical demands, Fuhrman worked with Bec Wilcock, a Nike trainer and friend, to gain considerable muscle mass. Her aim was to convincingly carry a 50-pound single scull boat over one shoulder and the oars in another hand by the end of the movie. Furthermore, she practiced yin yoga to keep her muscles loose. Transitioning from never rowing to hours of it daily posed a risk of overtraining and overuse injuries. To prevent such occurrences, professional guidance was sought to design her workout schedule and ensure adequate nutrition and recovery time. Prior to training for "The Novice," Fuhrman maintained a routine of daily runs and thrice-a-week weight training. Thus, her shift wasn't abrupt, but caution was still observed.

"Engaging in six hours of exercise on a daily basis can become potentially harmful if there isn't enough time dedicated to recovery after each session," says Fabio Comana, M.A., M.S., a San Diego-based exercise physiologist. Striking the right balance is crucial yet achievable. "This actress (alongside many athletes, such as those participating in Tour de France who cycle for 6-8 hours on consecutive days) manage quite well over short periods (a few weeks to months) provided the rest of their day is spent optimizing recovery (sleep, nutrition, hydration, muscle recovery techniques)," Comana continues. (Relevant read: A look into how Lesley-Ann Brandt from Lucifer trains to perform her own stunts on the series)

The Toll of Diving Deep

Immersing herself in the grueling daily routine of her character was part of Fuhrman and Hadaway's mission to realistically depict Dall's transformation into a woman consumed by her obsession. "Despite feeling physically and mentally strong, there was also a sense of fragility and brokenness," shares Fuhrman. "It was equivalent to having two full-time jobs." Fuhrman draws a parallel between her and her on-screen character, Alex - the constant pursuit of more until self-satisfaction is achieved. "The filming of the movie came to an end and that marked the finish line for me," she elucidates. The rigorous training facilitated Fuhrman in delivering a powerful performance on water. The film captures the authenticity of the strenuous racing sequences and rowing drills. "Both Hadaway and I aimed to illustrate what it feels like when your sight narrows down while your legs feel heavy, your rear end cramps up, and simultaneously, the calluses on your hands rip off during the final power 10, leaving you on the verge of vomiting," describes Fuhrman. Although it's not advisable to replicate this type of training in real life, for Fuhrman, there was purpose and even happiness in adopting this regimen while preparing for her role. "Looking back, despite the fatigue, blisters, and emotional vulnerability, I wouldn't hesitate to experience it all over again," she reflects. "Such commitment fuels my creativity and I relish the feeling of being exhausted for something I am passionate about- the case with The Novice." In case you are struggling with disordered eating or extreme exercising habits, consider reaching out to the National Eating Disorder Association's free hotline for support, resources, and treatment options.

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