"There's a fine line between the Method actor and the schizophrenic."—Nicolas Cage
Actors prepare for their performances in all kinds of ways, perhaps the most famous of which is Method acting, a process that demands an actor understand their character from a psychological standpoint. This can also involve an insane amount of preparation that leaves the rest of the world shaking their heads. Read on for 43 facts about this crazy committed way to approach a role.
The origins of Method acting start with Konstantin Stanislavski. This Russian man of the theatre spent thirty years crafting a system which challenged actors to find their characters' inner motives to help explain their behavior and goals. Unlike the later Method, Stanislavski focused on combining mind and body equally in creating a performance.
Two of Stanislavski’s pupils were Richard Boleslawski and Maria Ouspenskaya. They were the ones who went West, founded a school in the United States, and taught Stanislavski’s system to a generation of actors who’d never known this kind of acting before.
One way to look at classical theatre acting vs. Method acting is the difference between physical and emotional. Classical acting is based on precision, which means actors memorize their performances completely and find an exact, physical way of performing it through rigorous practice. Conversely, Method actors call upon their own emotions to get inside of their character and to live them more fully, while not explicitly focusing on the same precision as classically trained actors.
After one of his plays was directed by Stanislavski at the Moscow Arts Theatre, Mikhail Bulgakov wrote a book called Black Snow which included a scathing mockery of Stanislavski’s methods. It portrays a director whose acting exercises get out of control behind the scenes of a theatre production, causing the playwright to worry that the actors will go so over the top that his own play will be forgotten in the mix.
Michael Chekhov was the nephew of legendary playwright Anton Chekhov. He was taught by Stanislavski, who declared Chekhov to be his best student. Though he set up his own acting school, Chekhov was overshadowed by Stanislavski’s other protégés and their own acting methods. However, several famous actors—including some who also dabbled in Method acting—cited Chekhov as an influence on their work. These included Clint Eastwood, Johnny Depp, Marilyn Monroe, Anthony Hopkins and Jack Nicholson.
Contrary to what people assume, Stanislavski did not push for actors to stay in character while off-camera or off-stage. However, several actors have decided to go with that strategy regardless, much to the chagrin of those around them.
When Ashton Kutcher was cast to play Steve Jobs, there was pressure on him to try serious acting for once. He decided to get into Jobs’ head by taking on the Apple CEO's personal diet—Jobs believed in eating nothing but fruit, so that's what Kutcher did for an entire month. This predictably led to Kutcher suffering serious health concerns before filming even began, ending with a visit to the hospital. To add insult to injury, the movie, Jobs, was a failure.
During filming for Rocky IV, Sylvester Stallone had a creative idea to make the boxing look even better than it did in the first Rocky movie. He asked Dolph Lundgren, his co-star, to hit him for real during their boxing match. Lundgren obliged, and put Stallone in the hospital for nearly a week!
As Stanislavski’s system spread from Russia to the West, an American actor named Lee Strasberg was inspired to form his own Method. Part of this strategy focused on actors getting into the psychological mindset of a character, which meant drawing on similar experiences in one’s own life. In 1951, he became the artistic director of the Actors Studio, which was a workshop where actors could study and improve their craft.
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Strasberg trained many actors in his Method. Some of the most famous of his students include Al Pacino, Gene Wilder, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Marilyn Monroe, Maureen Stapleton, and James Dean. However, while Marlon Brando did attend classes with Strasberg, he claimed he learned nothing about acting from Strasberg, though he did work with Strasberg’s friend and student, director Elia Kazan.
Stella Adler was an American actress who actually worked with Stanislavski himself. She ended up splitting away from Strasberg’s Method because she disagreed with his total reliance on emotional memory (something that Stanislavski himself also eventually abandoned). She began to teach her own acting lessons, which focused on mastery of body and voice as well as research and studying.
Adler famously taught many great actors in her Method. Among them were Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Martin Sheen, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, Warren Beatty, and Lena Horne.
An old story about Marlon Brando’s early days as Stella Adler’s student involved her telling a group of actors to act like chickens as a nuclear bomb was about to fall on them. Brando, rather than running around wildly like his classmates, calmly pretended to lay an egg. When Adler asked him to explain his decisions, Brando responded “I’m a chicken—what do I know about bombs?”
When Marlon Brando started out in his career, he found himself surrounded by people who disdained his acting style. Once, after a dress rehearsal where he mumbled throughout, he was told "I don't care what your grandmother did, and that Method stuff, I want to know what you're going to do!" Brando then acted passionately, with a loud voice, to the delight of the other actors. However, as he walked off stage, he lamented "They don't think you can act unless you can yell."
Despite the legendary status of Method acting, one person who grew to hate it was Laurence Olivier. When he worked with Marilyn Monroe on The Prince and the Showgirl, he was continually frustrated by her constant consulting with her acting coach on her performance. She wouldn’t say her lines the same way twice, and she required many takes to get her performance right. It's also been said that he mocked Dustin Hoffman’s Method acting on the set of Marathon Man, but Hoffman denies that's the case.
Aspiring actors needed to audition to get into Lee Strasburg's prestigious Actors Studio, and if they were turned down they had to wait a whole year before they could try again. It took Jack Nicholson five auditions before he was accepted, while Dustin Hoffman only got in after six.
Marilyn Monroe was a passionate fan of the Method and studied under Strasberg to improve her acting. When she died, Strasberg delivered the eulogy at her funeral, stressing the tragedy of Monroe’s short life, and insisting that her career, successful as it was, was only just beginning when she died.
Johnny Depp was in a fortunate position when he was cast to play Hunter S. Thompson in Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas: He was able to meet the man himself. Depp went one step further in his preparation and moved into Thompson’s basement. Depp followed Thompson’s eccentric sleeping patterns and he let Thompson himself shave his head to match hairstyles. For reasons we can only assume are legal in origin, Depp’s been very vague about whether or not he went full Method and did drugs with one of the most famous drug enthusiasts in the history of American film and literature.
Adrien Brody won an Oscar for playing the role of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a renowned pianist and Holocaust survivor. Aside from learning how to play the piano (of course) for the role, Brody decided he needed to understand what it meant to lose everything he valued in his life. He proceeded to lose all his personal belongings, and even broke up with his his long-term girlfriend. That last one feels like an excuse, but that's commitment either way.
People often confuse Method Acting for the Meisner Technique. While both of them evolved from Stanislavski’s Method, Sanford Meisner’s technique pushed actors to focus on their co-actors more than themselves, allowing their counterpart's behavior to change the delivery of lines, shape performances and build layers in an actor's character.
Actors who have trained in Sanford Meisner’s technique include James Caan, Tom Cruise, Grace Kelly, Robert Duvall, Jeff Goldblum, Christoph Waltz, Diane Keaton, Tatiana Maslany, and surprisingly, Stephen Colbert!
When Halle Berry had to play a drug addict in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, she actually visited a crack den as part of her research. She also didn’t bathe for two weeks to get further into the mindset of her character.
Al Pacino’s career truly began when he starred in The Godfather. For the sequel, the production gave the role of Hyman Roth to Pacino’s old teacher, Lee Strasberg himself. Both men would get Oscar nominations for their work in the film.
One of Robert De Niro’s most famous roles is the disturbed cabbie Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. To prepare for this role, De Niro lost 35 pounds and earned his taxi license. In the weeks leading up to production, he would actually drive around the city in a cab and pick up unknowing New Yorkers.
Method Acting pays when it comes to the Oscars. Several famous Method actors hold prestigious records at the Academy Awards: Daniel Day-Lewis has the most Lead Actor Oscars (3), Jack Nicholson holds the most acting nominations for a male actor (12), James Dean has two posthumous Oscar nominations, and Marlon Brando was Oscar-nominated four times in a row from 1951 to 1954.
When shooting the counterculture classic Easy Rider, young Method actor Jack Nicholson didn’t shy away from giving a realistic performance. In one scene, where his character is introduced to marijuana for the first time, Nicholson actually getting got high on camera. Groovy.
By 1953, Marlon Brando had secured his reputation as one of the best actors working, but he’d never tried his hand at Shakespeare. When he was cast as Marc Antony in Julius Caesar, everyone doubted that his acting style would suit such classic writing and traditional theatre material. However, Brando’s performance was so electrifying that the lead actor of the film, James Mason, angrily demanded that the director focus back on him. Naturally, Brando found out about this back-door dealing and threatened to walk off the production if he didn’t get his due, something that Brando, who was something of a diva, was known to do fairly frequently.
To play the role of Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s The Doors, Val Kilmer wanted to make sure that he would be believable as the iconic rock star. He not only learned all he could about the real Jim Morrison from those who knew him, he also hung around the same places where Morrison would spend his time. He learned fifty of the Doors’ songs by heart, and he insisted that Stone refer to him as "Jim." Surprisingly, there was no Oscar nomination for his troubles, but that’s an issue Val Kilmer has had throughout his career.
A student of the Actors Studio and a fervent fan of Marlon Brando, James Dean’s short career spanned only three films, two of which were released after his death at 24. Although director (and co-founder of the Actors Studio) Elia Kazan thought Dean wouldn’t have been able to sustain a long-term career, Dean’s record cannot be disputed. He was posthumously Oscar-nominated twice, meaning he was nominated for two thirds of his movies. There's a record that will probably never be beaten.
For the film Scent of a Woman, Al Pacino had to play a retired Lt. Colonel who had lost his vision. Pacino spent the entire production using a cane, on and off camera, while never looking anyone in the eye while talking to them. It must have paid off, as it resulted in his only Academy Award after years of being snubbed.
The Method is a demanding process, no matter what version of it you study. Strasberg wrote that people were stunned by “how severe we are to each other” in classes. For her part, Stella Adler once gave a student a dime to call her mother to drive her home because “she had no business in theatre.” Tough stuff.
When it came to playing Aileen Wuornos in Monster, Charlize Theron completely transformed her appearance in order to disappear into her character. She gained 30 pounds, shaved her eyebrows, and wore fake teeth. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her efforts (seeing a pattern here?).
Forest Whitaker dipped his toes in the pool of Method acting when he had to play the controversial Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. He put on 50 pounds of weight, learned Swahili, and stayed in character on the set whether the cameras were rolling or not. He was so convincing that local villagers who played extras in the film allegedly thought that the real Idi Amin had come to their village to film himself giving speeches. Someone must have forgotten to tell them that the actual man had died three years before.
Robert De Niro had some rather interesting methods for getting into character as Al Capone in The Untouchables. He not only gained weight to play the mob boss, he also managed to track down the designs that Al Capone's tailor used to make the gangster's suits, and used them to make his wardrobe for the film, right down to the silk underwear. If you haven’t seen the movie, we would like to tell you that you never actually see Capone’s underwear in the film, but De Niro insisted on it anyway.
Platoon was the first Vietnam War film to actually be written and directed by a Vietnam War veteran. Oliver Stone was determined to make a film which properly reflected his experiences, so he proceeded to put his cast through two weeks of basic training. The men lived on army rations and learned about what being a soldier was like. This included, according to Stone, learning what “a year without sleep feels like.” The military advisor on the film, Dale Dye, later worked with Steven Spielberg on Saving Private Ryan, where the cast endured similar treatment (Luckily it was only ten days for them).
Robert Duvall was highly trained in the Meisner technique, and when the young actor was cast in the Western True Grit, he often took issue with the direction. Lead actor John Wayne, who was perhaps the farthest thing possible from a Method actor, threatened to punch Duvall if he kept picking arguments.
There’s always those stories of actors going that extra mile to pack on extra pounds for a movie role. Robert De Niro famously gained 60 pounds to play an out-of-shape Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, Jared Leto gained 67 pounds to play Mark David Chapman in Chapter 27, and Vincent D’Onofrio gained a whopping 70 pounds to play Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket!
Renowned British thespian Anthony Hopkins has come out against Method acting. Regarding actors who stay in character on and off camera, Hopkins called such actors “a pain in the ass” to work with, and called their acting decisions “a lot of crap.”
For the WWII tank film, Fury, Shia LaBeouf decided that he needed to up his acting game to deliver the best performance possible. While on set, he refused to bathe himself (since tank crews wouldn’t usually get the chance to shower on the front lines). When he decided that his fake scars looked too fake, he took out a knife and cut real wounds into his face, which he kept open throughout filming. To the surprise of nobody, LaBeouf was asked to eat and sleep away from the rest of the cast and crew.
50 Shades of Grey star Jamie Dorman has gotten a lot of flak for his creepy character in that film series, but apparently Dorman decided he wasn’t quite creepy enough. When he signed up for the TV series The Fall, where he plays a serial killer, he tried stalking a random woman he saw on the subway to prepare for the role. While clarifying that he wasn’t proud of what he did, he admitted it had felt strangely exciting. Many women on Twitter didn’t quite agree with that way of thinking.
Although Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris was hailed as a classic, and featured one of Marlon Brando’s greatest onscreen performances, it has come under fire in more recent years due to an incident in the film where Brando’s character sexually assaults the female lead (played by Maria Schneider). Schneider spent years insisting that she had not been forewarned of all the details in the scene, and that it had not even been in the original script. Brando regretted his role in the scene and was forgiven by Schneider, who stayed in touch with him until Brando’s death in 2004. Neither of them ever spoke with Bertolucci ever again. Bertolucci has continued to defend his decisions and directing choices to this day.
Heath Ledger has gone down in history for his dedication to the role of the Joker in The Dark Knight. At the time of his death, there was a lot of speculation that playing such a dark and twisted role had destroyed his mind (ignoring the fact that he was already in the middle of another production at the time of his death and that he had dealt with depression for years). However, there’s no denying that he put everything into the role. According to his father, Ledger barricaded himself in a hotel room for a month, crafting the exact voice, mannerisms, and attitude needed to play the Joker. He kept a diary during this time which helped guide him on that journey, and in a rather haunting twist, Ledger the final entry in the diary simply said "BYE BYE."
Christian Bale has spent his career dedicating himself to his roles. He crafted his body into an Olympian physique for American Psycho and the Batman films, becoming portly and overweight for American Hustle, and turning skeletally thin for The Fighter, Rescue Dawn, and The Machinist. The last one was particularly extreme, as the actor dropped his weight down to 121 pounds. He shows no sign of stopping either, as in 2017 he began bulking up for the role of former Vice President Dick Cheney.
Of all the Method actors dedicated to the craft, none is more famous or dedicated than Daniel Day-Lewis—staying in character on and off-camera is just the tip of the iceberg for the man. He adopted Christy Brown’s physical limitations for My Left Foot, he lived off the land, skinning animals for Last of the Mohicans, he spent two months in 1890s gentleman’s clothes for Age of Innocence, and he spent a year turning into Abraham Lincoln as completely as possible for Lincoln, just to name a few of the times Day-Lewis took acting preparation to a new level. You can doubt his methods all you want, but his record three Best Actor Oscars speak for themselves.
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