Three case studies of appropriation in the name of Method Acting.
An actor prepares. Konstantin Stanislavski—godfather of Marlon Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, and every Method Actor working today—published his first acting manifesto in 1936. Since then The Method has excused many actors’ bad on-set behavior. An episode on the set of Suicide Squad involving Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, and an unidentified rat comes to mind. But The Method has given us transcendent performances as well—Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood.
Andrew Garfield follows in the footsteps of the Method Actor. However, in his most recent role of Prior Walter, a gay man, in Angels in America at London’s National Theater he is facing backlash. Garfield commented about the depth of his preparation, saying, “I am a gay man right now just without the physical act—that’s all.” He commented further, citing RuPaul’s Drag Race viewings as a key feature of his new gay lifestyle. The outcry came as this statement portrays gay culture as a stereotype.
However, Garfield is not the first Method Actor to play a character he or she does not personally identify as. Until recently, this phenomenon has gone unidentified. Nonetheless, there is a history of Method Actors taking on the attributes of underrepresented minorities for the entirety of filming then shedding them after the film wraps.
In 1989, Daniel Day-Lewis played the role of Christy Brown—a man born with cerebral palsy—in My Left Foot. For the extent of filming Day-Lewis confined himself to his wheelchair. The posture he committed to for the film broke two of his ribs due to the long days of shooting. The director had difficulty communicating with the actor because of Day-Lewis’s labored speech. To reward his performance due in part to his rigorous commitment, Day-Lewis received an Academy Award. The playwright John Belluso describes the trend of giving Oscars to able-bodied actors who play disabled characters as giving the audience “a collective ‘Phew’” when the audience sees that Day-Lewis is actually able-bodied. It has a similar effect of a magic trick.
One would think the actor simply played the character from a pure place of empathy. However, Belluso believes the audience watches the film with a kind of twisted fascination. The audience wants to know they are not watching a truly disabled person facing challenges on screen. But the audience does want to see an avatar of the disabled community go through the challenges. Scott Jordan Harris—in his piece for Rogerebert.com—equates able-bodied actors playing disabled characters to blackface.
An added complication to the issue of representation is the demarcation of visible and invisible minorities. Visible minorities include people of color and the physically disabled, while invisible minorities include the LGBT community. While blackface can quickly be identified, the film-going public cannot as easily distinguish an inauthentic characterization of a transgender woman or gay man.
Brokeback Mountain was released in 2005, and it was immediately met with controversy. However, it was not that two straight actors were playing gay men. It was that a film about two gay men had been released at all. Heath Ledger seriously studied the political issues on which the film was based. Additionally, he quashed any homophobic joking on set. The depth to which Ledger went into character impressed director Ang Lee. Like Day-Lewis, Ledger would not leave the physicality of his character while filming. Lee remarked, “He kept his teeth clenched and his face scrunched up for two months.”
The lack of protest over the casting of two straight actors as gay men is an interesting aspect of the story. Perhaps there was a protest, but the noise of anti-gay protest drowned it out. In “Brokeback Mountain: 10 Years On” published in Out, there is not one mention of the issue of having two straight actors in the lead roles. Jake Gyllenhaal justified playing his character in the film by saying that, “The struggle for identity is everybody’s struggle. No matter what it is.”
In 2013, Jared Leto played a transgender woman in Dallas Buyers Club—a role for which he won an Oscar. Leto described the role as beautiful and a challenge. To prepare for the role he dropped forty pounds and dressed as a woman. Some would say Leto participated in transface, the transgender analog to blackface. He remained in character throughout shooting. However, when the film wrapped he went back to living life as Jared Leto.
Steve Friess of Time likens Leto’s performance and reception to Hattie McDaniel’s experience in 1940. McDaniel was the first black actress to win an Academy Award. However, the gesture was empty. McDaniel sat in segregated seats, and the next black woman to be nominated for an Oscar was Ethel Waters ten years later. He continues to describe Leto’s characterization as every transgender cliché in one performance.
Fallon Fox—a transgender woman—writes for Time that acting ability is not what should be considered when judging if Leto should have been cast in the role. The question to ask is simply is he or is he not a transgender woman? Since the answer is no, Leto has no right to play the role. Even though Leto dedicated himself to portraying a nuanced characterization of a transgender woman—he certainly was not trying to depict a caricature of the minority—the only way to portray a minority correctly is to have a member of said minority actually play the role.
That is not to say that there are no positives to having A-List stars play minority roles. In each of these cases, the films may not have been made or may not have gotten as wide of distribution if the stars had not signed on. The visibility of these minorities—however fictionally portrayed—may provide greater visibility to the issues plaguing these groups of people.
So where does that leave us with Andrew Garfield? We should commend his empathy for the LGBT community. His work to bring visibility to the underrepresented community is noble—he also played a transgender woman in Arcade Fire’s music video for their song “We Exist.” In my own personal experience, the main reason I initially watched the “We Exist” music video was because Garfield was in it. His name has the ability to draw an audience that would not normally be exposed to a music video about a transgender woman.
However, he should try to speak about the gay community with more eloquence. Maybe part of the blame lies on the playwright Tony Kushner, who asked Garfield to play the role in Angels in America. Maybe Kushner should have asked a gay actor to play the role. Or maybe he knew that a wider audience would be attracted to Garfield rather than the alternative.