“My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?”
A famous quip from Lawrence Olivier regarding Dustin Hoffman’s dedication to method acting on Marathon Man, the merits of adamantly sticking to character even when the cameras aren’t rolling are hotly debated in acting school.
Somewhat disappointingly, the exchange between the two great actors was revealed by Hoffman himself to be not quite accurate, but it doesn’t detract from the fact that sometimes, a performance requires a little something extra from the acting talent.
Here’s five notable examples of roles that took a lot out of the people behind them, whether on a voluntary basis or otherwise. And be sure to check out our piece on the history and legacy of method acting as well as our preceding article on how actors like Marlon Brando used method acting.
Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight
Ledger’s penultimate performance before his untimely death is as enigmatic as the character he played.
In preparation for his turn as The Joker in the 2008 film The Dark Knight, Ledger is widely known to have put himself through the wringer to bring something original to the role…and the hard work paid off.
It’s well known that the Oscar-winning actor locked himself in a hotel room for an entire month, rambling and laughing to himself as he developed the character (it’s easy to imagine hotel staff avoiding that particular corridor in the small hours of the morning.)
It’s also widely reported that during this time he kept a scrapbook diary, also put together while in character. What isn’t fully known, however, are the exact contents of the diary—the closest the public have ever gotten to seeing what the troubled actor put into it can be seen only in this clip:
It’s clear to anyone who has seen the resulting movie that Heath gave his all to the character and performance. To what extent that contributed to the factors surrounding his tragic passing is up for debate, and probably always will be.
Robert De Niro – Cape Fear
Putting yourself in isolation for weeks to develop a character is one thing, but having extreme dental work performed is another thing altogether…
… and that’s exactly what Robert De Niro did for his terrifying role as Max Cadyln in the 1991 Cape Fear remake. Not only did he undergo extensive training to build muscle and get his body fat down to only four percent, but he also paid $20,000 out of his own pocket to have his teeth ground down to bring a more ominous look to his character.
Christian Bale – The Machinist
As well as putting on a huge amount of mass to play Batman in the aforementioned Nolan franchise, Christian Bale had also been to the other extreme less than two weeks prior to donning the cape and cowl.
For The Machinist, Bale dropped 63 pounds to achieve the worryingly skeletal figure that can be seen in the film. Interestingly, this was almost an unnecessary devotion on Bale’s part—the weights mentioned in the movie (and written on the bathroom wall) were based on screenwriter Scott Kosar’s own weight, which were comparatively tiny given Kosar is only 5’6”. When it came time to change them after casting was complete, the 6’0” Bale insisted the figures were to be kept as written in an attempt to match them.
In reference to the above scene, 121 pounds at 6’0” is so underweight it only just appears at the bottom of the BMI scale.
Bale gorged on pizza and ice-cream to get up to Batman proportions just six weeks later.
Joaquin Phoenix – I’m Still Here
It takes a special kind of actor to put their own sanity and health on the line for the sake of character immersion, but it’s on another level still to purposefully put your entire career in jeopardy solely to fulfill a prank.
In 2009, Phoenix publicly announced a surprise retirement from his exceptionally successful acting career…to focus on becoming a rapper.
As many suspected, it was all an elaborate ploy feeding into a mockumentary centered around the idea, but one which he kept up in his real life much to the confusion of everyone not in on the joke who were beginning to believe he was genuinely attempting a woeful career change.
The project very nearly killed his credibility and the acting career he pretended to give up, but after taking a genuine break following the big reveal, he came back swinging with 2012’s The Master.
Daniel Day-Lewis – Everything He’s Ever Been In
Possibly the most famous method actor of them all, we could fill an entire post full of examples where Day-Lewis delved so far into his character that the reclusive actor himself practically stopped existing for the duration of the shoot. Essentially, on any of his carefully chosen projects, there is only the character.
And not only does he never break character under any circumstance while on set, but he even follows through this devotion long before the cameras start rolling; in preparation for Lincoln, he demanded a full year of preparation to shut himself away, read every book written about Honest Abe and become the former President.
For The Last of the Mohicans, he learned to live off the land and did so for lengthy spells in the run up to filming. For My Left Foot, he insisted on retaining his character’s severe paralysis and needed to be moved in his wheelchair between takes (much to the chagrin of the crew.)
But perhaps the biggest example of this is the one scenario in which Day-Lewis was finally forced to break his devotion to the role. In preparation for his role as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York, he spent some time before filming training as an actual butcher and then proceeded to stay in character as usual while filming during a particularly brutal New York winter.
Refusing to wear a warm coat unbefitting of the movie’s era, he developed pneumonia. Naturally, he refused modern medication to treat this right up until practically arriving at death’s door.
If that isn’t dedication to a role, we don’t know what is.