Enduring everything from broken noses to life-threatening weight loss, these students of method acting became characters you know and love.
Over the years, so-called “method acting” has gained a mythical status as the actor’s philosopher’s stone, a badge of honor earned only by those committed enough to go without sleep, shelter, food — whatever it takes — to inhabit the mind, body and soul of their character. Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Daniel Day Lewis… For many of the greatest names in Hollywood, you name it, they have done it — the full nine yards — to truly become the person we see on-screen. The glamour and prestige afforded those who take the leap are understandable when we think of the endurance and feats of mental strength involved in, say, never breaking character as Abraham Lincoln, or losing 60 pounds only to regain it in six weeks. It takes true commitment and discipline to overcome psychological and physical limits. Who said acting was easy?
Trouble is, for all the great performances such stunts have produced, there’s a tendency to mistake extremity in preparation with perfection in execution. And moreover, “method acting” is really a lot more diverse and dynamic than the tabloids would have us believe. Let’s separate the facts from the fiction.
The origins of what we call method acting date back to the Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavski (1863-1938), cofounder of the Moscow Art Theatre. He developed a system of actor training, preparation and rehearsal techniques which grew into the full-fledged “Stanislavski method,” eventually inspiring a generation of theater practitioners around the world.
Stanislavksi saw a distinction between what he referred to as the “art of experiencing” and the “art of representation,” viewing the former as a more direct route to convincing, evocative performances. In practical terms, this meant considering how actors could draw upon their own emotional backstories — their own loves and losses — and harness these feelings when on stage, with the aim of making their performances more authentic. While many associate the Stanislavksi method with this particular technique, the practice incorporates far more. This form of what he called “affective memory” was accompanied by “sense memory” which, instead of the emotions themselves, recalls the physical sensations surrounding the given moment in which such emotions occurred. Stanislavski developed his theories over the years while working as a teacher. He published many books on the subject of how one experiences and presents a character rather than merely “wearing” their personage as a mere representation.
After a successful tour of the U.S., two of Stanislavski’s students, Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya, moved to the States to establish the American Laboratory Theatre in New York, bringing with them the early form of Stanislavski’s “system.” In turn, some of the students left and formed their own Stanislavski-inspired institution, the Group Theatre collective, in 1931. Of its many members and teachers, Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler (both founding members) and Sanford Meisner went on to impact the world of cinema, each with their own take on the original principles and practices. Strasberg championed the “affective,” or what he called “emotion memory,” approach, instructing actors in the ways of drawing on some past personal event and directing that energy toward their character construction.
However, Meisner and Adler eventually broke away from Strasberg’s interpretation, the latter deeming it too “inside out” and not enough “outside in.” Adler had gone to Europe in the 1930s in search of inspiration and worked with Stanislavski himself, only to discover (much to the annoyance of Strasberg) that the maestro no longer prioritized the emotional mining technique but rather insisted on a far more holistic set of methods. From her experiences working with Stanislavski, Adler developed a practice of encouraging actors to draw from their imagination as much as their real lives. Meisner’s approach grew to favor greater emphasis on the “given circumstances” of the script and the spontaneous responses two or more actors can produce in one another. This regrounding of the method in the physical, albeit “acted,” present, Meisner referred to as “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”
From these folks, many great performances have been coaxed, nurtured and earned, between them cultivating what we now know as method acting. The following are six iconic students of method acting throughout film history.
1. Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)
Marlon Brando — the undisputed king of the meth’ heads — got the show on the road with his performance as Stanley Kowalski in the debut production of the Tennessee Williams classic A Streetcar Named Desire. A student of Stella Adler at the New School in New York, Brando approached the craft with as much imagination as obsession. As the story goes, every night of the show’s run he’d pitch some new idea of how to inject the whole affair with authenticity. On one occasion, he had one of the stagehands punch him in the face before he rejoined the stage for his next scene, bloodied and black-eyed. Legend has it, in the scene where Stanley smashes a dish, Brando decided to improvise by holding a shard to the neck of his counterpart playing Blanche — who, unsurprisingly, wasn’t too pleased. Anything to transcend the mundane, eh?
2. Marilyn Monroe in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957)
Many have rightly observed that method acting can tend to become a bit of a boys’ club and a self-validating reaction to the perceived trappings of being a “sissy in tights” thespian. However, one performer certainly resets the balance somewhat. Marilyn Monroe famously played opposite theater heavyweight Laurence Olivier in The Prince and the Showgirl, and the two sparred on set over their respective — and diametrically opposed — acting techniques. A student of Lee Strasberg, Monroe no doubt would have seemed uncouth to the classically trained, old-school Olivier. Later Olivier famously quipped to Dustin Hoffman, who was exhausted after staying up three days to prepare for his role in Marathon Man (1976): “Try acting, dear boy. It’s much easier.”
3. Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot (1989), Gangs of New York (2002), There Will Be Blood (2009) and Lincoln (2012)
A quick Google search into the dark magic that is Daniel Day Lewis brings up two articles whose titles perfectly sum up his idiosyncratic approach: “the secret of DDL” and “the madness of DDL.” Day Lewis’s career is the stuff of legend. Though many sought to disassociate the technique from the practice of method acting, Day Lewis is known as the “methodist” who, indeed, religiously inhabits his characters — refusing to break them, even off set. From incurring broken ribs in preparation for My Left Foot to catching pneumonia in the buildup to Gangs of New York, he’s probably racked up twice as many hospital bills as screen credits. Perhaps most amusingly, during the filming of Lincoln, Day Lewis’s resilience apparently escalated to his signing off text messages as “Commander in Chief.”
4. Christian Bale in The Machinist (2007) and The Dark Knight (2008)
Christian Bale’s contribution to the mythology and continuation of the Hollywood trend can be witnessed most viscerally in these two movies. Playing an insomniac schizophrenic, Bale apparently fell victim to a typo in the script which led him to force himself to lose 60 pounds. Fortunately, the director welcomed this dramatic transformation as it served to outwardly embody the inner disintegration of Bale’s character through the movie. Trouble was, next on the calendar was tough-guy Batman. No trouble for Bale, mind you, who in a mere six weeks reportedly ate his way through pizza and ice cream to regain the weight, plus some, for his next role.
5 and 6. Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008) and Jared Leto in Suicide Squad (2016)
Last on the bill is a duo: two attempts at the same iconic role, the first of whom played opposite Bale’s Batman. Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman has become cinema history, casting a long shadow over those who dared accept the part in future installments.
Leto did just this, though attracting slightly less desirable acclaim. His performance did begin a conversation about whether, in fact, by now Hollywood has “ruined” method acting. OK, so maybe “ruined” is too strong. But when the story goes that Leto was sending live rats, a dead pig and used condoms to fellow cast members to get into his character’s headspace, well, you can see why some found this a little farcical. And more to the point, did Suicide Squad (2016) really stand up to The Dark Knight (2008)? I’ll let you decide…
Anyway, that’s all for now. As you can see, amid the glitz, glamour and broken noses, there is, or at least was, some method in the madness. Leave a comment to let us know your favorite stories about actors going the extra mile!