Method acting is considered a holy grail in Hollywood and though many actors claim that they possess that skill, not everyone knows what it actually entails. A Russian theater practitioner by the name of Konstantin Stanislavski came up with the concept, though it was later modified by Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner, as well as Stanislavski himself. The idea is that an actor, in order to be able to portray a specific character, needs to go experience what he’s experiencing, often leading to some dramatic lifestyle changes. While it’s hard to know where the boundary is, how not to overdo it and many actors and actresses fail to observe it, it is the resulting performance that counts the most. So, take a look at some of Hollywood’s finest moments.
Jim Carrey’s Moon Man
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The first thing that comes to mind when you think of Jim Carrey is probably not method acting, but quite the opposite – breaking the character whenever possible to get as many laughs as he can. Most of his earlier movies had a somewhat bland script (say, Liar, Liar) that he spiced up with his over-the-top acting skills and unconventional physical comedy. In fact, most of the bloopers and outtakes in his movies are even funnier than the movies themselves. However, when in 1999, he got a chance to portray one of the most enigmatic comedians-pranksters in recent American history, Andy Kaufman, he decided to turn to method acting. Both on and off the set, Carrey insisted on being called Andy and gave all of his interviews in character. It even went so far that he often made pranks on the set, even feuding with Kaufman’s alleged nemesis, WWE star Jerry Lawler. In a true Kaufman spirit, it resulted in a fight and Carrey getting a real slap that made its way to a movie.
Kate Winslet’s Germanic Lullabies
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Kate Winslet was quite an underrated actress for a long time. Many people know her for her role in Titanic and though she really excelled playing that young, innocent, high-class girl that just won’t budge a little to let Jack survive the freezing ocean as well, most of her other roles are at least equally as good. Her dedication to the acting trade can be seen, for example, in the movie The Reader from 2008 that even got her an Academy award. In the film, she plays an old Nazi guard on trial for her deeds with a former, much younger lover, doing his best to help her out. Obviously, Kate Winslet is not German, but she got into the character so much that she continued speaking in accent off-set, even taking it home. This led to some rather peculiar situations where she would read her children bedtime stories with a German accent, utterly confusing the little ones. You might say it was worth it because she did manage to get an Oscar for this amazing portrayal. The children might need some therapy in the future, though.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s Racist Rant
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Winslet’s ocean buddy, Leonardo DiCaprio was for a long time one of those extremely good actors whose Oscar kept slipping from the fingers to the point where it even became an internet meme. This joke came to an end when he finally won it for the ambitious 2015’s The Revenant, but he’s been giving us great performances for years. Considering that he’s been in the film game for years, it’s only logical that he has picked up a thing or two about method acting. One of the finest examples of his engrossment into the characters was the famous scene in Tarantino’s Django Unchained. In the film, Leo played a rich and devious slave trader by the name of Calvin Candie whose rant near the end of the film pretty much stole the show. Namely, he got a little carried away in the scene and slammed his hand on the table, breaking some glasses and badly cutting his arm. Being a professional that he is, Leo merely glanced at the hand and the gushing blood and carried on with the scene. That is quite the dedication.
Marlon Brando’s Cold Showers
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One of the pioneers when it comes to method acting in Hollywood is certainly the godfather himself, the mighty Marlon Brando. From the very start of his career, he implemented the teachings of Stella Adler, and changed Hollywood from the core. Starting off on Broadway, Brando thrilled the audience with his role of a deranged killer in the play Truckline Café. In order to faithfully portray a man who’s come out of an icy lake, he ran up and down the stairs and poured cold water over himself before stepping out into the spotlight. This type of dedication to the role continued on film, which frustrated a lot of directors and other actors, but ultimately resulted in some terrific performances. So, for example, Brando’s appearance in the Apocalypse Now highlighted the entire film, although his onscreen time was extremely short. There is really no need to talk about his performance in the Godfather, is there?
Robert De Niro’s Physical Acting
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Speaking of the Godfather, Brando wasn’t the only student of Stella Adler in the trilogy (there is something so wrong about calling such a masterpiece a trilogy, especially considering how poor the third film was). In fact, Robert De Niro also studied method acting with this amazing actress and used it throughout his career. The thing about De Niro is, he always focused more on the physical aspect of it all, skimping on words whenever possible. Some of his finest performances in films like the Deer Hunter rely a lot on the atmosphere he creates, not the actual words he utters. So, for example, in the Raging Bull, to offer the unique kind of performance only he can and completely become the boxer he’s portraying, De Niro decided to gain 60 pounds and change his overall appearance dramatically. However, what really made De Niro such a great actor over the years was his ability to convey subtlety onscreen. It is just as he once observed: “It’s important not to indicate. People don’t try to show their feelings, they try to hide them.”
Christian Bale’s Transformations
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Brando, De Niro and other respectable method actors of their time influenced a number of new generations of actors that further built upon these foundations. One of these modern masters of transformations is certainly Christian Bale, the darkest incarnation of Batman and an extremely intense actor. He became known for his mind-blowing weight fluctuations over the years ever since he lost 60 pounds for 2004’s the Machinist and resembled a walking skeleton. Just four years before, he gave us one of the most terrifyingly iconic performances in the American Psycho, as well as a number of different serious roles. However, his inclinations towards method acting were also ridiculed online because of the leaked audio of his unnecessary rant on the set of the Terminator (which was a fairly bad film anyway). The problem was that Christian couldn’t focus on his performance because a man doing the lights was walking around. The online recording also instigated the creation of a viral remix by the name of Bale Out that actually works quite well.
Jared Leto’s Subtlety
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Another hugely underrated actor is, no doubt, Jared Leto. What’s so interesting about his transformations is the fact that he is so good at what he does that you don’t actually notice him. He’s starred in dozens of carefully chosen films, but he plays out his characters so faithfully and inconspicuously that you don’t even realize it’s him. For example, Christian Bale’s amazing performance in the American Psycho completely overshadows Leto’s spot-on portrayal of a self-indulgent businessman who ends up bludgeoned. In the same manner, his great acting in Chapter 27 where he plays the infamous Mark David Chapman, who took John Lennon’s life, really makes you forget you’re watching a generally flamboyant character that is Jared Leto. His performance in Dallas Buyers Club, however, didn’t go unnoticed and he finally got a well-deserved Academy Award along with his co-star Matthew McConaughey. His involvement in the Blade Runner reboot is certainly a good sign.
Heath Ledger’s Consuming Performance
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Now, truth be told, Heath Ledger didn’t have a whole lot of time to explore his serious acting skills due to his tragical and untimely death in 2008. For the most part of his career, he concentrated on light-hearted romantic films, which made sense considering he was quite popular with the ladies. However, as he was maturing as an actor, he took on better and better roles, starting with Brokeback Mountain, Candy, I’m Not There and, of course, the Dark Knight (although his performance in Terry Gilliam’s Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus was also solid, albeit unfinished). What people will remember him most for is certainly his portrayal of a dark and demented Joker in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, and for a good reason. Heath dedicated himself to this role so much that it ultimately devoured him and, possibly, led to a tragic end. Unfortunately, now we’ll never know just how big of a star he could have become.
Joaquin Phoenix’s Unsocial Tendencies
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One of the finest method actors still active today is certainly Joaquin Phoenix. Born into a family full of child actors, Joaquin started acting early on under the self-given name – Leaf Phoenix. The world really noticed him as an actor after his outstanding performance in the 2000’s Quills starring alongside the acting giant Geoffrey Rush and Kate Winslet. Together with his portrayal of the power-mad Commodus in the Gladiator that came out the same year, Joaquin seemed to be drawn to tragic, somewhat depressed and evil characters. After that, he appeared in a number of amazing titles, taking on various roles that even got him his two more nominations for Walk the Line and The Master. Joaquin’s method acting even went so far as to affect his own personality, pulling an ultimate Kaufman-like prank on the public by claiming in 2008 that he would retire and turn to rap music. Up until the release of his mockumentary I’m Still Here in 2010, he pretended that he’d really made that change and often appeared distant and dazed in various interviews including the one with Letterman. The idea behind the film was to wake people up and help them understand that the reality shown on TV isn’t genuine.
Daniel Day-Lewis’ Multiplicity
Finally, at the end of this and almost any decent list discussing the veterans of method acting there’s the incredibly talented Daniel Day-Lewis. This award-winning actor is one of those performers who always take the quality over quantity. During his long career, he’s only made 20 films, but almost all of them are exceptional. Being a complete method actor, Daniel always researches his roles thoroughly and lives in them from the first day of shooting to the last. So, for example, when he was filming the Last of the Mohicans in 1992, he lived in the woods and stayed in the character the whole time. When he portrayed Christy Brown, a man with cerebral palsy who could only move his left foot, he insisted on staying in the wheelchair the whole time and moved solely using his foot, like the character. He manages to change himself in so many ways that he seems to consist of at least a dozen different people. He’s been on a long break since his last film, but in 2017, we’ll get the chance to see a whole new character he has in store for us. There’s no doubt it will be worth the wait.
What is your favorite scene where you can see all the power of great method acting?