Method acting is one of the most widely used acting methods out of the 8 most popular acting techniques. When people think about method acting, they often think of actors like Heath Ledger, Marlon Brando and others who immerse themselves into role and often find their characters seeping in to their life off-screen. While method acting often does involve actors going to extreme lengths to immerse themselves into their roles, there is actually a lot more that comes with method acting and we will discuss that more below. We are going to explore method acting in detail and show how well-known actors use this method acting to deliver amazing performances.
What is Method Acting?
Method acting is a complex technique that was first developed in the 1950s by renowned actor and teacher Lee Strasberg. After collaborating with pioneers such as Konstantin Stanisklavski and Stella Adler in New York City, Strasberg developed method acting by putting his own spin on a few key elements of Konstantin Stanisklavski’s acting method.
The goal for method acting is natural, realistic performances where the physicality and the emotion of the actor is unaffected and truthful in its delivery. While giving an emotionally expressive acting performance, method acting recommends five key elements:
- “As if,”
- Sense memory
- Affective memory
- Animal work
Substitution is the practice of using personal experiences as a means of understanding the events within the script. For instance, if a character is planning a surprise party, the method actor would think back to a time in their life when they were planning to surprise someone. Method practitioners strive to relive their own chosen memories in detail in order to generate the necessary emotional responses for the scene.
“As if,” an offshoot of Stanislavski’s “magic if,” is also used to create real emotion within the actor, but it relies purely on the imagination as opposed to relying on real events.
Sense memory is the practice of interacting with physical objects on stage. The idea behind this technique is for the actor to develop a personal relationship with sense as the character. This practice is thought to create an unparalleled sense of realism when the actor is performing on the set.
Affective memory also relies on in-depth imagination on behalf of the actor. In this technique, the actor develops a detailed, sensory, imagined memory for the character. As with real memories, they can draw upon this memory for an immediate rush of real emotion.
Animal work is the study of specific animal characteristics. By imitating the bodies and movements of a chosen animal, actors learn to rid themselves of physical affectations in their acting. It can also help the actor to create a new physicality for their character.
History of Method Acting
Method acting traces back to 1950s New York when Strasberg began to develop his own technique using elements of the famous Stanislavski method. Stanislavski’s system, developed in the early 20th century Russia, is a technique that encourages the actor to delve inwards, creating and expressing real emotions.
Stanislavski’s system involves in-depth textual analysis. The actor must know why the character does everything he or she does. This is called having an objective. The system produced some of the most realistic actors the world had ever seen.
American theater practitioners Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner were avid followers of Stanislavski. They, amongst others, created the Group Theater in 1931 in New York. It was because of these experiences with these other pioneers that Strasberg’s Method was created.
His colleagues Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner also went on to create their own versions of the Stanislavski system, and as time went on, the three methods became more and more distinct from one and other.
Adler and Meisner were under the impression that Strasberg’s method was a distorted, incorrect version of the system. However, Strasberg found a group of dedicated method actors and taught his method throughout the 20th century and method acting is still taught to this day.
Famous Method Actors
There are many well-known method actors that all use the technique in their own way. Here are a couple examples of famous actors and how they incorporate the technique into their individual processes.
Strasberg is known as the “father of method acting in America.” After developing the method, he spent the majority of his career teaching.
As an actor, Strasberg worked in the Group Theater in the 30s and 40s. While he developed and taught his method, he took a hiatus from performing. It wasn’t until 1974 that he made his return to the acting world, playing a secondary character in The Godfather: Part II, a performance that earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He went on to appear in several other films but spent the majority of his time teaching.
Daniel Day-Lewis is widely known to immerse himself in his roles. Using the method technique of placing himself in his character’s circumstances, Day-Lewis has gone to extreme lengths. He has spent time in jail, built a canoe, and learned a language all in pursuit of realism.
Christian Bale is another actor known for his use of the method. He has gained and lost extreme amounts of weight for his roles. While he is known to immerse himself in his roles, in a recent interview, Bale refused to align himself with the method. “I just wing it,” he said. “I don’t really have a particular technique.”
Brando was taught by Strasberg and Adler. He was one of the first actors to amaze audiences with the power of Stanislavski-based acting. His performance in A Streetcar Named Desire is a textbook example of early method acting. Like Daniel Day-Lewis, Brando went to extreme lengths to emulate his characters’ circumstances in preparation for a role.
Dustin Hoffman studied the method at the Actor’s Studio in the 1960s. He is known for immersing himself in his characters. When filming Marathon Man alongside Laurence Olivier, he stayed up for 72 hours to achieve the exhaustion of his character. Olivier reportedly joked, “why don’t you try acting?” This story exemplifies classically trained actors’ distrust of the method.
Robert de Niro
De Niro studied with both Adler and Strasberg. Like the other method actors we’ve discussed, he anchors his characters in real experiences. In preparation for Taxi Driver, he worked 12-hour shifts driving a cab around New York City. He also fought in three real boxing matches to prepare for his character in Raging Bull.
Jack Nicholson uses the immersion technique. He spent several months living in an asylum for his role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He is also committed to other aspects of the method, spending time focusing on relaxing his body into a neutral state to allow for true transformation.
Nicholson is known for his ability to snap into character in very little time. This skill, many believe, is the sign of a true master of the method – having done the necessary preparation in advance, he is ready to embody the character in the space of a few seconds.
Method Acting is much more than staying in character. While this technique is very effective, many find it even more effective as a method actor when they complement this technique with years of studying the principles of Stanislavski. Although some critics of the method warn that it can be a dangerous, even harmful technique, it has produced some of the best on-screen performances of all time.