Greg Smith had his work cut out for him when Angelina Jolie called. He was in Sydney, Australia—his adopted hometown—when he was asked to come and train Jack O’Connell in the ways of a 1930s Olympic athlete. Smith knew his stuff—a highly experienced athletics coach, the U.S.-born Smith had played for the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1990s and trained two athletes to compete in the London Olympics of 2012. But nothing could have prepared him for the challenge he was to face on Unbroken.

“I have over 25 years of experience as an athlete and a coach,” says Smith. “But when they approached me they were filming scenes in which Jack’s character, Louis Zamperini, was a P.O.W., and so he was malnourished and underweight. We were looking at 16 to 18 days before they wanted to start filming the running. I didn’t know if it could be done.”

Angelina Jolie and Greg Smith on the set of Unbroken
Unbroken director Angelina Jolie works with running coach Greg Smith on the set of the film.

 

It usually takes six to eight weeks to prepare even a nutritionally-balanced athlete to compete at Olympic standard, says Smith. But while O’Connell was starting at a disadvantage, the 24-year-old star’s history as a high school runner made the process a little easier. “He knew how to run, and with his involvement in the 300 sequel (Rise of an Empire) he knew how to train hard.”

And train hard is exactly what he did. For four or five hours a day over those 16 to 18 days, O’Connell and Smith worked together to build the actor’s core strength, following the same basic training regiment as a real-life Olympian.

Making sure the process happened smoothly and safely was a top priority for Smith, who set up O’Connell with nutritionists and physiotherapists to ensure he had round-the-clock care. “I knew straight away nutrition was going to be first and foremost,” recalls Smith. “We had to get him up to speed with a proper diet. Training-wise, we avoided too many heavy weights—because that would have caused injury—and focused instead on his core and endurance.”

But Smith’s involvement didn’t stop there. As well as training O’Connell, he choreographed the film’s running scenes, and worked closely with Jolie to ensure they looked authentic. “I had to research the 1930s style of running,” he explains. “We wanted to develop that so you could see the difference from back then. Kids then spent a lot more time outdoors, so athletes of the time started with a lot of core foundation. Louis was a 5K runner, but he’d run nice and tall, like sprinters today.”

It was Smith’s first experience on a film set, and working with Jolie was a highlight. “I didn’t know what to expect, though obviously I’d seen her movies. She was so down-to-earth and easy to talk to, and when I arrived she knew exactly who I was and wasn’t shy to ask me questions.”

The film, he hopes, will inspire. “I’d never read this book and I didn’t know Louis’ story,” says Smith. “But I’d say it inspired me even more to continue to do what I do today. We should all try and bring a little Louis into our lives. It’s a truly motivational tale.”