jared leto

How These 6 Actors Prepared for a Role

Preparation is as much of an actor’s job as a performance itself, particularly when a character’s physicality, speech, or persona are vastly different from your own. Whether an actor’s challenge is primarily physical, mental, emotional, or even vocal, truly embodying a character’s traits in all their nuance produces the most memorable and admirable performances (not to mention benefits come Award season!).

Consequently, great transformations require great dedication, with some actors taking it upon themselves to go to famous extremes to prepare for their roles. Here are some of the most noteworthy examples:

Ben Platt – Dear Evan Hansen

The Tony-winning lead actor of Dear Evan Hansen delivers a gut-wrenching performance, displaying an incredible amount of anguish through the anxiety-ridden teenager, Evan, eight times a week. This kind of repetitive emotional and physical exertion can prove exhausting for the best of us, and among the many differences between acting for camera and acting on stage is the exaggerated movement and vocal projection required for stage actors.

In this New York Times article, Platt talks of the “monkish existence” he has in order to prepare for each show. In addition to losing 30 pounds for the role, Platt gives precedence to solitude and silence in order to rest and recover, notoriously turning down every opportunity for social gatherings. He also refrains from gluten and dairy, takes supplements, and attends physical therapy sessions twice a week that regularly involves the practice of cupping. Much to his chagrin, he’s also developed a habit of nail-biting and obsessively cracking his knuckles — habits he picked up from his character, Evan.  

Charlize Theron – Monster

A former model, Theron had become typecast as the “sexy blonde” before landing the 2003 role of real-life-prostitute-turned-serial-killer Aileen Wuornos.

The statuesque actress famously transformed her physical appearance to such an extent that audiences found her unrecognizable; she gained 30 pounds; dyed and thinned her hair; partially shaved and bleached her eyebrows; layered tattoo ink on her face for the weathered pallor of Wuornos’ skin; and donned unflattering dentures and contact lenses.

Theron devoted five whole months to researching Wuornos’ life in order to truly become her, resulting in a win for the Best Actress category at the Oscars (there’s a theme here). Fifteen years on, Theron continues to make drastic physical transformations, recently gaining 50 pounds for her role as Marlo, the overwhelmed mother of three in Tully. Admittedly, Theron says she struggles a lot more to shed the weight at 42 than she did at 27.

Jamie Foxx – Ray

Foxx went from Booty Call to winning an Oscar for his portrayal of the legendary blind musician, Ray Charles. To transform into the iconic musician, Foxx shed 30 pounds through a weeklong fast, followed by a painfully strict diet and daily workouts — though in this New York Times article, Foxx said that the weight loss was the easy part.

In addition to eyelid prosthetics and sunglasses modelled on Charles, Foxx had his eyes glued shut for 14 hours a day, calling it “a jail sentence.” He also suffered panic attacks for the first two weeks, and crew members would sometimes forget and leave him behind at restaurants or around the set.

Leonardo Dicaprio – The Revenant

The seasoned actor was nominated for an Oscar six times before winning his first in 2016 for his portrayal of Hugh Glass in The Revenant — and rightfully so. Shooting on location for nine months in Canada and Argentina in freezing wilderness was “a living hell” for cast and crew members alike. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki were intent on creating the most realistic aesthetic for the film, using minimal CGI and only shooting with natural daylight.

As such, an incredible amount of rehearsal went into schedule, to maximize the one hour of optimal light they had per day whilst subjecting DiCaprio to “agonizing” feats against mother nature.

In an interview with Yahoo, DiCaprio refers to some 30-40 sequences involving going in and out of freezing rivers, sleeping in an animal carcass, and, of course, that bear scene, as “some of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do.”

Although the horse carcass was a prop and the bear a product of CGI, eating a raw bison liver was 100 percent real. The vegetarian actor volunteered to make the edible sacrifice to serve Iñárritu’s immersive vision, concerned the faux liver provided wasn’t authentic enough.

“When you see the movie, you’ll see my reaction to it,” he says. “It says it all. It was an instinctive reaction.”

Jared Leto – Suicide Squad

No list about method acting and extreme transformations is complete without including the controversial antics of Jared Leto. Known for his over-the-top commitment to roles, the naturally slender actor seems to be constantly starving or gorging, having lost 25 pounds for Requiem for a Dream, gained 67 pounds for Chapter 27, and most recently lost 40 pounds for his 2013 Oscar-winning role as Rayon, a transgender HIV-positive woman in Dallas Buyers Club.

Besides his physical appearance, however, Leto truly immerses himself in his characters by never breaking off-camera. His Suicide Squad co-star Will Smith famously said, “I’ve never actually met Jared Leto. We worked together for six months and I’ve only ever spoken to him as The Joker.”

Leto also sent Smith bullets with a love letter — similar to what fellow castmate Margot Robbie received, only instead of bullets, there was a live rat. All Suicide Squad castmates received dubious gifts from “The Joker,” and these details served to renew a public debate about the nature of authentic method acting and its value in contemporary film.

Hilary Swank – Boys Don’t Cry

In 1999, Swank played a groundbreaking role of a real-life transgender youth who was born female but lived as a male, until he was killed in 1993 for that reason. The tragic true story prompted Swank to commit everything she had to the role. She took on the persona of Hilary Swank’s brother, James, for four weeks prior to shooting. Roaming around Santa Monica in disguise, with stuffed her pants, flattened breasts, and a lowered voice, the actress said she was treated differently in public and felt like she lost every ounce of her femininity.

She told EW, “It put me in a state of real hopelessness. I cried a lot for days.” The tears didn’t last long though: she won the Best Actress Oscar that year for her work.

What are your favorite stories of famous actor preparation? Let us know in the comments below! Learn more about Acting for Film at the New York Film Academy.

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?

Screen Shot 2016-08-29 at 1.09.28 PM

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

Screen Shot 2016-08-29 at 1.23.07 PM

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

Screen Shot 2016-08-29 at 1.19.46 PM

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?

Screen Shot 2016-08-29 at 1.12.59 PM

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.