When a Method Man Is Too Much a Showman

By  · Published on August 3rd, 2016

Jared Leto’s Joker is a ham and a hog in Suicide Squad.

When Constantin Stanislavski, grandfather of Method acting, started his “system” of representational performance, he was revolutionizing the craft in response to what had been the standard for centuries. Actors were showier, broke the fourth wall, and generally presented their roles directly to and sometimes interacted with the audience. In the century or so since Stanislavski’s techniques were popularized, the norm for acting has become more and more based on naturalism, realism, and internalizing the art. Even actors who don’t fully “go Method” are typically trained for theatre and cinema that’s voyeuristic for viewers rather than involving.

But especially in recent years, Method has become somewhat synonymous with a showier side of acting. One aspect of this is the actual performances being still internally based for the actor but the characters being unbelievably grandiose to the point that they’re stretching if not breaking the fourth wall. They draw our attention in a way that makes us the ones extending ourselves into the scene as opposed to the other way around. It’s not necessarily intentional on the part of the actors, though. For Jared Leto’s Method performance as the Joker in Suicide Squad, however, I think there is a conscious effort to attract the audience’s focus.

It doesn’t help that Leto’s process for his Suicide Squad role has been so heavily addressed by the media and maybe has gotten a push as part of the marketing (yes, ironically this criticism adds to that). He and his on-set stunts supposedly in-character are part of the external narrative of this movie’s production, and it will be on the minds of a lot of moviegoers before they even take their seats in the theater. The funny thing is that for all the publicity and his second-billing credit, Leto is not in the movie for very long. But he feels like a huge presence because of the hype, because of the iconic status of the character, and especially because he’s such a camera hog.

It’s also not a very interesting performance, either in his interpretation of the Joker or on the whole as a movie character. He’s very much at the service of Harley Quinn’s origin story and has a part in defining her personality and motivation and desire. Other than his utilitarian function, though, he has none. Nor does he have any appeal. For all the attention Leto has received for the role, he doesn’t do much with it. He commands our focus and steals scenes, but that is primarily because of his flashy physical appearance combined with what we bring to it, as far as our familiarity and our expectations. He’s a ham, there’s no doubt, but not a juicy one.

And because he’s hogging the movie with his garish presence and not delivering, he constantly takes us out of the movie in a distracting way. That’s hardly the desired result of a true Method actor, even if a lot of them, from Marlon Brando to Daniel Day-Lewis, have given great performances that sometimes seem to float above or beyond or outside the rest of their respective movies. Leto’s Joker is no Don Corleone, however, no Daniel Plainview. And certainly no Heath Ledger’s Joker, which is a greater example of a Method actor both disappearing into his role and being histrionic – of course, his theatricality is the character’s, not the actor’s.

Jared Leto And How Method Acting Can Go Horribly Wrong

Leto’s Joker does not come across as realistic, even in the world of the DC Extended Universe with its meta humans and caped crusaders. Not that he’s alone there. The same can be said for the actual main villain of Suicide Squad as well as Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. If anything, top-billed but downplayed star Will Smith is the true standout actor in the movie, and while he’s always just Will Smith playing a sharpshooting hitman character, that’s surely all he means to be and it works. Whereas Leto may want us to only see his Joker but he’s really always just Jared Leto playing the Joker character. So what was the bother?

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.