I think the first time many of us heard the term “method acting” was probably as the result of some famous actors’ antics. I’m thinking about Jared Leto on the set of Suicide Squad or Daniel Day-Lewis staying in character as Bill the Butcher for weeks.
But method acting has actually been around for a long time. It’s taught in many acting schools, and it’s more than just a gimmick. It’s a habit actors use to get into character. It has a dark side—but more on all of this later.
Today, the point of this post is to get to know method acting, the techniques, examples, and the definition of the style. We’ll talk about Lee Strasberg and even dig a bit into the history.
Are you ready, or do you need to get into character?
What Is Method Acting?
Method acting is a systematic approach to training that’s focused on the living material that an actor will use in their performance.
Let’s use the definition to explain further.
The Method Acting Definition
Method acting is a technique used by actors to completely emotionally identify with the people they are going to portray. Within the practice, the actor “becomes” the role and frequently stays in character for an extended period of time.
You are encouraged not to compartmentalize and fake feelings but to get yourself to feel the actual feelings you need in each scene. This can lead to changes in psyche and behavior for as long as they inhabit the role.
Is Method Acting Dangerous?
There is a fine line between pretending to feel a certain way on film and then taking those emotions home as well. It can be hard to get back to yourself afterward. There are also some method practices that actors wind up regretting later in life. When you’re doing anything to mess with your brain’s psychology, there are always potential bad results.
Once, James Franco wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times about method acting and how it could be responsible for the erratic behavior of some actors.
Heath Ledger was a method actor taken from us far too soon. Research shows that fully immersed actors “forget themselves” in the sense that they actively ignore facts about who they are, temporarily subordinating their own thoughts and feelings to those of their character.
Chloe Sevigny has said of her infamously method performance in The Brown Bunny, “It happened. I wish I had the confidence I had now. I was insecure. Everyone says, ‘what do you regret?’ And I know that they want me to say The Brown Bunny, but I won’t.”
If you’re an actor, approach it with caution and actually look deeply into what you think it might add to your performance.
When Tom Hanks did Castaway, he was not full method, but he did get a type of diabetes due to his weight fluctuating for the role.
The practice of method acting in and of itself is not dangerous, but it can easily go awry.
Who Invented Method Acting?
Called “The Method,” it was developed in New York in the 1930s and 40s by members of The Group Theatre, including Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner, and Stella Adler.
It was based on Stanislavski’s system, which was an approach to training actors that Konstantin Stanislavski developed. His system was focused on what he calls the “art of experiencing.”
Method Acting History
As the method became more and more popular, you saw actors bringing it from the stage to Hollywood. Institutions such as the Actors’ Studio in New York City are associated with actors such as Marlon Brando and Dustin Hoffman, who used the method. So did James Dean and other classic film actors as well.
If you want to learn how to method act, it is different today than it was when it was developed, and it has evolved in several directions. Today, many actors actually use some part of the method to embody what’s going on. Great emphasis is placed on developing the whole actor’s instrument, the actor’s body, voice, life experiences, and impulses, to inform how they should act and the characters they create.
Still, some actors take it to extremes.
Jared Leto’s Famous Method Acting Stint as the Joker
Playing the Joker is akin to playing Hamlet. So many famous actors want to tackle the role now because it often leads to Academy Awards or other nominations. It may have taken Heath Ledger from us far too soon, and it certainly leaves a mark on the men who try to inhabit that character.
During Leto’s stint as Joker, he went full method, becoming the clown prince of crime in some disturbing ways that were not welcomed by cast members. That included staying in character when talking with Will Smith, giving Margot Robbie a pet rat, and sending everyone in the cast anal beads.
In an interview with E! News, Leto said that he sent everyone in the cast used condoms as well.
“I did a lot of things to create a dynamic, to create an element of surprise, of spontaneity, and to really break down any kind of walls that may be there,” Leto said. “The Joker is somebody who doesn’t really respect things like personal space or boundaries.”
During an appearance on Variety’s Awards Circuit podcast, Leto was asked about the term “method actor.” He said, “I appreciate the term, I think it’s a little cloudy, the definition. And it could also be really pretentious as well.”
He went on to say, “I was thinking of it as my job to show up and do the best work that I can. It’s my job to show up, do whatever I can, to be overprepared. And to deliver. It’s also my job to show up and, you know, be a pleasure to work with. And to be collaborative, and to have a good experience on set.”
Leto continued, “There are a few, very few characters that you play that have absolutely no rules, you know, that you could just go to town.”
What Are Some Examples of Method Acting?
Famous method actors are all over Hollywood. Now that you understand the process of acting in this way, let’s look at some famous examples of method acting in film. What is Method Acting? It’s what these people do.
I think we should start with the man, the myth, and the legend, Daniel Day-Lewis. While you may have heard of his performance as Lincoln, where the crew wasn’t allowed to talk current events and he stayed in character the entire time, you might not know about the method role that started it all.
My Left Foot was the story of a paraplegic painter and writer named Christy Bown. Brown had cerebral palsy and was able to write or type only with the toes of one foot. When it came time to make the movie about Brown’s life, Day-Lewis… stepped into the role. He stayed in character in between takes.
That meant that members of the crew had to feed the temporary paraplegic man. And when it came time to send correspondence from set, he tried typing with his toes. And he also taught himself how to correctly put a record on a turntable with his toes.
This was worth it, as the actor won his first Academy Award for the performance.
Another way actors go method is with body changes. Like the one Robert De Niro did for Raging Bull or Christian Bale did for The Machinist.
De Niro gained 60 pounds for his role as Jake LaMotta and said, “I began to realize what a fat man goes through… You get rashes on your legs. Your legs scrape together.”
Many on set were concerned by De Niro’s heavy breathing and health. The same goes in reverse for Bale, who lost 65 pounds on a strict diet of water, coffee, and one apple a day for four months. This was very dangerous!
When Forrest Whitaker took on the role of dictator Idi Amin, he actually moved to Uganda to learn how the people talked. He even learned how to speak fluent Swahili and spent time with Amin’s close friends and family to master the character’s mannerisms. What we got was an incredible performance that even Ugandans who hated their dictator said was scary and accurate.
While many men are known for method acting, they’re far from the only ones who do it. Charlize Theron employed method techniques on the movie Monster. She gained 30 pounds for the role and underwent intensive makeup to transform her into someone unknowable.
As Roger Ebert put it, “What Charlize Theron achieves in Patty Jenkins’ Monster isn’t a performance but an embodiment. With courage, art, and charity, she empathizes with Aileen Wuornos, a damaged woman who committed seven murders. She does not excuse the murders. She simply asks that we witness the woman’s final desperate attempt to be a better person than her fate intended.”
Natalie Portman also utilizes the method for her performances. But she also is familiar with the dangers of it, saying that while she was on Black Swan, she was afraid she might die. She lost 20 pounds for the role and was eating basically only carrots and almonds and spending eight hours a day in rehearsals.
“There were some nights that I thought I literally was going to die,” she told Entertainment Weekly. “It was the first time I understood how you could get so wrapped up in a role that it could sort of take you down.”
Summing Up What Is Method Acting in Hollywood
When an actor goes method, you can get some of the greatest results on film, but there’s a fine line between acting crazy and just acting. Method performances grew with the stage to the screen and have given us some legends, but you have to wonder if going too deep into roles also took some away from us or made sets and movies so unbearable that people were hurt.
If you have method stories, put them in the comments. I’d love to hear more from actors who use this training safely.
Also, let us know your favorite use of the method in film history.
Until next time…