When Ethan Suplee revealed earlier this month that he had lost hundreds of pounds over the last few years, he never expected the reaction that followed.
“It’s wild,” he tells PEOPLE. “I became a meme.”
But Suplee, 43, understands why. Most fans knew him as Randy on My Name Is Earl and Louie in Remember the Titans, when he was around his heaviest weight, 530 lbs. So they were understandably shocked to see his ripped body in promotional photos for his new podcast, American Glutton. On the show, Suplee explained that he had “gained and lost probably close to 1,000 lbs. at this point” from years of overeating, followed by extreme dieting that caused him to regain the weight. But eventually he figured out the plan that actually works for his body, which is what he sticks to now.
Suplee has a lifetime of weight issues that started when he was 5 years old and was put on a restrictive diet that he “wasn’t interested in.” Instead, Suplee would binge eat when his parents weren’t looking, and he weighed 200 lbs. by the time he turned 10.
He started acting around age 16, and typically ended up in “roles for fat kids.” But Suplee would search for — and find — acting jobs that didn’t make his size the focus.
“I never wanted to do something where I was the fat guy who was the butt of a fat guy joke,” he says. “I told my agents to look for roles outside the box that could work for me. There were instances where somebody would want to add a line about me being fat and I would just say, ‘Hey, no, we’re not doing that.’ ”
But Suplee wasn’t comfortable at his weight. He was dating his now-wife, Brandy Lewis, and they knew that they wanted to have kids and do things like take trips to Paris or go on hikes, which were tough for him at the time.
“I knew that if I didn’t change, I wouldn’t have that future,” he says. “That was the motivation that kept me at it.”
Between 2002 and 2005, Suplee went from 530 lbs. to around 290, but it didn’t stick — he got the role on My Name Is Earl and “got lazy and relaxed.” When the show ended in 2009, Suplee decided to lose weight again, but it was unsustainable.
“I went down to 220 lbs. and stayed there for a bit, but I got there by doing like eight hours of cardio a day, six days a week,” he says. “I was doing a lot of starvation-type diets and not eating enough at all. So I gained weight again.”
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His weight gain was partially for a role on Chance, with Hugh Laurie — producers thought he was too skinny for the job so Suplee added pounds. But once that ended, he decided he was done with letting acting jobs dictate his health.
Suplee started doing keto and quickly dropped weight, but he wasn’t retaining muscle.
“I was getting smaller, but I wasn’t starting to show muscle definition the way I wanted to show it,” he says. Instead, the research-driven Suplee read up on fat cells and muscle retention, and decided he wanted to get down to the point where he has just 10 percent body fat.
“It’s completely arbitrary, I just want to see a six-pack,” he says. “But I think those goals are important because it’s something you’re working towards.”
Now, Suplee follows a lean, high-protein diet with limited fat, similar to what bodybuilders eat.
“I actually work to make my diet unenjoyable,” he says. “I’m trying partially because I’m a little bit of a masochist, but also because I want food not to be a crutch emotionally. I want it to be a source of fuel.”
It’s worked — Suplee is very close to his 10 percent goal and has visible abs, plus he’s been able to shift his mindset to where he doesn’t feel like he’s dieting.
“I actually am eating more food than I have in years,” he says. “We went on vacation for Thanksgiving and I was really scared that I might gain a bunch of weight. But I didn’t gain any weight because I’m really eating the way I should be eating. It doesn’t feel fragile.”
And Suplee says he’s going to stay at this fitness level, regardless of what acting roles come his way.
“This is how I want to look,” he says. “If somebody said, ‘We’re going to remake American History X and Cold Mountain and some of your favorite movies that you were in when you were fat, and if you want to be in a movie, you got to gain weight.’ I’d pass. I don’t need to do it.”