A Dangerous Method: Jared Leto And How Method Acting Can Go Horribly Wrong

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The report that Jared Leto sent his Suicide Squad castmates used condoms was both gross—a case could be made that it constitutes sexual assault—and the nadir of misunderstanding about what Method acting is and how it should be undertaken. Leto’s career to date, from gaining a mildly absurd amount of weight to play Mark David Chapman in a very bad movie almost no one saw to his Oscar-winning turn as a transphobic cartoon character, has provided conveniently grotesque object lessons in the study of Method acting, both in the “you’re doing it wrong” sense and in one of the fundamental weaknesses in the Method itself.

It would probably be helpful at this point to define what the Method is, as “Method actor” is a term that gets tossed about often enough that its meaning wears off. It began in the Moscow Art Theatre when the director Constantin Stanislavski devised what he called the “system” as a means of best performing the plays of Chekhov, whose great innovation was a far heavier emphasis on the inner lives of characters than had previously been seen on the stage. Actors needed to be able to convey interiority without text, and given that this was a new development, a new kind of acting was necessary, hence Stanislavski and his “system.” Later, Lee Strasberg coined the term “Method” for his preferred form of training actors, which claimed inspiration from Stanislavski but departed in numerous crucial aspects, one of which was emphasizing the psychological state of the actor above all other factors. Others, just as crucially, were regarding mental and emotional states as separate from physical ones, in the sense that Strasberg did not include formalized physical training in the Method as Stanislavski had in the “system,” and most problematically, the regard of the actor’s process as being an individual one, separated from both collaborators on a given theatrical project (using the term “theatrical” to apply to both stage and film), and even from the text itself.

Method acting began to dominate American film after World War II as films about inner lives increased in popularity and prevalence, and as the plays of Tennessee Williams, William Inge, and others began to be adapted into Hollywood movies. This gave rise to Marlon Brando, who was by no means the only Strasberg-taught actor in the business, but had the most apparent influence on the processes of other actors. Brando’s personal insecurities and idiosyncrasies informed his work as an actor to a point where it was at times difficult to determine where the Method began and the madness ended, often yielding brilliant work and just as often horrified stories from collaborators. As fate would have it, both ended up crucial aspects of Brando’s legend and so actors in subsequent generations came to regard odd and/or antisocial behavior as being just as much part of acting as speaking lines and moving through staged or photographic space.

The currently most popular avatar of the Method is Daniel Day-Lewis, whose process is characterized by meticulous, lengthy research and the practice of staying in character throughout principal photography, going so far as, in his first Oscar-winning role in My Left Foot, to not do anything his character, in near-total paralysis from cerebral palsy, could not, requiring people to wait on him hand and foot for the duration of the shoot. Day-Lewis very rarely makes films now, although the last two have both resulted in essentially guaranteed Oscars. Indeed, Daniel Day-Lewis’ process has become synonymous with the kind of process that wins all major awards.

All of this has led to a consensus perception of Method acting as “good” acting, and physical transformations or successfully rendering an accent other than one’s own as bonus points. The subsequent prestige attracts swarms of actors to the process, yielding work with a wide variance in quality. This is, admittedly, in the eye of the beholder, and thus my personal distaste for Leto’s work and deportment is to some degree a matter of subjectivity. Where I think there’s a more concrete point to be made is in the seeming need to torment his Suicide Squad castmates to fulfill his vision of the Joker as being a malicious prankster, and I would argue that this derives from both a distorted view of what the Method is and from a flaw in the Method that makes that distortion possible. Following a process that focuses exclusively on the self, Method actors are at risk of forgetting that other actors exist in a given piece and that their individual personal journey is not necessarily the raison d’etre of that piece. Once forgotten, this leads to the idea that sending semen to one’s co-stars is a thing that should be done. That is not a thing that should be done. It is not funny. It contributes nothing to anyone’s creative process. It is bad.

As far as the Method itself, as opposed to offenses committed in its name, it is not a guarantee of this kind of behavior. The focus on self as opposed to, like Sanford Meisner’s technique, on establishing a bond with a scene partner, or like Stanislavski’s, on connecting with a greater truth, is simply a means of establishing a personal connection to a character. It connects art to life in a compelling way, particularly for actors guided more by emotional understanding than intellectual. What it is not is a license to act like an asshole and make collaborators jump through hoops. It is not an alibi for narcissism. It is a tool, not a validation of tools.

Columnist, Film School Rejects. Host, Minor Bowes podcast. Ce n’est pas grave, y’all