acting training

Is Method Acting Truly Over? Jared Leto’s Joker

Make no mistake about it: the technique known as method acting has played a huge part in the history and evolution of the acting profession, and there are many venerated method actors still producing exceptional works today.

But does method acting have a place in the future of the industry?

That’s the question raised in a recent Atlantic op-ed entitled “Hollywood Has Ruined Method Acting.” It’s a bold claim, and one that is worthy of unpacking.

But first, what is method acting?

NYFA New York’s acting program chair Glynis Rigsby feels it’s important to recognize that this, in itself, is an important question: “’Method acting’ is typically aligned with the work of Lee Strasberg as separate and distinct from the many phases of Stanislavski’s work, Michael Chekhov, Sandy Meisner, Stella Adler and others. (Stanislavski had a system, Strasberg had a method).”

What made Strasberg and “the Method” distinct among  American acting techniques was an emphasis on intensely experiential, personal work — that can be gruelling physically and emotionally. This is usually what American audiences associate with “the Method,” in contrast to Russian innovator Stanislavski’s system, which also emphasized the actor’s use of imagination to portray their roles.

Why So Serious?

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The Atlantic uses the oversaturated news about Jared Leto’s method acting during his turn as The Joker in “Suicide Squad” as a springboard for discussion, pointing towards how tales of his antics during production — sending cast members used condoms, forcing the crew to call him “Mr. J”, and marathon-watching tapes of real violence — has bombarded media reporting about the film.

And while the accuracy of these stories has been called into question, there’s no doubt whatsoever that they have generated more column inches than is warranted or necessary. As an unimpressed Esquire writer put it: “Can Jared Leto shut up about his method acting in ‘Suicide Squad?’ We get it.”

That was written long before the movie even came out. There have been even more press interviews since where the topic has been crowbarred in, to the point where it’s rare to see Leto’s name printed as anything less than “Method Actor Jared Leto.”

Alongside the fact that this is an annoyingly (and increasingly) popular marketing trick and arguably little else, the wider charge here is that it creates the illusion that there is no such thing as good acting without suffering.

As Angelica Bastién notes in her Atlantic piece, a huge deal is made of the extremes of method acting (think DiCaprio’s tribulations during “The Revenant”). The issue here is that this sometimes happens to the exclusion of all else during the marketing — and critical examination — of a film.

Blood, Sweat and Weight Loss

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The main problem with this phenomenon is that when a high-profile actor claims to be a “method actor,” this is meant to signal to the media that they have accomplished “a performance worth paying attention to.” And that doesn’t necessarily follow.

That’s not to say that Leonardo DiCaprio isn’t a fine actor (because he is), but many industry insiders and actors feel that the Academy shouldn’t base their awards decisions on who lost the most weight for a role that year — or who slept in how many dead animal carcasses during production.

Bastién also makes a compelling case in her article for the gender disservice perpetrated here, too; when you think media talks of “strong” method performances, it’s nearly always males that come up — and acting “manly” in some physical way.

This overshadows exceptional performances by many female method acting giants (think: Melissa Leo in “The Fighter,” Jessica Lange, Ellen Burstyn), and raises the question whether a casting director, producer, or audience would have as much patience with a female lead pulling shenanigans in the name of “method acting” like Leto. Female method actors are arguably often ignored.

But all of this, of course, sidesteps the question of whether method acting in reality is the same as method acting in the media — and whether drawing attention to an actor’s preparation should matter when it comes to experiencing their performance.

Stanislavski’s Tool Box

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We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: method acting is not a magic bullet that will instantly makeyou a better actor. It’s a tool to be used with specificity, purpose, and discipline.

Constantin Stanislavski is seen as the father of modern acting, but his pioneering advances in the craft are often glossed over and he gets referred to simply as “the guy who invented method acting.” As we learned above, this is a misconception: Stanislavski’s innovations later inspired Lee Strasberg to create the robust and demanding style we think of as method acting.

Stanislavski himself was keen to urge students to find their own paths rather than rigidly follow his example, and had many more ideas to offer to an actor looking to expand his or her toolbox.

So Is Method Acting Over?

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No. At least, not in the sense it’s the last we’ll hear of it in the media. And we hope that conscientious actors will continue to carefully apply their method skills in safe and smart performance choices. Method acting still has a place in the profession, as long as the story is put first and the spectacle of a performance (or related hype) remains secondary. Ultimately, it’s the performance — and not necessarily the actor’s way of working — that audiences remember.

If method acting is a discipline that works for you, it may be prudent to take a leaf out of Daniel Day-Lewis’ book: do the work and let your performances speak for you.

Avoiding Being Typecast (And How To Recover If You Are)

Type·cast
ˈtīpˌkast/
verb

  1. assign (an actor or actress) repeatedly to the same type of role, as a result of the appropriateness of their appearance or previous success in such roles. “he tends to be typecast as the caring, intelligent male”

While technically correct, the above definition doesn’t quite encapsulate the terror many actors feel at the prospect of being typecast into a certain role. It talks of ‘previous success’ and ‘appropriateness’, before giving a very positive example of a role that most actors would be happy to be recognized for…

… in reality, we usually use the word in a negative light; being endlessly cast as a clueless blonde or an emotionless hitman, for instance, and the difficulties of finding work outside of such roles.

But worry not. Whether you’re still in acting training or already getting paid work out in the field, there are some good ways to ensure you avoid this pitfall further down the line (or, alternatively, climb out of it).

The first thing to bear in mind is…

Typecasting is a Symptom of Good Work

Consider such luminaries as Anthony Hopkins. He’s one of the most accomplished and talented actors ever to have graced the screen, and has had an almost countless number of vastly varying roles throughout his five-decade career.

That all said, the chances are high that this was the first one that came to your mind:

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It’s something of a shame that Hopkins’ filmography is typified by this one role, but there’s a reason for this: his performance was so enduring and so clinically perfect that audiences have a lot of difficulty disassociating Hopkins with Lecter.

If you find your own work precedes you as an actor – in a positive way – it’s the result of a terrific acting job well executed (even if the subsequent typecasting becomes a nasty side effect).

Solving the Typecast Problem

Diversify Your Resume: To demonstrate the power of this tip, let’s start with a thought experiment: firstly, describe Mark Hamill in one sentence to someone who hasn’t heard of him. Then do the same with Ricky Gervais.

For Hamill, it’s fairly easy: he’s best known for playing Luke Skywalker and has done a lot of voice acting work since then. For Gervais – who very nearly got typecast as his David Brent character from The Office – it gets more tricky to sum up his entire resume in a single sentence. You could just as easily start off with his subsequent podcasting, stand up, feature films, Golden Globe hosting or any of his shows post The Office before you got to mentioning his breakout role as David Brent.

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Note we’re not comparing the two and their respective talents here, just demonstrating how useful branching into other media can be assuming you want to move on from previous work. Having a number of strings to your bow allows you (or your agent) to begin conversations your way when someone asks “What type of acting do you do?”

Don’t Totally Rebel Against the Typecast: Bearing the above tip in mind, it might sound logical to assume a good idea is to try and land gigs that are totally the opposite of the acting jobs which put you in the typecast camp to start with.

Be cautious here.

If you have been typecast for always being the bookish, nerdy girl who generally serves as the sidekick to the female lead, it might seem like a good move to try your hand at being a femme fatale with your next role. But your excitement may cloud your judgement, and if you sign up for a terrible script that doesn’t allow you to deliver your best, you can expect people lining up around the block to tell you that you should have kept up the bookworm schtick.

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In a nutshell, without discretion and extreme acting training, you could end up making the problem even worse.

Get Out of Your Shell: If you’re lucky enough to have your face precede your resume but unlucky enough to have it limit what roles people are willing to give, consider shaking things up with some ‘faceless’ work.

Voice acting for animations is a great way to chisel away at the typecast prison walls, as are roles which require heavy costuming or even prosthetics – the horror market is well worth looking at for this, since jobs are plentiful and often require some weird and wonderful disguises. Nobody cares what you look like with these types of work, merely how well you can put your acting training to good use.

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Reach Out to Others: Acting is a discipline which doesn’t happen in a vacuum. During your career, you’ll have to work with many other people in the industry and they can help you grow in the direction you’d like. Mention to some of the other talent on set that you’d love to do more drama rather than comedy, for instance, and someone might be able to pull some strings when they go off to do other projects (just make sure you return the favor). Same goes for directors and producers.

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And above all, make sure you let your agent know what you’re looking for and have a sit-down discussion with her about what’s realistic and achievable. A good acting agent worth her salt will be able to guide your career in the right direction.