Aaron Williamson: Destined to Transform Bodies, Minds and Lives in New Orleans
The United States Marine Corps veteran and fitness trainer to the stars finds his destiny in New Orleans to motivate, inspire and encourage others in Hollywood South and beyond, and to support the Louisiana SPCA.
Some of the most amazing bodies on the planet are seen in film and television, and local certified fitness trainer and nutrition consultant Aaron Williamson plays a major role in transforming the physiques of some of the biggest names working in Hollywood South today. In addition to helping others achieve and maintain incredible physical goals, Williamson himself is now acting and performing stunts in big-budget films and on television, thanks to his striking looks, admirable countenance and incredibly fit frame. Yet this fascinating career would not have happened for the remarkable United States Marine Corps veteran had he not taken a chance and moved to New Orleans for a job that initially fell through.
Childhood in Daytona Beach, Florida, was rife with challenges for Williamson, born to a 16-year-old mother and a largely absent father. Things were tense at home between Williamson and his mother, and they remained tense between his mother and his new stepfather (who he considers his real father today), and a second divorce occurred. Throughout grammar and high school Williamson suffered with depression, got beat up for his lunch money, hung with a rough crowd, used drugs and had run-ins with the law. But shortly after graduating high school, Williamson found salvation in the United States Marine Corps, which provided the necessary discipline and purpose that had been lacking in his life.
While Williamson flourished as a Marine, he discovered his passion for fitness after deploying to Okinawa, Japan, in 1999. “I’d work out and see results, and it was amazing for me, because I’d always been this little skinny kid,” Williamson says. “My dream at that point was to compete as a professional body builder.” Williamson went on to win many competitions and amazingly never placed below second place. “The fitness and bodybuilding lifestyle gave me the structure to eat, work out and attain a certain marketable look, and I stood out,” he says. “That created this journey that I’m still on today.”
In 2000, Williamson went through a heavy screening process and was selected to become a member of the impressive Marine Corps Body Bearer detail, a 15-man unit based in Washington, D.C., whose primary mission is to bear the caskets at funerals for Marines, former Marines and Marine family members. It’s a job that demands certain strength requirements, exceptional demeanor and immaculate character traits. “It is an extremely emotional and humbling job,” Williamson says. “People get a little sad at first when I tell them I did it, but, for me, it was prestigious, because it was the last image a family would have when laying a loved one to rest. I would think about that every day, and that’s why I took it to heart so much.” Williamson rose to become the section leader for this unit and then re-enlisted.
In 2003, Williamson met the extensive requirements to become a personal security guard for the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, who later became the chairman. “To be a sergeant in the Marine Corps, and to walk into the Pentagon for the first time, and knock on a four-star general’s office door is overwhelming,” Williamson says. “A flood of thoughts went through my mind, including me being in a bad way as a kid and here I was now … about to work for one of the highest ranking military members on the president’s staff. The job required months of protective services training and anti-terrorism evasive driving training. I had to get Top Secret clearance. We were at the White House every week, so I met and interacted with President George W. Bush. I was around the Secretary of Defense, and we traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan. That was an amazing time in my Marine Corps career.”
Williamson ended active service in the Marines in 2005 and worked as a contractor for the technology-based Global Biometrics Initiative with Identity Management. He went to Baghdad for the Department of Defense as part of the initial fielding team to safeguard facilities using biometrics. “It was a classified project — iris scans, fingerprints, all that,” says Williamson, who was promoted to Country Manager in his mid-20s, overseeing one of the largest projects in Iraq. Later he liaised between the Government of Iraq and the Department of Defense, the Department of State and the Federal Bureau of Investigation for another project. Williamson and his team were under enemy attack, and he survived situations that some of his friends did not. He left Iraq a changed man.
Williamson came to New Orleans in 2009 for contract analyst work for the Marine Corps, but, upon arriving, funding for the position was cut. “It left me stumbling, trying to figure out what to do,” Williamson says. “I worked for someone for two months who never paid me. I took him to court, and he filed for bankruptcy. It was such a miserable time, because I was trying to transition back to what ‘normal’ was. I wanted to get my mind right, and not be so closed off and damaged from being in Iraq and in the Marine Corps for so long, yet I was ready to go back overseas.” After several months the contract was renewed, and he was hired for the position.
Spending time in the office on work that was very doctrine and policy heavy helped Williamson decide to turn to his true love of fitness; he began exploring the possibility of becoming a personal trainer. “I found this gym on Magazine Street called NOLA Fit which is now Franco’s [Athletic Club],” Williamson says. “It was a 24-hour gym, so I’d get up extremely early; finish my contract work; then head to the gym to find clients. I saved up money to make the transition from one job to the other. It kind of worked out, but it was a bit too late and really tragic. I had some really emotional nights thinking how I could have done all the things I’d done and here I am — I lost my house in Florida; I filed for bankruptcy; I was living out of my car. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me.”
But what happened next was like something out of a movie script: Actor Zac Efron, in town to film The Lucky One, walked into the gym with a fitness trainer from Los Angeles, and Williamson’s life took a surprise turn for the better. “They saw a fitness/military type collage poster of me on the wall, and, in that movie, Zac was portraying a Marine who is an Iraq veteran,” Williamson says. “We ended up talking, and we clicked, and Zac asked me to come to the set and meet the producers, who said they could use my help to prepare him for the film and teach him how to walk like a Marine, so I became his military advisor.”
Working with Efron was the entrée for Williamson’s foray into the film world. “At that point, I knew nothing about film,” he says. Shortly after advising Efron, Williamson trained with director and producer Anthony Hemingway of Treme, who was impressed with the unique fitness professional’s talent and offered him the chance to go back to L.A. with him, where his services would be in demand. But just a few weeks before departing for the West Coast, Williamson was contacted by several celebrities, such as Sylvester Stallone, Josh Duhamel and repeat client Efron — all headed to New Orleans to film various projects and all seeking his professional expertise — so he stayed put, and he quickly became the go-to guy for personal training and fitness and nutrition consultation in Hollywood South.
Williamson’s client roster exploded to include stars such as Jamie Foxx for Django Unchained and Josh Brolin, whose mind blowing 60-pound weight gain in two weeks for Oldboy is unparalleled. Williamson also became training partner to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson during his filming for G.I. Joe: Retaliation, and the list of his happy, buffed up and slimmed down clients goes on. “I’ve developed great relationships with my clients, and I’ll go above and beyond what normal trainers do,” Williamson says.
Through training and consulting film personnel, Williamson met stunt men and women, which lead him to perform stunts himself in movies such as 12 Years a Slave and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Thanks to his specific look, demeanor and presence on camera, the 6-foot-3-inch bodybuilder with hazel green eyes and a shaved head inevitably got asked if he acted.
“One thing lead to another,” says Williamson, whose acting career took flight with a part in G.I. Joe: Retaliation. He landed roles in Fantastic Four as a Navy Seal and in Terminator Genisys as a new character, a T-800 model Refugee Terminator. “The experience was unreal,” he says. “Growing up watching The Terminator, I never would’ve imagined being an actor cast as a terminator. Every time I say it, I just smile. It was a huge milestone for me to be on set talking to Arnold Schwarzenegger, a childhood hero of mine. And my life got back on track with G.I. Joe: Retaliation, and I developed a relationship with Dwayne Johnson. Both acting and training have been a blessing for me in dealing with emotions and with PTSD. Getting an acting coach, letting my guard down and being vulnerable was a huge breakthrough in my life.”
Williamson will be in episode ten of Zoo on CBS, in the first episode of Underground on WGN and in Brad Pitt’s upcoming feature The Big Short. He’ll also be in local director Chris Ganucheau’s short film He Whom Evil Fears, a finalist for the 2015 Louisiana Film Prize Festival in October in Shreveport.
Although A-list celebrities, fitness competitors and professional athletes flock to Williamson for his fitness and nutrition prowess, they aren’t the only ones who benefit from it. Williamson works with people from all walks of life in New Orleans at Franco’s, and he offers personalized online training and nutrition programs through his company Aaron Williamson Fitness — and his clients in 11 countries achieve fantastic results. “One of the things I tell people to start off with is portion control,” Williamson says. “You don’t have to eat until your front button pops off. It starts with simplicity, because you can get overwhelmed. My whole process is to educate as we go so people are set up for success and not reliant on me.”
On his Website, Williamson gets heaps of praise from his clients, including WDSU’s Camille Whitworth, who lost 21 pounds in 17 days under the gifted trainer’s brilliant tutelage. “She followed everything to a T, which shows how fast things can shift when you buckle down,” Williamson says. “In this city, cookie-cutter plans don’t work because people are immersed in food, music and nightlife. I’ve learned how to help people without losing the fun of the culture here.”
New Orleans has embraced the phenomenal approach to fitness and health espoused by Williamson, who shares his passion in the column “Health Scene” in Scene Magazine. And the celebrity trainer wholeheartedly believes that moving to New Orleans was pure destiny. “If I hadn’t taken a leap of faith to leave Iraq to come here, I wouldn’t have this career; honestly I don’t know where I’d be,” he says. “What I love about New Orleans is hard to put into words; it’s more of a feeling. I love this city because there’s a unique feel and energy that is indescribable. The hospitality and the way people treat you here is different than anywhere else. I feel I’ve been given an opportunity to impact the city and possibly the state through an aspect of fitness. This city is open to ambitious people and entrepreneurs, and it’s an amazing place to be to start over or build something new.” His supportive family cheers him on back home from Florida.
The iron man with abs of steel also possesses a compassionate heart of gold. Williamson, a bona fide dog lover, is significantly involved with the Louisiana SPCA and is a Celebrity Chair for the 37th annual Howling Success Patron Party & Gala on Nov. 7 at the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, which will feature a 1970s-inspired theme. “When it comes to animals and the Louisiana SPCA, I’ll drop whatever I’m doing and make time because I love animals so much,” Williamson says. “I grew up with dogs and a cat, and I’d have an animal farm if I could. Animals mean a lot to me, because they’re incredibly loyal. It’s an honor to be a part of the Louisiana SPCA and to witness the great things they’re doing, such as their facility’s new expansion — the Adoption, Resource Center & Clinic. Those animal abuse videos, and the dog fighting and the awful way people treat them make me want to make a big difference for the animals of this world.”
A genuine guy humbled on a daily basis by the marvelous opportunities that come his way and who constantly wants to give back to others, Williamson is planning the Aaron Williamson Fitness USO Tour for the Troops along with several big name actors and musicians, with its first leg starting in Asia later this year. “I’m trying to take it all in, because it’s beyond surreal,” Williamson says. “It’s a platform to share my story and inspire people about fitness, supplements and nutrition, and there will be practical application in the gym. I’ll feel nostalgic when I get to Okinawa, since I fell in love with fitness there at Camp Schwab.”
Williamson is also arranging motivational speaking engagements for high schools, colleges, youth programs and detention facilities. “It means a lot when people tell me that I give them hope,” he says. “Many of these kids, teenagers and young adults face obstacles and have low self-esteem. I tell them where I came from and what I’ve been through, and I talk about having confidence, and how you can do anything you want when you know your abilities and work hard. It’s meaningful to be able to do what I’m doing. Some people may think I’m arrogant, because of the way I look, but, honestly, I’m just a big teddy bear, and all I want to do is help people, and use my story to motivate and inspire.” aaronwilliamson.net