Method acting is an acting school of thought that has received wide coverage due to the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix amongst others. It has been adopted to get under the skin of a character so the performer is no longer acting and is behaving as the character themselves thereby leading to incredibly realistic performances. In this article, we’ll dive into what method acting is and its history as well as some examples and exercises.
What is Method Acting?
Method acting is a systematic approach towards acting that trains the imagination, concentration, senses and emotions of a performer. It helps them recreate believable and truthful performances of their character on stage and in film. This technique is often used by actors and actresses to emotionally identify with the character they are portraying.
Actor and director Lee Strasberg is credited with inventing method acting. He was inspired from the teachings of Konstantin Sergeyevich Stanislavski, a seminal Soviet and Russian theatre practitioner. Strasberg’s method focused on stirring past emotions from the performer’s life so that they could draw upon those experiences during their performance.
In the 1940s and 50s, method acting became very popular in America with the roles and performances of early method actors defining American acting. Audiences were amazed by the sense of reality depicted by these actors and actresses as if they were peeking into the lives of real people.
Marlon Brando’s performance as Terry Malloy in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954) is one such example.
Who was Lee Strasberg?
Born in 1901, Lee Strasberg was a Polish-American actor and director who emigrated to the U.S. at the age of 7. Strasberg studied acting at the Christie Street Settlement House and later with the Theatre Guild, as a young man.
In 1923, the Moscow Art Theatre under the direction of Konstantin Stanislavsky visited New York City on a tour. Strasberg was deeply impressed by the acting style and effortlessly realistic performances of the company. These inspired a lifelong passion in Strasberg’s mind. He then devised his own methods for training actors and is considered the founder of method acting.
In 1969 the Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute was founded which currently has studios in Los Angeles and New York City. Strasberg also appeared in a few films that included his famous role as a Jewish Mob boss Hyman Roth in The Godfather, Part II (1974)
What are Method Acting Exercises?
Strasberg developed a series of acting exercises for his students based on cultivating a sense memory. This collection of exercises comprise method acting.
In this exercise, the participants move every body part from their fingers to their facial muscles in small circles. With each movement, the performer identifies tension and releases it. It permits the performer to identify and break self-sabotaging unconscious habits that impede their expression.
This exercise requires participants to use all five senses to recall physical sensations from their memory. Engaging and strengthening the five senses builds one’s stage presence with credible performances.
A Private Moment
In this exercise, one has to accurately recreate a character’s reality and pretend as if they are not performing at all. The participants perform an activity on stage that they typically do in private.
In this activity, the participants while working on a specific character explore that character’s motivation and personality trait first and then find an animal whose traits most closely matches that character. The purpose of this exercise is to transform the body to reflect a specific background or personality so that a performer is fully aware of every inch of it.
The Song and Dance
The participant is asked to sing a familiar song one syllable at a time. Each syllable is then accompanied by unique, unpredictable, and unprepared movements. Strasberg described the result of this exercise as an “X-ray into the problem of the actor’s “will.”
Examples of Method Actors
1. Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man (1976)
Dustin Hoffman played the role of Thomas Babbington, a history PhD student in Marathon Man. He becomes the victim of mistaken identity and finds himself tormented by government agents. To put himself in the mindset of a man losing control Hoffman didn’t sleep for days at a time and let his body become scruffy and unhealthy.
2. Robert De Niro in Raging Bull (1980)
To prepare himself for the role of boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, Robert De Niro gained 60 pounds, which took a toll on his health. He even took part in three actual boxing matches, emerging victorious in two of them. De Niro went on to win his second Academy Award for the role.
3. Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot (1989)
Day-Lewis spent eight weeks in a cerebral palsy clinic in Dublin preparing for the role of specially-abled writer and painter, Christy Brown in My Left Foot. He learned to speak and write like the protagonist on whose life the film was based. Day-Lewis won his first Academy Award for the film.
4. Choi Min-sik in Old Boy (2003)
Korean actor Choi Min-sik in Oldboy, plays the role of Oh Dae-Su, a man who was imprisoned in a hotel for 15 years. In the film, Dae-Su uses a hot wire to burn the years of confinement onto his flesh for which he decided to actually burn himself. Once Dae-Su is released he hungrily eats a live octopus. Though a vegetarian, Choi decided that the role needed to look as realistic as possible and consumed several live octopuses for the scene.
5. Kate Winslet in The Reader (2008)
For her role as a former Nazi concentration camp guard, Hanna Schmitz in The Reader, Kate Winslet prepared herself by talking in a German accent while at home with her family. She compared leaving the character behind her to ‘escaping a serious car crash’. Winslet won an Academy Award for Best Actress for the role.
6. Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008)
Heath Ledger pushed the boundaries of method acting during the making of The Dark Knight remaining in full costume and make-up throughout. He kept his character diary close and would consult the journal to get into the character of The Joker when the cameras were set to roll. Ledger posthumously won an Academy Award for the role.
7. Randeep Hooda in Sarbjit (2016)
Indian actor Randeep Hooda portrays the titular role in the drama Sarbjit, which was based on an Indian citizen wrongly detained in Pakistan for 22 years. Hooda went through a drastic and gruelling transformation to achieve an emaciated look by losing 18 kgs in 28 days. He consumed only 500-600 calories per day and spent his days confined to a dummy jail with minimum food while chained in heavy handcuffs weighing 2.5 kg on each hand.
How is Method Acting Different To Other Techniques of Acting
There are various other acting techniques practised by performers around the world. These methods differ from method acting in the following ways:
Classical Acting Method
Also known as the Stanislavski method of acting, classical acting emphasizes on the expression of voice, imagination and body. The performers use a precise script combined with their own interpretation of lines they’ve learned and rehearsed to bring their characters to life before the audience.
Chekhov Acting Method
Michael Chekhov, a Russian American author, actor and student of Stanislavski popularised this method. Here the actor pays attention to the internal conflicts of the character and expresses it through movement. The performer has to physically exhibit the character’s internal state with external movements and gestures.
Chicago-based theatre academic and coach Viola Spolin introduced this method that allowed performers to break away from tensed, anxious thoughts. She came up with games and exercises that would allow for spontaneity and relax the performers.
Meisner Acting Technique
In the Meisner technique, the performers tell themselves that they’re just individuals in imaginary situations. They react and improvise to circumstances that occur in these scenes and learn different methods that aid them in controlling and expressing their emotions when someone responds to them.
Formulated by David Mamet and William Macy the approach of this exercise includes script analysis, repetition exercises and exploring adaptability. The foundation of this acting method was based on the lessons of Stanislavski, Epictetus, and Sanford Meisner.
Has Hollywood gone too far with method acting?
In the history of acting techniques, method acting will always be considered a forerunner in the evolution of a distinctive style of acting. However, there have been times when method acting has bordered on dangerous, receiving flak for pushing the boundaries. Here are a few examples that illustrate how far Hollywood has gone with the technique:
1. Nicolas Cage in Birdy (1984)
In Birdy, Nicolas Cage plays the role of a Vietnam war veteran with severe facial injuries. In order to prepare for the role, he got some of his gnashers pulled out without anaesthesia. He also spent five whole weeks, both on-set and off, with his head completely wrapped in bandages.
2. Halle Berry in Jungle Fever (1991)
Halle Berry had a small role as a drug addict, Vivian in Jungle Fever. She didn’t bathe for two weeks prior to filming and visited a crack den to take notes as part of her research to bring authenticity to her performance.
3. Charlize Theron in Monster (2003)
In order to get into the skin of the serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, Theron shaved off her eyebrows. She also took the rigorous effort of gaining weight of thirty pounds to look aged and blotchy.
4. Christian Bale in The Machinist (2004)
Christian Bale plays the role of a skeletal insomniac Trevor Reznik in The Machinist. As a factory worker riddled with psychological problems, Bale dropped 62 pounds in four months using an extremely calorie-sparse diet.
5. Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland (2006)
Forest Whitaker played the role of brutal Ugandan President, Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland with an evil conviction. Whitaker spent three months living in Uganda, gained 30 pounds, and learned how to speak Swahili for the role.
6. Natalie Portman in Black Swan (2010)
To play the role of an expert ballerina Nina Sayers in Black Swan, Natalie Portman lost twenty pounds and trained for eight hours a day. “I loved learning the specifics, to see how much they work on fingertips, eyes, wrists – these really tiny nuances. And I did love the discipline. I’m kind of military. I really enjoy that kind of discipline.” Portman said about her training regime to Timeout.
FTII alumnus and freelance writer. My articles have appeared in Scroll.in, The Hindu, Livemint.com, The Quint, The Tribune, Upperstall, among other publications.