What is Method Acting? How Great Actors Prepare

Jakob Straub
Jakob Straub, Content Writer

Method acting describes and summarizes a range of techniques acting teachers use to encourage their students to inhabit their roles fully and bring their characters to life. Actors who follow The Method want to give a performance defined by authenticity, believable realism, and the expression of sincere emotions.

Stemming from Russian drama theory roots in the early 20th century, Method acting rose to popularity in American theater in New York and changed Hollywood—today, the Oscars still love Method actors. Learn more about The Method with our overview of its history and evolution, and find out how outstanding actors prepare using the technique, as well as the actors that have spoken out against Method acting.

What is the acting technique of method acting?

Lee Strasberg is known as the father of method acting. The approach “The Method” popularized a framework for universal acting techniques. Method actors inhabit and portray characters through life experiences. Their dramatic performance draws from memories from their own life and personal experiences to elicit believable actions, emotions and behaviors in character.

Method acting differs from ‘rigid’ stage performances that place greater emphasis on rhetorics and oration. Character acting often relies on stylized performances and eccentric characters that are overdrawn or merely sketched. Method actors strive for realism, and to a layperson, this typically means staying in character and embodying the role, often to extremes or with obsession.

The technique originates from Stanislavski's system, developed by the actor and drama theorist Konstantin Stanislavski at the Moscow Art Theatre at the beginning of the 20th century. When the MAT toured New York City in 1923, this way of acting stunned and inspired the American actor Lee Strasberg. With the help of two other acting teachers, he developed The Method.

In the time after, Method Acting moved from the theater to filmmaking and swept across the US from Broadway to Los Angeles. Marlon Brando and his generation of actors brought the acting technique to Hollywood. To this day, Method actors push themselves to give memorable performances, and it shows during award season: over three-quarters of Academy Awards for ‘Best Actor’ have gone to Method actors in the past decade.

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The System: Affective memory and the method of Konstantin Stanislavski

The Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavski summarized his acting techniques, including preparation and rehearsal, in a system with the "art of experiencing" at its center. Actors seek to get into character through conscious thought and draw from emotional experience and even subconscious behavior.

The “emotional recall” of Stanislavski's system uses affective memory and sense memory. To create the feelings of their character, actors work with memories of a similar situation in affective memory. Through the structured process of sense memory, they recall sensations around the emotional event.

The Method: The evolution by Lee Strasberg

Lee Strasberg was an essential part of shaping the American Method from the Russian system. Strasberg’s method was at the heart of the Group Theatre he started in 1931 in New York City with Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford. In his work and training, Lee Strasberg also used affective memory to recall extraordinary events from the past to use the elicited emotions in acting. For him, on-stage emotion, was an actual emotion the actor was reliving.

Together with Lee Strasberg, other theater and drama theorists developed The Method. Stella Adler became known for the sociological aspects and Sanford Meisner for the behavioral aspects. Elia Kazan was a pioneer among those who brought the acting technique to filmmaking.

Lee Strasberg continued to develop The Method after the success of the Group Theatre. Thanks to his experience as an acting teacher and director, he moved on to become Artistic Director at the Actors Studio. There he trained aspiring actors in the art of authentic performance. With the adoption of The Method to filmmaking, the acting technique got the new label of Method acting, and its practitioners became known as Method actors.

Examples of Method acting: 15 Famous Method Actors

We hardly have room to mention all the great examples of this acting technique on the silver screen, but here are fifteen method actors to note.

Meryl Streep

With an unparalleled legacy, Meryl Streep is often called "The Greatest Of All Time" as she can boast the most Oscar nominations in the history of the Academy Awards—as well as three wins for ‘Best Supporting Actress in Kramer vs. Kramer, and for ‘Best Actress’ in Sophie’s Choice and in The Iron Lady. She commits to every role and certainly brings authenticity to each character.

Method acting is just one of the many tools in her kit. For her role as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, she stayed in character for the entire production, distancing herself from every co-star and making herself miserable. Despite a nomination for ‘Best Actress’, she’s said to have given up on the acting technique after the film.

Hilary Swank

To prepare for her role as a transgender man in Boys Don’t Cry, Hilary Swank lived as a young man and stayed in character on set. Among her efforts were losing a substantial amount of weight so that her cheeks became hollowed inward, stuffing socks down her pants, and taping down her chest. For her role in Million Dollar Baby, the actress gained nineteen pounds of muscle and underwent three months of professional boxing training.

Michelle Williams

The actress who became Marilyn Monroe for the film My Week with Marilyn started with research into Method acting and then moved on to reading books about her character, listening to Monroe’s voice recordings, and watching her movies to emulate the icon.

But Michelle Williams went even further and wore the same costumes: tight dresses, high heels, and pushup bras. To get into character, she imitated Marilyn Monroe’s walk, taping her knees together to make it look more realistic.

Though Michelle Williams doesn't always rely on Method acting and wouldn't call herself a Method actress, she defended actor Jeremy Strong and his Method approach, after a profile in The New Yorker criticized his deliberately painful endeavors when filming Trial of the Chicago 7.

Kate Winslet

Many believe Kate Winslet took Method acting too far, including the actress herself. In The Reader, she played a former concentration camp guard in post-WWII Germany and received a Golden Globe award for 'Best Supporting Actress'. Staying in character throughout filming, she even read to her children with a German accent. Coming out of a role can take months, according to Winslet herself.

Ammonite is a romantic drama set in the 1840s. Kate Winslet isolated herself for her role as paleontologist, Mary Anning. While the rest of the cast stayed in a hotel, Winslet lived on soup and through power outages in a cold and wind-rattled cottage. "It was ridiculous, actually," the actress described her experience.

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Diane Keaton

Diane Keaton studied acting at the Neighbourhood Playhouse in New York City following the technique of Sanford Meisner, which emphasizes ensemble acting. Keaton said about herself that she needed to rely on others and could only be as good as the person she was acting with.

She described her acting also as not working from ideas, but being a blank slate and having elements of all the characters within herself. Her highly personal preparation often involved memorizing the entire script, as commented on by Jack Nicholson: “I don't know of any other actors doing that."

Diane Keaton’s most celebrated performance in Annie Hall could have been realized only by her. In fact, Woody Allen wrote the part for her, using her surname. Without her character, there would be no warmth, no joy, no sweetness in Annie Hall, only Alvy’s comic descent into depression.

Jim Carrey

Jim Carrey received a Golden Globe for his performance as Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon. He also completely derailed the production, as can be seen in the documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond.

Jim Carrey became Andy, and stayed Andy, only switching to Tony Clifton, a persona and character Kaufman himself created. It allowed him to play Andy Kaufman convincingly on camera, but also for Kaufman's actual family, and professional wrestler Jerry Lawler, who played himself in Man on the Moon.

After four months of filming that were excruciating for the entire crew, Carrey struggled to come out himself at the other end, having serious identity issues. Director Michel Gondry said it was the perfect state of mind to work with Carrey on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Heath Ledger

Heath Ledger received a posthumous Oscar for his role as the Joker in The Dark Knight. To prepare, Ledger isolated himself and spent a month locked away in his apartment. He perfected his character’s mad laugh and scribbled ramblings into a Joker notebook. On set, Heath Ledger stayed in character off-camera and insisted that he be addressed as the Joker.

Daniel Day-Lewis

Daniel Day-Lewis played the paraplegic painter and writer Christy Brown in My Left Foot. Only able to write with the toes of his left foot because of cerebral palsy, Brown wrote his life's story. Daniel Day-Lewis stayed in character as Brown, having crew members feed him, teaching himself to use his toes and writing with his foot. He received his first Academy Award for the role.

When filming The Crucible, Daniel Day-Lewis lived on set in a colonial village with neither running water nor electricity. The actor built his own accommodation with tools and materials from the 17th century. On the set of Gangs of New York, Day-Lewis refused a modern winter coat against the cold and contracted life-threatening pneumonia.

Jack Nicholson

Jack Nicholson claims to use Method acting in his work more than any other actor. On the set of The Shining, he appears as crazed as his character.

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 studied acting under Lee Strasberg himself at the Actors Studio. Yet when director Francis Ford Coppola cast him as Michael Corleone in The Godfather, he had to convince the studio executives at Paramount that it was the right decision. For the second part of the trilogy, it was Al Pacino himself who enforced a casting decision: he wanted Strasberg to play at his side as gangster Hyman Roth and got his wish. Al Pacino described staying in character all the time as arduous and lonely.

Christian Bale

To play his character in The Machinist, dedicated actor Christian Bale underwent an extreme body transformation and lost over 60 pounds over four months. He wanted to keep going past a body weight of 120 pounds to reach 99 pounds, but director Brad Anderson intervened because of serious health concerns. After the shooting concluded, Bale had to bulk up in just six weeks to be ready for Batman Begins.

Jared Leto

Jared Leto practices the Method acting technique and has gone through dramatic weight loss for Requiem for a Dream and Dallas Buyers Club. In his role as the Joker in Suicide Squad, he is said to have sent his co-stars disgusting "gifts" in line with his character's behavior, though the actor denies this. He pretended to be disabled for filming Morbius and blinded himself with special contact lenses for Blade Runner 2049. As Paolo Gucci in House of Gucci, Leto went so deep into character that he was almost unrecognizable.

Forest Whitaker

Playing former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, Whitaker stayed in character, spoke the languages Swahili and Kakwa on set, and consulted with Amin's friends, relatives and even some of his victims. His dedication earned him an Academy Award for ‘Best Actor.’

Robert De Niro

His authentic acting has earned Robert De Niro many nominations for Academy Awards throughout his career. The production of Raging Bull had to stop for months so De Niro could gain nearly 70 pounds to play the destructive boxer, Jack LaMotta. Playing New York City cabbie Travis Bickkle in Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro worked twelve-hour shifts before shooting began, then continued to pick up passengers in the city during breaks.

Marlon Brando

The acting style of Marlon Brando is closely associated with Method acting as he’s one of the key pioneers. However, he didn’t study with Strasberg, but with Stella Adler, using emotion memory, research and preparation to create any performance. He received his first Academy Award nomination for his role as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire and later received Oscars for On the Waterfront and The Godfather.

For the role of injured soldier Ken Wilocek in The Men, Marlon Brando confined himself to a hospital bed at Birmingham General Army Hospital, the same facility as in the movie, to learn about the experience of a disabled person.

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Hollywood Post Method Acting

Method acting shaped theater and filmmaking in the 20th century and influenced the greatest performers in modern cinema. Theater historian and cultural critic, Isaac Butler, traces the history and reach of the acting technique in his book The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act. On NPR’s podcast Fresh Air, you can hear him speak on how The Method changed acting.

Award-winning author Martin Freeman criticized Method acting on the Off Menu podcast, calling it a "highly impractical way of working" and "narcissistic bollocks." He advised young actors to keep grounded in reality and said it was normal to lose yourself in front of the camera, but also not to be pretentious between takes.

Actor and director, John Cassavetes, voiced outright contempt for Method acting in the book Cassavetes on Cassavetes, accusing the technique of producing poor performances. Method actors were “lazy, narcissistic, and insipid” and acting should be “playful and zany instead of taking itself so seriously.”

Laurence Olivier is among the most acclaimed actors speaking out against The Method. Known for his Shakespearean roles and movies such as Spartacus and Rebecca, Olivier said the technique was just one of many methods. A legendary Hollywood story goes that Laurence Olivier ridiculed Method actor, Dustin Hoffman, on the set of Marathon Man because he stayed up for several nights to play a sleep-deprived character: "Why don't you just try acting?"

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