‘It can be very surreal’
Local business owner lands role in Eastwood film
Clint Eastwood had nice things to say about Grant Roberts’ audition, but did that mean he got the part? Roberts wasn’t sure. The Hollywood trainer, who spent his teen years in Saskatoon, whipped Hilary Swank into shape for the Eastwood film Million Dollar Baby and was rewarded with a walk-on part. Now, he was adding a few plates to his career barbell by going for a role in Invictus. The true story about South African’s 1995 World Cup rugby team stars Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. It opens today.
“You really get only one shot at it and you sit back and wait to see what happens,’’ Roberts said recently of the audition.
Then Eastwood phoned with a big compliment: “I saw your audition. You were great.’’ And that was about it.
“That’s the way he is. He’s not overly verbose at the best of times.”
Roberts waited a couple more weeks, assumed he missed the part and got on with his life as a trainer, owner of several fitness clubs and globe-trotting fitness advocate. Then Warner Bros. called and said his plane ticket was ready for his trip to South Africa — the next day. Roberts was en route to Chicago at the time. It was one of those “didn’t anyone tell you?’’ conversations. The day after Chicago, Roberts and his one carry-on bag were headed overseas for 2 ⁄ months.
“The opportunity to tell the world what really happened is a pretty spectacular opportunity,’’ he says.
Invictus is the story of Nelson Mandela uniting his country with a run at the World Cup. Damon plays team captain Francois Pienaar. Roberts, who was seen but not heard as a cornerman in Million Dollar Baby, plays flanker Ruben Kruger. Roberts met the real Pienaar during filming but, sadly, Kruger is suffering from a brain tumour. “It was an honour to portray him.” Roberts, who owns Mecca Fitness and Pro Fit Athletic Club & Spa in Saskatoon and still has a residence in the city, literally hit the ground running in South Africa. He was on the field as soon as he landed, playing full-tilt rugby at noon in 40-degree heat. Unlike football, there are no breaks.
“They’re not the same sport. The whole time we were playing rugby I was like, ‘When is the referee going to blow the whistle?’
“You’ve got to develop your conditioning pretty quickly or you’re just going to be left a heap on the ground. That was the most challenging part, the conditioning, being able to keep up the pace of the explosive nature of rugby.”
To look more like a player, Roberts trimmed down to 250 pounds from 300. It was the exact opposite of what he had Swank doing in Million Dollar Baby, gaining about 20 pounds of muscle in six weeks. And it wasn’t nearly as strenuous.
“It was the easiest thing I’ve ever done. I basically stopped training. If you don’t use it, you lose it.”
Off-set, Roberts got to hang out with Damon. He met his family and ran lines with him after dinner. Those were the ‘pinch-me’ moments.
“I remember catching myself thinking, ‘I am sitting here in South Africa trying to talk with an accent with Jason Bourne.’ It can be very surreal.”
Roberts, a former Canadian bodybuilding champion, is a personal trainer for several stars, none of whom he’ll name. And he’s heavily involved in fitness issues as the president and CEO of Healthy and Fit Communities and as the founder of Healthy Student Bodies. He launched Healthy Student Bodies at City Park Collegiate in Saskatoon three years ago, paying for treadmills and exercise bikes in the classroom, proving that fitness improves other aspects of life, from academic achievement to behaviour. A similar program called Movement Matters operates there now.
“The transformation in the kids in this program is beyond words,’’ says Roberts. He plans on taking both causes global. The stakes are huge, he says.
“This is the first generation, at least in North America, where kids will have a shorter life expectancy than their own parents based solely on poor lifestyle habits and not exercising and poor nutrition.”
Roberts also has a book coming out titled Unified Lifestyle, the Revolution. It’s about getting ordinary people to adopt the mentality of athletes because things such as strength, endurance and flexibility are just as valuable in everyday life as they are in sports.
As it happens, the power of sport to change the world is the theme of Invictus.
“I think this movie will unquestionably be in the running for an Oscar, and everybody who watches it will walk away feeling a sense of purpose.”
Grant Roberts is a former Canadian bodybuilding champion and a personal trainer for several stars