Method Acting 101

There was a time when “committed” actors swore by method acting for really nailing roles, really living in the skin of the characters they portrayed. It’s a technique wherein the actor aims for total emotional identification with the part, and once they’re in the zone, they don’t leave it. They don’t break character when the director yells cut. If the character is angry and volatile, the actor will be angry and volatile for the whole 4 months. If the character is needy and vulnerable, then so will be the actor. You can understand why it’s difficult to work with such an actor – it must feel like working with a toddler, one who doesn’t take naps and won’t be sent to time out.

Lots of actors have taking method acting so far it makes my eyes roll around in their sockets but it was Jared Leto’s method approach to the Joker in Suicide Squad that led
jaredletojokerhqAngelica Jade Bastien of The Atlantic to declare “Method acting is over.” Thanks to its overuse in Oscar-baity screeners by those actively seeking accolades, the method has lost its appeal, but Leto’s over-the-top zeal revealed the “technique” as more marketing tool than anything else and the prestige is all but gone. Jared Leto sent his fellow costars screwy gifts of used condoms, dead pigs, and live rats, apparently because he felt that’s the kind of thoughtful gesture the Joker would make, or at least that it would play well as an anecdote on Jimmy Kimmell. He also watched footage of brutal crimes online because apparently pretending to be a bad person isn’t enough, one must actually become reprehensible.

Going “method” is really just a new way for an actor to show off; it makes the creation of a character more visible and signals to the Academy “I’d like my Oscar now.” This identity branding is indulged by Hollywood but often divisive if not downright disruptive on set.

Practiced by Hollywood heavyweights like Paul Newman, Montgomery Clift, Dustin Hoffman, and Jack Nicholson, method acting was revolutionary in its time, and idealized in the performances of Marlon Brando. James Franco recently wrote that “Brando’s performances revolutionized American acting precisely because he didn’t seem to be ‘performing,’ in the sense that he wasn’t putting something on as much as he was being.” But Brando never took it to the extremes that we see today.

Leonardo DiCaprio has used method acting to rebrand himself as a “serious actor” after being mistaken for a hearthrob in his early career. His recent Oscar campaign for The the_revenant2Revenant emphasized the grueling ordeal he went through, including eating bison liver (despite being vegetarian), risking hypothermia by striding into freezing rivers, and sleeping in an animal carcass. But doesn’t this sound more like an episode of Fear Factor? Isn’t acting really about pretending? The Revenant isn’t a documentary about frontiersmen. I’m sure it would have played just as well had he shot the scene in a lukewarm stream instead. CGI in some breath clouds and it’s all the same to me.

Christian Bale seems to be a practitioner of the method in order to add machismo to his a99013_christian-600x450work. “I have a very sissy job, where I go to work and get my hair done, and people do my makeup, and I go and say lines and people spoil me rotten. This is just not something to be quite as proud of as many people would have you believe.” So Bale counters this by really losing himself in a role. For The Machinist, he lost 70lbs and got down to a very unhealthy 120 (on a 6′ frame), and then turned around and gained 100lbs to play Batman just 4 months later.He went on to stay in Bruce Wayne’s American accent not just for the duration of the filming, but for all the press as well.

Shia LaBeouf went 4 months without washing on the set of Fury, where he played a soldier in the trenches (this got him banished to a bed and breakfast far away from the hotel where the other cast and crew stayed). He also cut his own face with a knife, and pulled his own tooth. His co-star, Brad Pitt, non-Method, injects roles with his natural charisma rather than stunts and overly-studied contrivances. Whose performances do you prefer?

Daniel Day-Lewis may be the most over-the-top Method actor of his time. While filming My Left Foot, he refused to get out of his wheelchair, forcing crew to carry him around, and spoon-feed him dinner. He lived in the wild while shooting Last of the Mohicans, and ate only what he shot himself. He insisted that everyone address him as “Mr President” on the set of Lincoln, and forbade people from speaking to him unless it was in language (and accents) from the time period. He refused a winter coat on the set of Gangs of New York, and when he inevitably caught pneumonia, he refused “modern day” medical treatment.

DeNiro got a real cab license while filming Taxi Driver, and picked up fares around NYC 100-male-film-oliviergngk-thumb-500x250-153952between takes. Pacino made an actual citizen’s arrest while filming Serpico. Adrien Brody starved himself and sold his apartment to feel “lost” while playing a Holocaust survivor in The Pianist. If you’re getting the feeling that this so-called Method is about ego more than art, you’re not alone. And I wonder if you’re seeing the other pattern here…that all the names on this list are men.

There are plenty of Method actresses as well: Marilyn Monroe, Ellyn Burstyne, and Jane Fonda all studied the technique. They just never adopted the crazy stunts. Gena Rowlands is probably the best Method actor you’ll ever come across, but she does it without resorting to tricks. Sadly, when we hear a woman is “immersed” in a role, it almost always means she’s altered her physical appearance. So it’s pretty obvious that not only is method acting obnoxious and ridiculous, it’s also pretty sexist. But what else is new?

 

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21 thoughts on “Method Acting 101

  1. Henry Chamberlain

    I did not know that Shia pulled out one of his teeth for the sake of his role in a movie. Who is going to notice or care about such demented dedication? Between Shia and Brad Pitt, I might not choose either one. I would definitely go with Paul Dano. Whatever he’s doing, it’s working.

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  2. Liz A.

    I get the trying of things to get a feel for the role, but then there is going too far. Moderation is key. But some people are going to go to extremes no matter what.

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  3. ninvoid99

    Method acting used to be cool as I like it when people Christian Bale and Charlize Theron would do something to create something that is real whereas Jared Leto just makes it uncool. It is just now a method for vanity where it’s not about the performance but rather “look at me, I can act” bullshit.

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  4. Christopher

    Even for some of the earlier actors method acting seems unnecessary. Coppola did screen tests with Brando for The Godfather and Brando slipped into the character of Don Corleone with just a few moments preparation and shoe polish in his hair.
    Robert DeNiro did incredible preparation for Bloody Mama–he even corrected the speech coach’s accent–but had trouble in a scene where he drives a car because he didn’t know how to drive.
    And then there’s the story I’ve heard that on the set of Marathon Man Dustin Hoffman said “This role is killing me” and Olivier said, “Why don’t you try acting?”

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  5. fragglerocking

    It all sounds a bit bonkers and unnecessary. Must be really annoying for the proper actors in the movie. Brad Pitt acted his socks off in Fury I thought. Shia The Buf didn’t impress me as much.

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  6. Brittani

    Great post. Method acting it mostly ridiculous to me, but there are some cases where it works. Robert DeNiro driving a cab? Fine. Living alone for a month to feel isolated, sure. But when your method acting starts affecting other people, that’s when you’re going overboard. I remember during the Lincoln press tour, Joseph Gordon-Levitt was talking about how Daniel Day-Lewis wrote him a letter as Abraham Lincoln and had studied his handwriting, I thought the interviewer was going to burst out laughing. If I were an actor or crew member, I’m not sure I’d want to work with someone who was going to be full on method to the point of never leaving character and possibly disrupting others.

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    1. Jay Post author

      Yes, I heard Sally Field saying he would always text her in character, and demand she reply back in proper old English, and he even signed the texts “A” – but hello – texting wasn’t exactly period!!! It’s idiotic.

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  7. Harlon

    I always thought that it was a great quote contrasting two great actors when Sir Lawrence Olivier said to Dusting Hoffman during the filming of The Marathon Man – ‘Why don’t you try acting dear boy?’ So I really enjoyed this posting about acting styles and I think you also made a very astute observation that there is a double standing for Method Acting between men and women, over time for women it really has evolved more so into their appearance. Even if you may be assholes, it’s nice to read stuff from someone who gets into movies as much as I do. If I worked behind the snack counter, I’d supersize your combo snack and not charge you extra. 🙂 Harlon

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  8. J.

    Wait, Leto and method acting for the part of Joker? How did I miss that? Anyhoo, I think my favourite method acting story is Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison. For those not familiar with that one, apparently he spent a year walking around as Jim, then folks had to refer to him as Jim, and it’s said that after filming had wrapped up he was still in Jim mode. Apparently he needed therapy! I don’t know how true it is, or how much of it has been exaggerated, but that’s a whole different level of method acting, eh?

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    1. Jay Post author

      Yeah, I read a lot about him doing that role. As a counsellor I suppose I get uncomfortable thinking about anyone getting that obsessive about it. Seems unhealthy, and I think you need better boundaries not just between work and not work, but between self and not self!

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  9. Hazzieandsof

    I feel a bit better knowing I’m not the only one that thought some method acting was a bit over the top but didn’t even stop to think about it being mostly men. Thanks for the perspective.

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  10. Lloyd Marken

    I’m all for method acting to a point. De Niro boxed for Raging Bull, Bale did great work in Rescue Dawn and looks the part in The Fighter and American Hustle. I get his motivation and revel in the physical transformations. Day Lewis too I’m a huge fan of and think the work pays off on screen. I think it would be nice if more actresses were recognised for method acting. Naomi Watts for example worked with a nurse for Eastern Promises but that tends to get forgotten next to what Viggo Mortensen did in the same film. I think a lot of it as passed off as routine research or training but actually I think more preparation work done by actresses should get recognised. Gene Hackman once said to young actors ‘Whatever you need to get into that moment you do.” Old hands like James Garner were of the school of thought ‘show up, know your lines and hit your mark’ show clearly that acting does not need to be laborious to be great and natural. Yet short of annoying others or endangering yourself I’m all for it if it works for you. For example Day Lewis refusing modern medical treatment is stupid. Not leaving his wheelchair during the shooting of My Left Foot while annoying I can see the benefit of. Just another opinion brought to you nobody in particular. 🙂

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  11. Ashley Lily Scarlett

    I think this is interesting. It seems to me to be a matter of degrees. Some immersion would be research and presumably the acting would be better for it, but walking around ‘being’ The Joker? I’m glad I wasn’t there!

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