How Billy Dee Williams Got Back in Star Wars Shape at 82

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The Star Wars films of the last half-decade have featured just about everything a fan could ask for—iconic characters old and new, thrilling landscapes of a galaxy far, far away, and killer action sequences. But they were missing one key feature that made the original trilogy just a little more suave and debonair: Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian.

Fans were ecstatic when the actor was confirmed for the final film of the saga’s latest trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker, last summer. They didn’t have to wait too long in the hype cycle to get a look at the now 82-year-old Williams back in character, either, as he makes an appearance at the helm of his old ship, the Millennium Falcon, in the first teaser.

But stepping back into the character’s shoes—or more importantly, donning his cape—for the first time on film since 1983’s Return of the Jedi isn’t so simple now that Williams is over 80. He might not be pressed into any intense action sequences this time around, but Williams still faced significant physical challenges for the role. To get in Star Wars shape, the actor turned to noted celebrity trainer Gunnar Peterson, who told Men’s Health in an interview earlier this year that Williams made his job easy.

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Billy Dee Williams and Gunnar Peterson.

Billy Dee Williams

“One thing about Billy is he’s totally willing and open and gives himself to the process,” Peterson said. “There wasn’t an ‘I can’t do that.’ He didn’t second guess himself. He never threw in the towel. He never missed, he never cancelled, he’s never late. He’s very old school.”

Peterson said that his training protocol for Williams focused on getting the actor to move in all three planes of motion (sagittal, frontal, and transverse, or up-and-down/front-to-back, side-to-side, and rotational, respectively), and mimicking everyday motions like standing up and sitting down and picking up unbalanced loads. The actor worked with Peterson two to three days per week, and added daily rides on a stationary bike for 20 to 30 minutes. Their main goals were to help Williams lose weight, adjust his movement patterns, and improve his conditioning.

While Williams’ age meant that he wasn’t pushing big weights, Peterson didn’t consider that a limiting factor to their programming. “I took it like an athlete in a return to play protocol,” he said. “It’s been a minute since he’s down this role—and by a minute I mean four decades—and he has not, on a regular basis, been doing the movements required by this role. So we had to ease into it.”

This meant that Peterson eased Williams back into the swing of things gradually, rather than pushing him to jump straight into the final form of the workout right away. “We started with basic simple movements, and then built on that.”

A sample Tuesday training session saw Williams riding a recumbent bike for up to 15 minutes to start, before moving on to a “circuit-esque” series of exercises. First up would be a walking lunge holding a sandbag, then a push press with a core stick. Seated leg raises come next, then a leg raise hold with the added element of Peterson and Williams tossing a ball back and forth. Dumbbell rows continued the series, before Williams lunged back with the sandbag again to take some time on a Cybex Arc trainer. Narrow to wide grip barbell curls followed, then a Synergy Power Tower for upper body presses. Williams would run through the whole series three times.

Peterson also emphasized a constant stream of activity. “I try to keep a pace, so we get x amount of volume done in a workout,” he said. “I think that’s an integral part of working with a trainer.”

But Williams wasn’t the only one benefiting from the training sessions. Peterson spoke admiringly of his client, clearly happy to have had the opportunity to work together. “One of the fun parts for me is he’s an open book,” Peterson said. “He’ll tell you fun stories—he’s an incredibly interesting man, not just because of how long he’s lived but because of what he’s done in his life and how long he’s been a relevant part of American culture. He does phenomenal impressions—it’s unbelievable, I’ll say ‘have you played that role?’ and he’ll say ‘No, but I could.’ It’s incredible.”

You’ll get to see the results of all of Williams’ hard work when Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker hits theaters later this year on December 20.

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