What It's Like To Starve

Interview with Donavon Warren

Chiseled Magazine

For his role in the 2014 cult hit “Wheels”, actor Donavon Warren dropped 50 lbs – more than a quarter of his starting body mass – to convey the devastating physical effects of his character’s heroin addiction. I caught up with Donavon at his office at “The Lot” Studios in West Hollywood to find out how he did it.

What It's Like To Starve

Interview with Donavon Warren

Donavon Warren Single
In Wheels, your character, Mickey, develops his addiction mid-movie, so you had to film scenes with both your “before” body and your “after” body. How did that work?

When we started shooting Wheels, we didn’t have enough money to shoot the whole film. At the beginning of the story, Mickey is a normal, healthy person, but then it jumps ahead three years, to when he’s a full blown heroin addict. So what we told everybody was that we were gonna shoot the first part, and then we were gonna take a break, I was gonna lose all this weight for the second part, and then we were gonna pick up filming again.

So while you were losing the weight, you were also raising money to shoot the rest of the movie?

Yes, yes. It was this horrific nightmare experience. What happens is the body hates losing weight, and at a certain point, it will adapt, so it went in stages. So the beginning, the first phase, was pretty much just cutting out carbs. That got me down to about 170, 175. At this point I’m very ripped. You would consider me ripped, bodybuilder shape. I’m just shredded.

That sounds like where most people would stop. Personally, I’d call it a day and hit the beach.

Right, but also at that point, you hit a plateau. So to keep going, I started cutting my calories down to 700 per day. In the morning I would meet with my co-director, Tim, we would hike Runyon [Canyon], which would be like an hour. That’s at 700 calories a day, so according to the math, I should have been losing about half a pound per day, but what ends up happening is the body adapts and you stop losing. So I cut more calories. At 400 per day, I got down to about 165 pounds and then hit the next plateau. At that weight, there were veins on my stomach.

With a routine that brutal and new veins popping up everywhere, I have to ask: did you ever consider just taking up heroin?

[Laughs] It would have been a hell of a cheat day.

So how deep are we at this point? How long have you been at this?

This is probably about two or three months. So at that point, we talked to Tim’s uncle, who’s a nutritionist. And I asked him, “how do we get to the next phase?”. Long story short, that’s when I started doing three hours of cardio a day. Instead of hiking with Tim, I would go to the gym for about an hour in the morning and then two hours at night. Usually I’d watch a movie or whatever it was at the gym. Then I hit another plateau at 155, and that’s when it started getting really bad.

Three hours of cardio on 400 calories a day isn’t bad?

I mean in the sense of really bad for my body. So months earlier, before I started cutting, I had signed up for one of those paid medical studies and gotten dropped at the last minute. Now, back to me at 155, they call me back in to do the next round of the study. Remember, we still needed money to finish shooting the movie. So I get there, 40 lbs lighter than the last time they saw me, and they’re like, “you look a lot skinnier than before”. I mean, I was rail-thin.

But they let you go ahead with the study?

Well, that’s the thing. It was a two- or three-week deal, so I was staying overnight at the hospital for testing before the start of the study, and at night they hooked up all these EKGs and monitors to me before I went to bed. So I go to sleep, and I wake up and all these alarms are going off. And then all these nurses are running into the room and I’m thinking, what’s going on? And they’re saying, just relax, just stay calm, breathe, look. And they were trying to flash lights in my eyes and shit like that.


What had happened was, my heart rate got below 35 beats a minute. And it set off the alarms that this dude’s dying. Right? [Laughs] So they drew blood, and my blood was clean. Everything was clean because I wasn’t eating anything. And everything was healthy. I was doing three hours of cardio a day. But at night, my body was dropping like 27 beats a minute, and that set the alarms off. So this kept happening over and over throughout the first night, and they kicked me out.

And you disagreed with this decision?

We needed that money! I was so upset that I ended up going to McDonald’s and getting a Big Mac, eating half of it and then passing out in my bed with half a Big Mac in my hand.

And this is one of those funny things. If you’ve been starving for a long time and you eat food, you become so immediately exhausted. It’s really crazy.

I remember reading about the special foods that they make for starving children because they can’t safely feed them normal food. The shock to the system could kill them.

Yeah. It’s crazy. So at this point I’m about 150. My goal was to be Christian Bale. Christian Bale broke down at like 117. My goal was to beat him. So remember, at this point I was doing three hours of cardio. I was running on 400 calories a day. And I still wasn’t losing weight. So then it was time to switch to an apple and a can of tuna.

Per day. That’s now your entire food intake for 24 hours.

That’s it… And this is where sort of the madness started setting in. I started shedding like a pound a day, but my body started going crazy. I didn’t use the bathroom. I literally didn’t shit for maybe four or five weeks. It was insane. And I could only sleep two hours a night. I would wake up in the middle of the night and just lie there in bed and obsess about food. My only priority was food.

That part I can relate to.

You have no idea. So around then, I went to visit my mom in Texas. One of my cousins had a graduation party, and in Texas they had all these amazing diet sodas that they didn’t have here in LA for whatever reason, like Diet Big Red or whatever. And my only vice was diet sodas. So I had all these diet sodas and we were at a party and they were sitting on the counter. My big fear was that people were gonna walk in and start drinking my diet sodas. So I started hiding them in the cushions of the couch. But then I was like, somebody’s gonna sit down and they’re gonna be like, “oh, a Diet Big Red soda,” and they’re gonna drink it. So I ended up hiding all this stuff in the bathroom, behind the towels. I was basically hoarding food. That’s how crazy I had gotten.

What did you weigh at that point?

That was when I was down to 143. So at that point I was looking terrible, but looking good for the role. And I remember one day Tim, the guy I was directing the movie with, he couldn’t find his phone. So we looked for his phone for probably 45 minutes. We couldn’t find it. And he goes, “why don’t we just call it?” And so I pulled out my phone to call it, and I started trying to dial, and he goes, “that’s my phone”. And that’s how delirious I was, right? There was another time I went to the gym, and I almost got hit by a car because I walked into traffic. It was one of those big trucks, and I have my headphones on, and I turn around, and my hand is touching the truck. The guy had slammed on the brakes just in time in the middle of the street. So at this point I realized, I gotta stop now.

No argument here.

Yeah, at that point, it’s better for the movie. Like, does it really matter how well you physically fit the role if you’re too delirious to act it? It came down to focus on the role or focus on the movie, and the answer was clear, so that’s where I stopped. I wanted to go to 117. But at that point, your whole, your whole mission is food. You can’t think about anything about food. And even on set at 143, I would still hoard and hide food. And during lunch I would run off set and run away because people would try and talk to me, like, “Hey, how are you doing?” And I was like, “just leave me alone, don’t touch my food”. My lunch was a few pieces of chicken breast dipped in Splenda, and I was positive they wanted to steal it from me.

Interview with Donavon Warren

So you stopped there?

Yeah, at 143. And that was that. And then when the movie finally wrapped, I was obsessed with Krispy Kreme donuts, and I had 17 of ’em, and I had a half a pizza, and then I literally almost fell asleep when I was walking. I gained 32 pounds in two days.


[Laughing] Yeah.

This is the part of the interview where I realize this piece is never getting past my editor without some kind of “don’t try this at home” message. I mean, didn’t you worry about the potential long-term effects of this? I’m going back to the moment in the hospital where the alarms are going off because the machine literally thinks you’re dying. Didn’t you ever think, “gee, maybe the machine has a point”?

At that point we were just so invested in the movie. There was no good, bad, or whatever. It was just about getting the movie done. You gotta understand the amount of pain that you go through when you’re starving like that. The physical agony is so intense and so constant that you have to just shut it out of your mind completely. And it’s the same with any sort of doubt. You just shut it out, because otherwise, if there’s even just a little sliver of possibility of eating food, if you let yourself even start to entertain an idea like “is this safe?”, you’ll end up rationalizing and giving up.

To me that sounds less like “rationalizing” and more like “being rational”.To me that sounds less like “rationalizing” and more like “being rational”.

Maybe. I’m not going to tell you I regret having done it, because I don’t. But I definitely won’t recommend anyone else do it either. Remember, I didn’t do this to be healthy. I was literally trying to simulate the effects of a devastating drug addiction. Physically, in terms of emaciating my body, but also mentally, in that I really was jonesing on set. Just for junk food instead of, y’know, junk.

When you put it that way, it actually makes a lot of sense to me. But just to placate the legal department: Dear Reader, do not attempt this at home. Consult a licensed physician or nutritionist before starting any weight loss program.

Did you just lift that from a SlimFast ad?

Any perceived similarity is purely coincidental. So how did you get back in shape? You’re looking great now. Is this for another role?

Absolutely. I’ve been training really hard for a few upcoming projects. Vampire Apocalypse and Time Wars, to name a couple.

What’s your secret?

I’m at the point in my life where I really want to focus on being in long-term shape year round, as opposed to the bulk and shred cycling I did when I was younger. Now my life consists of hours not only in the gym, but more importantly, in the kitchen.

What does that look like?

I usually prep about 32-64 meals at a time. Lots of 99% lean ground turkey, whether it’s with beans, lentils, stew, chili, etc. One of my favorites is a protein pasta with no-sugar-added tomato sauce and ground turkey. I freeze anything that won’t be eaten within five days. It’s not sexy, but it gets the job done, and honestly, after the hell I went through on Wheels, I’m just happy to eat. I look at food more as fuel than as anything else.

There was so much interesting stuff we didn’t even have time to get into the workout. Next time?

Sure thing.

Thanks, Donavon!

Any time. Just keep your greedy little hands off my Splenda chicken.

By Walt Gardner

June 2022

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