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
Angelica 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 Revenant 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 work. “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 between 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?