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What is Method Acting? How Great Actors Prepare

Jakob Straub
Jakob Straub, Content Writer
Updated

Method acting brings a fascinating layer to the world of acting, offering actors a rich array of techniques to truly inhabit their roles and bring characters to life with authenticity and deeply felt emotions. This approach isn't just about acting; it's about becoming the character, ensuring every performance is as genuine and compelling as possible. So, what is a method actor? Essentially, a method actor is someone who uses these techniques to achieve such a high level of character immersion that they temporarily transform into their character, even offstage or off-camera.

The roots of method acting trace back to the early 20th century Russian drama theories, making its way to the heart of American theater in New York and leaving an indelible mark on Hollywood. It's interesting to note how method acting continues to be celebrated, particularly at the Oscars, where actors who excel in these techniques often receive accolades. Method actors employ a variety of practices, from emotional memory exercises to physical transformations, to achieve the authenticity that defines their performances.

For those curious about diving deeper into this topic, we offer a comprehensive look at the history and evolution of method acting. Discover how some of the many method actors prepare for their roles using this technique, and explore different viewpoints, including those from actors who have expressed reservations about method acting.

What is the acting technique of method acting?

Method acting is a fascinating approach that takes actors deep into their characters, making their performances incredibly authentic and touching. Lee Strasberg, known as the father of method acting, really set the stage for this immersive technique. It's all about using method acting techniques to draw upon own real life experiences and emotions, enabling actors to deliver performances that are not just acted, but lived.

Unlike classical acting, which might focus more on speech and presentation, method acting dives into the essence of realism. It's about being the character, not just playing them, often leading actors to immerse themselves in their roles to the point of obsession. This approach is a stark contrast to character acting, where the emphasis might be on larger-than-life or overly stylized performances.

The roots of method acting trace back to Konstantin Stanislavski's system, developed in the early 20th century at the Moscow Art Theatre. When this revolutionary approach to acting was introduced to New York City in 1923, it captured the imagination of Lee Strasberg and others, who then adapted and evolved these ideas into what we now know as The Method.

From theater to film, method acting has made its mark across the U.S., from Broadway to Los Angeles. Icons like Marlon Brando have brought this technique to Hollywood, where it's become a hallmark of award-winning performances. In fact, method actors have dominated the Oscars, with a significant number of 'Best Actor' awards in the past decade going to those who've mastered this immersive approach. It's a testament to the power and impact of method acting on both the industry and audiences worldwide. For those seeking method acting examples, the careers of actors like Daniel Day-Lewis, Meryl Streep, and Robert De Niro offer insightful studies into how deeply this technique can enhance a performance.

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The System: Affective memory and the method of Konstantin Stanislavski

Russian actor and director, Konstantin Stanislavski's approach to acting, known as "The System," revolutionized performance art by emphasizing the "art of experiencing." This method encourages actors to deeply immerse themselves in their characters through the use of emotional recall, involving affective and sense memory. By drawing on personal experiences that mirror their character's emotions and recalling the sensory details of those moments, actors can authentically reproduce the emotional depth required for their roles. This technique not only enriches the performance but also fosters a deeper connection between the audience and the narrative.

The Method: The evolution by Lee Strasberg

Lee Strasberg was pivotal in evolving the Russian system into the American Method, notably with the creation of the Group Theatre in New York City in 1931, alongside Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford. He emphasized affective memory in his teachings, urging actors to use personal experiences to fuel genuine on-stage emotions.

The development of The Method was a collaborative endeavor, enriched by Stella Adler's focus on sociological aspects, Sanford Meisner's on behavioral elements, and Elia Kazan's introduction of the technique to filmmaking.

Strasberg's influence continued as he led the Actors Studio, where he trained actors in authentic performance. With its adoption in film, the technique was branded as Method acting, marking its practitioners as Method actors. Method acting has significantly shaped both theatre and cinema, testament to Strasberg and his colleagues' legacy.

Beyond his contributions to Method acting, Strasberg also left a tangible legacy in the form of the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, where his teachings continue to influence aspiring actors, perpetuating his impact on the performing arts.

Examples of Method acting: 15 Famous Method Actors

Method acting has given us some of the most unforgettable performances in film history. Here's a closer look at some famous method actors who have masterfully employed method acting techniques to bring their characters to life.

Meryl Streep

Meryl Streep, often celebrated as one of the greatest actors of our time, holds a record for the most Academy Award nominations. Her wins for 'Best Supporting Actress' in Kramer vs. Kramer, and 'Best Actress' in Sophie's Choice and The Iron Lady, showcase her unparalleled commitment to authenticity in every role.

For The Devil Wears Prada, Streep immersed herself fully, maintaining her character's icy demeanor throughout the shoot, a testament to her dedication, even if she later moved away from method acting techniques.

Hilary Swank

For Boys Don't Cry, Hilary Swank underwent a profound transformation to portray a transgender man, adopting a male persona on and off set to lend credibility to her role. Her dedication continued with Million Dollar Baby, where she built nineteen pounds of muscle and trained as a boxer, illustrating the extreme acting techniques employed to embody her characters.

Michelle Williams

Michelle Williams' portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn began with thorough research into Method acting techniques. She not only studied Monroe's life through books and films but also adopted her physicality, wearing Monroe's iconic costumes and mimicking her walk.

While Williams may not exclusively identify as a Method actor, her defense of the technique in response to criticism of Jeremy Strong's intense approach for Trial of the Chicago 7 highlights her appreciation for the craft's demands.

Kate Winslet

Kate Winslet's approach to Method acting often pushes the boundaries of dedication. For her role in The Reader, she not only won a Golden Globe but also took her character's essence into her personal life, adopting a German accent even when reading to her children.

This level of commitment, Winslet admits, can make departing from a role a lengthy process. In preparing for Ammonite, she chose isolation to get closer to her character, Mary Anning, a decision that led her to live in a stark cottage, enduring cold and solitude—a choice she later described with a touch of humor as "ridiculous."

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Diane Keaton

Diane Keaton, trained in the Sanford Meisner technique, values the chemistry with co-actors above all, believing her performance is only as good as the ensemble. Keaton's approach is about being present and responsive, rather than coming from a place of preconceived ideas. Her preparation for roles, which includes memorizing entire scripts, has earned admiration from peers like Jack Nicholson. Her iconic role in Annie Hall, specifically written for her by Woody Allen, showcases her unique ability to blend warmth and depth into her characters, making the film unimaginable without her.

Jim Carrey

Jim Carrey's transformation into Andy Kaufman for Man on the Moon is another profound example of Method acting. Awarded a Golden Globe for his portrayal, Carrey stayed in character throughout the filming, creating an immersive experience not just for himself but also for the cast and the real-life figures portrayed in the movie.

This intense immersion had a lasting impact, with Carrey acknowledging the challenge of re-finding himself after the role. His next project, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, benefited from this blurred line between actor and character, according to director Michel Gondry.

Heath Ledger

Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight remains one of the most celebrated Method acting performances, earning him a posthumous Oscar. Ledger's deep dive into the psyche of his character included isolating himself to develop the Joker's haunting laugh and mannerisms, contributing to a portrayal that has become a benchmark for Method acting. His insistence on remaining in character on and off set exemplifies the lengths to which Method actors will go to embody their roles fully.

Daniel Day-Lewis

Daniel Day-Lewis is renowned for his immersive approach to acting. In My Left Foot, he portrayed Christy Brown, a talented painter and writer with cerebral palsy, who could only write with the toes of his left foot. He didn't break character as Christy Brown, relying on the film crew members for assistance and learning to write with his foot, earning him his first Oscar.

For The Crucible, he embraced the life of the 17th century, living without modern conveniences to better connect with his role. His commitment on the set of Gangs of New York was so intense that he refused modern warmth, leading to a serious bout of pneumonia.

Jack Nicholson

Jack Nicholson's dedication to Method acting is evident throughout his career, particularly in his intense performance in The Shining. Known for his quest for authenticity, Nicholson's approach to acting is deeply immersive, often exploring the psychological complexities of his characters.

His commitment to the craft extends beyond the roles he plays, embodying a continuous pursuit of the deeper truths in acting. This relentless exploration has marked him as a fervent advocate for the Method, making his work not just memorable, but profoundly impactful.

In 1986, Ron Rosenbaum wrote about Nicholson in The New York Times:

“He's one of those fanatic believers in the method and mystique of the craft of acting, an actor who, even during the dozen lean years in Hollywood when he was doing only B pictures, D pictures, biker epics and schlock, would nonetheless devotedly go from acting teacher to acting teacher seeking truth the way others of his generation would go from guru to guru or shrink to shrink.”

Al Pacino

Al Pacino, a pupil of Lee Strasberg, brings a depth to his characters that is deeply rooted in Method acting. His role as Michael Corleone in The Godfather films demanded not just natural acting talent but also a fight for creative decisions, like casting Strasberg in the sequel, showcasing his dedication to authentic storytelling. Pacino describes staying in character as both a demanding and isolating process.

Christian Bale

Christian Bale is renowned for his dedication to embodying his characters, notably in The Machinist, where he went to extreme lengths to lose weight, showcasing his commitment to the role.

This intense preparation, both physically and mentally, highlights Bale's dedication to his craft, making him one of the most versatile and committed actors of his generation. His ability to transform for his parts, has earned him widespread admiration for the depth and authenticity he brings to every performance.

Jared Leto

Jared Leto exemplifies the method acting technique with his remarkable commitment to character transformation. For roles requiring significant physical changes, such as losing weight for Requiem for a Dream and Dallas Buyers Club, Leto dives deep into the essence of his characters.

His portrayal of the Joker in Suicide Squad was not just about adopting a new look but also immersing himself in the character's twisted mindset. In Blade Runner 2049, he went as far as using special contact lenses to impair his vision, ensuring his performance was grounded in the reality of his character's experiences. This dedication to method techniques allows Leto to deliver performances that are authentic, compelling, and deeply resonant with audiences.

Forest Whitaker

Forest Whitaker's role as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland showcases his masterful use of the method acting technique. He didn't just mimic an accent; Whitaker immersed himself in Ugandan languages and culture, earning an Oscar for his powerful portrayal. This deep dive into Amin's world involved learning Swahili and Kakwa, and understanding Amin from various perspectives. Whitaker's commitment to authenticity brought a remarkable depth to his performance, highlighting the effectiveness of method acting in achieving a genuine connection with the character.

Robert De Niro

Robert De Niro's commitment to method acting shines in roles like Raging Bull, where he underwent a significant physical transformation to portray boxer Jake LaMotta. For Taxi Driver, De Niro drove a cab in New York City, merging his own experiences with those of his character, Travis Bickle. These roles highlight De Niro's dedication to realism, showcasing his deep dive into the lives and minds of his characters to deliver performances that are both authentic and compelling.

Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando's influence on Method acting is unparalleled, with his groundbreaking emotional depth stemming from his studies under Stella Adler. Brando's approach to roles, such as the disabled soldier in The Men, involved immersive preparation, including spending time in a hospital to grasp the realities of his character's life.

This dedication extended to his performances in classics like A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, where he showcased an unprecedented naturalism and intensity. Brando's method of embodying his characters set new standards for acting, blending deep emotional exploration with a commitment to authenticity that has inspired generations of actors.

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Hollywood Post Method Acting

The world of acting has seen a significant impact from Method acting, shaping performances in theater and film throughout the 20th century. Isaac Butler explores this transformation in his book The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act, and shares intriguing insights on NPR's podcast Fresh Air about the technique's revolutionary effect on acting.

Despite its influence, not everyone is on board. Martin Freeman shared his critique on the Off Menu podcast, labeling Method acting as impractical and self-centered. He emphasizes the importance of staying true and grounded, suggesting that classical acting offers a more reliable foundation for performers, without losing oneself in the role off-camera.

John Cassavetes, celebrated for his direct and honest approach, openly criticized Method acting in Cassavetes on Cassavetes, advocating for a more spontaneous and less solemn approach to acting, in contrast to what he viewed as the self-indulgent tendencies of Method acting.

Even Laurence Olivier, a titan in the acting world known for his mastery of classical acting, expressed skepticism towards Method acting. Famous for his Shakespearean roles and movies like Spartacus and Rebecca, Olivier saw Method acting as just one among many techniques. He famously quipped to fellow actor Dustin Hoffman during the filming of Marathon Man, suggesting that acting should be more about skill than endurance: "Why don't you just try acting?" This array of opinions highlights the rich debate surrounding Method acting versus classical acting, underscoring the diverse approaches to the art of performance.

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