Method Acting, Explained

We hear a lot about method acting. But what’s it about, really?

As fans of film and television, we hear an awful lot about “method acting.” Some say that method acting killed Heath Ledger. We hear that method acting makes well-known thespians like Daniel Day-Lewis, Shia LaBeouf, and Christian Bale nearly impossible to work with. The Award Shows would have us believe that method acting is the key to riveting, award-winning performances, but the media tells us to fear those who create art that way. What is the truth?

The predecessor to what is now known as “method acting” is the System created by esteemed acting teacher Constantin Stanislavski. Stanislavski was a figurehead of the Theatrical Realist Movement at the turn of the twentieth century. He began to teach his System in 1909. The System was a psychophysical model, one in which actors are encouraged to explore the emotional inner lives of their characters and utilize emotional memory to create a realistic performance both verbally and physically.

In the 1920s, a friend and colleague of Stanislavski’s, Lee Strasberg, developed his own derivative to the System which is the preference of Hollywood actors who utilize method acting. Strasberg’s model takes the System further, advocating not only for a utilization of emotional memory but a full immersion into the memory, called Substitution, as well as the use of imagination and physical senses. The actor does not play the character so much as become the character, however temporarily.

Laurence Olivier in Hamlet

The act of becoming a character was absolutely revolutionary. Classical actors had been playing roles built on archetypes and exaggerated expression of emotion since the dawn of the film era. Classical acting is far more theatrical than method. Method attempts to duplicate reality as much as possible, whereas classical acting is far too big to be real. The most easily recognizable example of a classical actor is Sir Laurence Olivier who is always so much larger than life in all of his roles. Other alternatives to the Strasberg Method include other Stanislavski derivatives like Meisner, Lewis, Adler, and Hagen.

The Strasberg Method has been the engine behind some of the most iconic performances of all time. Marlon Brando, James Dean, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Hilary Swank, Dustin Hoffman, and Marilyn Monroe are only a few examples out of many. Perhaps the most famous “Method” actor currently is Daniel Day-Lewis whose dedication to method is always a point of discussion.

What sets Method actors apart from those of other Stanislavski-based schools of acting is that Strasberg actors recognize the limitation of using one’s own emotional memory to play a completely different person. If a character in a film or play is feeling sad, of course an actor would be able to substitute a personal sadness for that of the character to portray the emotion realistically. However, an actor who has lived his or her entire life in the twentieth century would have no frame of reference – intellectually or emotionally – for what life would have been like in the eighteenth century. An actor from a middle or upper class family would have no frame of reference as to what it would be like to be poor or homeless. A method actor would go out in an attempt to replicate these experiences as much as he or she could prior to and during the production.

Daniel Day-Lewis in Last of the Mohicans

The examples of method actors preparing for difficult roles in which mere emotional memory substitution would be insufficient are plentiful. While filming The Last of the Mohicans, Daniel Day-Lewis chose to live in the backwaters of Alabama, refusing to eat what he could not hunt and kill himself the way his character would have. Daniel Day-Lewis prepares for all of his roles with the same vigor. He truly is a testament to method acting. In preparation for her Academy Award-winning role as transgender man Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry, Hilary Swank lived full-time as a man for weeks before the shoot and all during filming. Robert DeNiro, during the production of Taxi Driver, actually got his commercial driver’s license and actually drove a cab around New York City to prepare.

Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry

Method Acting may garner extremely riveting performances, but it is not without its flaws. Becoming a character – especially one from a marginalized demographic – is not without its ethical quandaries. It may be possible to come close to living the same way someone did before electricity or the invention of refrigeration, but it is another thing entirely to live as if one suffers from a physical or mental illness. The pitfalls of emulating these traits can be extremely problematic and rely heavily on stereotypes or generally bad behavior that do no favors to those individuals in the real world who really do struggle with these ailments.

Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Method actors have historically loved to portray characters with mental illnesses. Their performances are often lauded, but the idea that one can act their way into a mental illness is somewhat ludicrous. It is probably not possible to act your way into a mental illness and it is quite irresponsible and sensationalist to do so. Jack Nicholson’s performance in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was about as method as one can get with mental illness. He and his costars lived in an active psychiatric hospital to prepare and during filming. They attended group therapy with patients, which is probably a breach of confidentiality, but not a one of them “contracted” a mental illness from their role. Famously psychotic characters are also notorious for allegedly driving actors crazy because of method practices. Heath Ledger’s death and Jared Leto’s bizarre and inappropriate behavior toward his costars during the filming of Suicide Squad are not the result of getting too in the head of the Joker.

Christian Bale, unhealthily skinny, in The Machinist

Method actors have also historically caused themselves physical stress and damage in preparation for roles, which is also an ethical dilemma as far as method acting as a system. Christian Bale and Adrien Brody both lost excessive amounts of weight in short periods of time to the point of anorexic-like behavior during the production of their respective films The Machinist and The Pianist. Shia LaBeouf and Nicolas Cage pulled their own teeth without anesthesia to prepare for their roles in Fury and Birdy. Daniel Day-Lewis broke his own ribs during the filming of My Left Foot. In My Left Foot, Day-Lewis plays a character with cerebral palsy. During filming, he refused to move from his wheelchair, speak coherently, or feed himself. He did, however, get to know real people with cerebral palsy prior to filming in an attempt to make his portrayal of the ailment as accurate and inoffensive as possible.

Method acting is nothing more than an acting technique. It is not some kind of mysterious, ethereal entity that causes actors to go crazy or guarantee them an Oscar. It is the preferred technique of some of Hollywood’s greatest, and has been for decades. It is neither inherently positive or negative. It can be gritty and difficult and definitely unglamorous, but it is not all what it seems to be.