method acting

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.

Deeper Into The Method: 5 Contemporary Actors That Took Method Acting To The Limit

“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.

Actors getting into method acting

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 diarythe 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.

Learn more about the School of Acting at the New York Film Academy, with campuses in New York, Los Angeles, and Miami.

Method Acting: Method or Madness?

Some actors swear by it, while others denounce it as a self-indulgent and superfluous part of the craft. But whichever way you slice it, it’s an enduring part of the profession which has spawned more than a few intriguing tales from the field – today we’ll take a look at a few of them, and attempt to address whether it’s something you should consider for your own acting career.

Lee Strasberg method acting

The type of method acting which most are familiar with is the one pioneered by Lee Strasberg, although this in turn was derived from similar ideas invented at the turn of last century by Constantin Stanislavski (whose system has long been part of fundamental theory taught at acting school.)

Method Acting in Both Preparation and On-Set

The late Heath Ledger’s flawless performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight was followed by a whole month of self-imposed isolation. While locked in his hotel room, Ledger allowed himself to go s bit nuts and slide into the character, scribbling in a mad diary of Joker-esque ramblings and trying to perfect the voice and laugh. While on set, he ignored anyone who didn’t address him as if he were the Joker and reportedly unnerved everyone when he hung out on set even on days off.

One can only imagine what it must have been like for the bellboys walking past Ledger’s suite and hearing that now-iconic laugh late into the night. Regardless, if his subsequent Oscar winning performance is anything to go by, it alone makes a very strong case for method preparation.

Daniel Day-Lewis (who listed Ledger as a massive influence) is also notorious for the extremity of his method acting and preparation. Notable examples include:

– Wearing a top hat and cape at all times around New York City for the two months leading up to The Age of Innocence shoot

– Refusing to wear a warmer coat on the set of Gangs of New York because it was not of the period. This lead to Day-Lewis contracting pneumonia. He still refused the coat, and also refused any kind of modern treatment.

– Committed to really getting into the mindset of the severely paralysed Christy Brown for My Left Foot, Day-Lewis never left his wheelchair during filming, necessitating the crew carrying him and the heavy chair everywhere on set.

– Learned to live solely off the land before and during the filming of Last of the Mohicans, going as far as refusing to eat anything he hadn’t hunted and killed himself.

– Became fluent in Czechoslovakian to play a Czech surgeon in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It was during this shoot that he first acquired his lifelong habit of never breaking character during a shoot.

As far as method acting goes, you’d be hard pressed to name someone more committed than Daniel Day-Lewis but other actors which have famously refused to break character and taken the method acting to extremed include Joaquin Phoenix, Kate Winslet, Christian Bale, Jack Nicholson, Adrian Brody and Robert de Niro (who actually became a working, licensed taxi driver in preparation for Taxi Driver.)

How Far Should You Take Method Acting?

It’s a good question, but one that is usually rendered moot due to financial or time constraints. If Robert de Niro wants to take six months off to work as a Slovakian potato farmer in preparation for a role, he’s not going to notice the lack of income and there isn’t a director or producer in the world that’s going to tell him he can’t.

You may not have that luxury.

Whether you’re able to go to that kind of extreme or not, do take the time to factor in those who can be adversely affected by method acting: yourself and those around you.

Christian Bale method acting

Method acting can lead you to some very strange and sometimes dark behaviors and thought patterns. It can also be physically destructive (especially when extreme weight loss is concerned, a la Christian Bale in The Machinist.)

We could patronize you at this point and say that sacrificing your health and/or wellbeing is not worth it, but you’re a grown adult and it’s entirely up to you how much of yourself you give up to do a good job…

… although perhaps what separates the good from the aforementioned greats is that they don’t see it as just a job.

That said, do beware of one consideration:

You Might Suck at Method Acting.

Tales of actors going borderline insane in the pursuit of understanding their roles make for compelling reading, but caution should be exercised before following in their footsteps.

bad method acting

Method acting is not for everyone, and it’s certainly not a magic bullet that will instantly make you a better actor. In many cases, it can even hamper your performance with complacency – many an actor has been observed mistakenly thinking they’re ready for a
role solely on the basis that they took boxing lessons or lived in a woodland cabin for two weeks.

That all said, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t try it out in some capacity at least once in your career. Your job is to connect on an empathic level with your character, and method acting can be a useful tool in the actor’s arsenal to achieve this.

As with anything derived from Stanislavski’s box of tricks, this is one of those things that can be used as and when it’s needed.

It’s up to you to decide when that is.

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