Big things are happening on TV Tropes! New admins, new designs, fewer ads, mobile versions, beta testing opportunities, thematic discovery engine, fun trope tools and toys, and much more - Learn how to help here and discuss here.
Method Acting is a controversial practice in the field of performance. The core gist of it is this: an actor tries to replicate the life circumstances, mannerisms and emotional feelings of the character he portrays, so as to give realism, legitimacy and dramatic strength to his performance. An actor playing a character from history might research the character, look for media featuring him, and try to live in the same conditions that that character lived, provided that doing so would not be detrimental to his mental or physical health. A character in a deep depression might make him reflect on his own moments of sadness and bring those feelings forth. He might gain or lose weight to fit a character who is morphologically different from him, but this is generally frowned upon (despite what Robert De Niro would have you believe).
Though Method Acting has produced powerful and affecting performances, it is increasingly finding itself coming under fire for its inherent limitations. Method actors are pretty notorious as being hard to work with because of their involvement with their roles. When all's said and done, method acting is a search for perfection in performance, so method actors sometimes have confrontations with cast and crew over the direction his character takes. Also, well, it's hard to give directions to an actor when he's in-character even off-camera (note that not all Method Actors do this, although they do have a reputation for it). Nonetheless, many of the greatest performances in movie history have resulted from an actor who completely immersed himself in the role. Method acting is, above all, not easy. It takes its toll on the actors, both physically and emotionally, and as mentioned earlier, can result in friction between the actor and the rest of the production staff. But when a performance was well method acted, it shows.
For the involuntary version of this, see Enforced Method Acting. For when a writer/director casts an actor for his natural fit into a role (natural method acting, if you may), see Write Who You Know. If the character falls too deep into their role, they may become Lost in Character.
Technically speaking, Method Acting refers to Konstantin Stanislavski's technique as developed and popularized by Lee Strasberg, but it is used for generally in common speech. Stanislavski's own method, further developed after Strasberg's contact with the Russian's theories, is known as "The System." In fact, within movie circles, there were two schools of the Method, the popularly known Strasberg one, typified by the actor's studio and Stella Adler, a famous acting teacher (she taught both Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro) who was the only one to apprentice under Stanislavski himself. There is needless to say, much debate between followers as to which is the "true" Method, with the likes of Elia Kazan believing it to be a highly personal, subjective actor-to-actor thing rather than a dogma.
Real Life Examples:
Shia LaBeouf actually took acid for his role in The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman. Not off screen to know the effects, but while he actually was shooting the film.
Judging by the bloopers of the Madea movies, Tyler Perry stays 100% in character.
Probably no actor has been associated with method acting quite as prominently as Daniel Day-Lewis. He simply IS his character for the duration of his role. For his Academy Award-winning performance in My Left Foot, he did not leave his wheelchair, speak coherently, or even feed himself for the entire filming. For Last of the Mohicans he became a survivalist living off the land. For his role in In The Name Of The Father, he lived in a prison cell, basically starved himself and asked the cast and crew to constantly verbally abuse him. This has made him one of the most notoriously picky and difficult actors to work with in all of Hollywood, but it has also made him one of the most admired and critically acclaimed (with his win for Lincoln in 2013, he became the first man to win three Best Actor Oscars).
Christian Bale is a big actor known for method acting. Specifically, his physical transformations for roles are very jarring. He was literally anorexic for the filming of The Machinist, only to bulk up to a practically bodybuilder-like physique for Batman Begins. Bale is also, like Daniel Day-Lewis, notorious for being someone hard to work with: a prime example of both this and his skills is funnily enough his infamous rant during the shooting of Terminator Salvation, where he verbally assaulted Director of Photography Shane Hurlburt for wandering about during the shooting of a pivotal scene one time too many... while still maintaining his Fake American accent almost the entire time.
He claims that the intensity he puts into his roles is partly driven by the fact that he actually has a hard time staying in character. If he didn't embrace a role so completely, he'd be constantly cracking up, dragging productions out longer than necessary.
Marlon Brando is arguably the first great method actor.... until he started phoning in it, wearing ice buckets on his head, etc. Actually, given a role and script that interest him, like Last Tango in Paris and he was super-efficent and competent and a darling to the crew.
Forest Whitaker's method acting finally earned him the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.
Especially at the beginning of his career, Robert De Niro was a prolific method actor. His roles in Raging Bull and Taxi Driver are notable examples. In The Untouchables, he insisted upon wearing the same clothes made by Al Capone's tailor, even the underwear.
Adrien Brody practically starved himself and gave away his car and home as part of his preparation for his role in Roman Polanski's The Pianist. It evidently paid off, making him the youngest (three weeks before his 30th birthday) Best Actor winner in Oscar history.
Hilary Swank prepared for both of her Oscar-winning roles in this way.
Before playing a trans man in "Boys Don'tCry", she lived as a man for a month (she was so convincing that her neighbors thought the "young man" was Swank's visiting brother). Also, when the director confronted her about lying about her age when auditioning, she replied that that is what her character would have done.
When she had a severe staph infection from boxing training for "Million Dollar Baby", she didn't tell anyone because, again, she believed that's not what her character would have done.
Method acting might have been what killedHeath Ledger. For his performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight, Ledger, for all purposes, basically became mentally ill, suffering from insomnia, paranoia and panic attacks. This may have led to the ill-fated drug overdose that took his life, but it also led to one of the most powerful performances in film history, as well as a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
It should also be noted that this is heavily contested by those who worked with Ledger on the film. Micheal Caine in particular insists that Ledger was quite friendly and gregarious between takes who enjoyed swapping stories with the cast and crew about their children (or grandchildren) and entertained them with skateboarding tricks on long shoots. It should also be noted that Ledger was far from the Joker role when his life was lost. He finished all of his post production (dubbing) work on The Dark Knight, and nearly completed his final film, a much less demanding role.
Interestingly, military fiction is an entire GENRE that pretty much demands method acting from performers. Actors getting actual military training for their roles is pretty much a given in any proper military work.
It should be noted that Damon was not exempt from the training every other actor went through, but rather, was brought in during the final weeks of a very grueling boot camp and generally treated with much more leniency than the others. Same effect, though.
Similarly, when producing Aliens, James Cameron had all of the actors playing the Space Marines attend a Hollywood boot camp, except for the actor playing Lieutenant Gorman. Also, their introductory scenes were filmed last, to give the best impression that these were people who knew each other and worked together.
James Dean was a method actor to the extreme, although it often worked: he kept everyone waiting while he brooded in his dressing room on the set of Rebel Without a Cause, but then pulled off the police station scene in one take. He also ad-libbed the very effective moment in East of Eden when Cal breaks down and tearfully embraces his father when he refuses to accept the money he is offering (much to Raymond Massey's obvious shock). Not everyone was a fan of his style, though; he annoyed Rock Hudson to no end with his extensive preparation on Giant.
It actually became strange as Jim Carrey began developing strange tics and specific movements that Kaufman himself would do, but which weren't actually in the script. Andy Kaufman's old friends who were working on the movie just decided to let it ride and figured "hey, Andy's back with us for a few months".
Kaufman himself was known to stay in character while being on set which is likely while Carrey himself decided to work this way.
John Simm received Stanislavskian training at drama school. He's been known to starve himself, consuming only coffee and cigarettes in order to play Vincent van Gogh and to refuse hospital treatment after breaking some ribs while playing Raskolnikov because the fever and the pain "added to his performance". He also experimented with drugs when preparing for Human Traffic. When he was preparing to play Bernard Sumner in 24 Hour Party People, he was constantly listening to tapes of Sumner's interviews on his Walkman in order to get his voice right.
Andy Serkis met his wife while they were playing a couple on stage. They went on a date in character to prepare for the role, and then started seeing each other in real life.
Michael Fassbender dropped a terrifying amount of weight to accurately portray activist Bobby Sands in Hunger—and he doesn't have a lot of weight available to lose in the first place. He also did extensive interviews with real-life sex addicts for Shame.
Similarly, Ellen Page dropped weight over the course of filming An American Crime, in which she portrayed Sylvia Likens, a real-life young woman who was tortured and starved and eventually died in her neighbor's basement. When asked if she was eating normally, she said "No, because Sylvia wasn't being fed."
Joaquin Phoenix has proven to be a strong method actor in recent years, with his Andy Kaufman-esque experiment I'm Still Here (in which he spent over a year pretending to be an out of control burnout and fooling almost everyone in the process) and the film The Master (where he stayed in character for three months and was later compared to Daniel Day-Lewis by director Paul Thomas Anderson).
The Cracked article that provides the page quote mentions Adrien Brody, Tom Cruise, Ed Harris, Robert De Niro and the boot camp done by the Saving Private Ryan crew (which added Enforced Method Acting as Matt Damon entered only in the final phase as Spielberg wanted the contempt the soldiers face once Ryan is found to be honest).
Jodie Foster while she was working on Nell revealed that she is not normally a method actress ("They go to acting class and learn to melt like an ice cream cone"), but had to become one for this part. She lived in the house, ate Nell's food, and almost "channeled" the character as she developed her gestural language.
Another non-Method actor who had to be one for a specific role was Frank Langella when he played Richard Nixon in the stage version of Frost/Nixon. He said the dramatic tension in the play more or less required it.
I did not want to go out of character, even for a minute, when I was offstage. I would go to the darkest corner at the back of the stage and just stay with my thoughts and wait. When I was required, the stage manager had to come over to me and say, 'Mr. President, you are needed onstage.'
When he was cast as Cardassian spy-turned-tailor Garak on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Andrew Robinson prepared for his role by writing a 200-plus page character outline and Backstory for Garak, which he used as his personal bible for the character. The show's producers approved of most of his backstory, except for portions that went counter to established Cardassian history. Robinson later used most of his outline as the basis for his Expanded Universe novel A Stitch In Time.
Prior to filming The Hustler, Paul Newman had never held a pool cue before. To prepare for the role, he took out the dining room table from his home and installed a pool table so he could spend all his free time practicing.
As part of her research, Piper Laurie actually hung out at the Greyhound bus terminal at night.
An Older Than Feudalism example: In a production of Sophocles' Electra, an actor named Polus, in order to convincly play the part of the grief-stricken heroine mourning her brother, came on stage carrying a urn containing the ashes of his own son.
In the webcomic Superosity, one actor acting Jar Jar Binks went for this to an extreme point: having his brain moved to an actual bioengineered body of Jar Jar Binks.
In Skip Beat!, method acting is the bread and butter of Kyoko, to the extreme of sometimes dressing and acting off-set like the character she is filming now.
The story "Type Cast" in issue #24 of Creepy featured a main character who, forced into horror roles even though he hated them, got in-character by actually mutilating corpses, sacrificing animals &etc. He eventually snapped from the guilt and pressure and strangled his agent, ending up in an asylum which he was mistakenly released from some time later. The asylum director, calling to check up on him, was informed that he had a job at another studio. The picture he was appearing in? The Story of Jack the Ripper...
In Castle, Natalie Rhodes is preparing to play Nikki Heat. To do so, she shadows Kate Beckett, the detective who inspired the character, imitating and analyzing everything she does. Hilarity Ensues.
In Hoodwinked, Kirk Kirkkendall is an actor trying to land the job as the lumberjack character in a TV commercial for Paul's Bunion Foot Cream (which has the "soothing formula to make the bunions head for the hills"). When Kirk is told that he's landed the spot, the director instructs him to go out into the forest and cut down an actual tree, emphasizing, "Don't act like a woodsman, be a woodsman." Kirk's first attempts to cut a tree down are unsuccessful due to his spectacular incompetence at holding an axe, though he improves once he comes upon a copy of the book Chopping forActors. It all goes well until he comes to a giant redwood tree. It becomes almost Fatal Method Acting, since after Kirk has managed to cut away a large "bite" that leaves the tree balancing very precariously, it gives way and falls on top of him. He ends up on top of the trunk as it rolls down a hill, and when it hits a pair of small trees at the bottom, he is catapulted into the window of Granny Puckett's cottage, where by Contrived Coincidence, a domestic disturbance is happening.
In the Monk episode "Mr. Monk and the Actor," Stanley Tucci plays David Ruskin, a renowned film and stage actor who is to portray Monk in an upcoming film adaptation of the Steve Wagner case ("Mr. Monk and the Astronaut"). To get into the part of Monk, he shadows Monk for a couple days to learn more about Monk's different mannerisms, and his investigative processes, even being allowed into two different homicide scenes to observe. However, during the second crime scene investigation at a pawnshop, Natalie excuses herself to the back alleyway as Monk coaches Ruskin on how to say his catchphrase "It's a gift and a curse". Monk finds her out back:
Adrian Monk: There you are! What are you doing?
Natalie Teeger: Just getting some air.
Adrian Monk: There's a lot of air inside. Everybody's in there breathing away.
Natalie Teeger: Yeah, it's a little stuffy for me in there. "It's a gift! And a curse! It's a gift and a curse, it's a gift and a curse!"
Adrian Monk: Okay?
Natalie Teeger: Okay Mr. Monk, don't you see? It's already happening!
Adrian Monk: What is?
Natalie Teeger: Okay, I've been doing a little research on your new "pal". Two years ago, David Ruskin played an alcoholic in a TV movie. He got so into it, he had to check himself into rehab for three months!
Adrian Monk: A lot of people check themselves into rehab.
Natalie Teeger: He doesn't drink! That's the thing! He had all the symptoms of an alcoholic without drinking! He's had at least two other breakdowns! Mr. Monk, I think this man is dangerous! I think he's dangerous to you.
Adrian Monk: Maybe he's just dedicated. Did you ever think of that? [Natalie sighs] Natalie, they're making a movie about me! Now this is something I might actually come close to, almost, enjoying!
Natalie's warning does come true. When Stottlemeyer and Disher sit in on a rehearsal of one of the scenes in the TV movie (specifically, the producers' version of the scene at Joanne Raphelson's house), everything goes well (minus the fact that Randy is played by a woman and is Stottlemeyer's romantic partner, which clearly does not go over well with the real Stottlemeyer or Disher) until Ruskin starts performing his lines. He suddenly breaks character in the middle of the take and storms off frustrated due to the mishmash of the crewmen's hats. Things get downhill from there when he ends up basically shooing Monk out of his own apartment. Later, Ruskin is so into the part of Monk that he even goes to the parking garage where Trudy was killed while wearing a wig that could easily allow him to look like Tony Shalhoub, and when the police identify the double homicide's culprit as a car salesman named Jack Leverett, Ruskin misinterprets the news brought to "him" by a parking attendant as being that they've found Trudy's killer. Hence, a simple arrest doesn't work because Ruskin actually takes Leverett hostage with a revolver. The real Monk arrives shortly thereafter and has to talk Ruskin down before he does something outright dangerous.
A Mr. Show features a (fictional) documentary about a method actor named Borden Grote (played by David Cross) who did research (about doctors and . . . crowds) for roles in which he appeared for seconds. The documentary features him after he's removed the frontal lobe of his brain to prepare for a role involving abuses at a mental institution. The interviewer and his staff talk about his lifestyle seemingly unaware with something being wrong with him. Cross revealed that he was influenced to make this sketch after hearing about Meryl Streep supposedly laying on a block of ice to play herself dead in a film.
In the Robert A. Heinlein novel Double Star, Lorenzo Smythe uses some amount of this to get into his characters, and even used the psychotic aspect of one character as a crutch when he had to chop up a body.
Sticky Dilly Buns satirizes the concept in the person of Dillon, a Camp Gay actor who claims to take the Method very seriously — and who seems to get a lot of cross-dressing roles.