Exploring the history of method acting and how modern filmmakers can work with this famous approach. Get the insight.
The mainstream movie media love the narrative that a movie star is a method actor. We'll go into many of the famous examples later, but only the term "method actor" probably evokes names like Daniel Day-Lewis or Christian Bale.
Sure, getting a simple press is a cool concept, but does it help a production when your lead is actually walking around in the character? And how do directors, cameramen, stunt doubles and make-up artists work with such sometimes combative personalities?
Let's dive into the powerful, crazy, and sometimes necessary world of methodology. We'll examine the term and its history, highlighting some of the best performances as we examine how filmmakers can capitalize on the work of these great artists.
What is a method actor?
First, let's clarify a few things about the definition of method action and a method actor. The Cambridge Dictionary defines action method as "a style of action in which an actor tries to understand and feel the emotions of the character he or she represents".
However, for many movie buffs, the term is often misinterpreted and focuses on an actor's willingness to change his or her body through weight gain or loss (as we can often see with the aforementioned Christian Bale) or through permanent changes (as we did) recently seen when Shia LaBeouf got large tattoos for a performance).
Method Acting has since become a collective term for any form of acting in which an actor tries to immerse himself in the character – emotionally and / or physically. From a cinematic point of view, however, it is important to understand the fundamentals of methodology and how there are actually different styles and approaches.
The basics of methodology
The first versions of Method Acting, which we can trace back through theater and performance history, came from the famous Russian actor Konstantin Stanislavski and his own unique technique, which has since been referred to as the Stanislavski's system.
This system dates back to the early 1900s and was one of the first to focus on an "art of experiencing" to help actors better develop their performances by focusing on their own emotions and unconscious behaviors.
Stanislavski's system would eventually give way to several other variations of this "self-focused" technique that have become popular acting perspectives. Three important approaches that are synonymous with method style come from three different teachers and focus on three different methodological aspects:
While each approach is unique, they all share the same self-focused style and have taught some of the most famous method actors working today. In particular, Sanford Meisner and his Meisner Technique are widely used as method and improvisation and have been helpful to indie filmmakers like Wendy McColm, whom she talks about in this interview.
Famous method actors and roles
As mentioned at the beginning of the article, there is nothing Hollywood loves more than hearing about a great method. And as you can see in the video above, there are many notable examples of actors going to crazy extremes to see and play the role – around the clock. For every performance by Daniel Day Lewis or Christian Bale, however, there are many non-blockbuster roles in which the actors channel the methodological approach.
Here are some notable examples of famous actors in iconic roles using the method approach:
Filmmaking with Method Actors
So the question remains how directors actually work with method actors on set. And how can filmmakers best work to harness these powerful feats? It can certainly be difficult to work with method actors at times, but I would argue that for many of the examples above, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.
Even if it's a PR stunt, having a dedicated method actor on your set means you're working with a real acting student who has improved their skills in a particular technique. It is still important to work with method actors as you would with non-methodological approaches, and communication will always be vital.
However, method actors offer some key advantages as their approach helps to assume a unified role that can remain stable throughout production. If an actor can stay connected and stay in character from the very first table during rehearsals and into the final days of shooting, they should be able to easily replicate performances while continuously improving their character.
The method is also a very helpful tool for filmmakers who want to encourage improvisation on set and in different scenes. Yes, method actors break occasionally – nobody is perfect. However, having a method to rely on when engaging in improvisation and ad-libbing dialogue can be the key to bringing about some really spectacular performances.
The future of methodology
To be honest, there are actually quite a few studies and essays out there arguing that method acting doesn't have to be that magic umbrella term. Instead, one could argue that most actors deal with their methods at all times. As long as a performance comes from a place of self-connection and empathy, any actor can be classified as a "method."
There is also some controversy over the practice of methodology. You will find many examples of actors taking the approach too far, as well as discussions about why we never hear from the great female method actors and how it can be potentially dangerous for black (or colored) actors to practice method acting.
As film and video content continues to evolve in new and exciting ways, the principles of methodology ultimately remain an important factor in developing fascinating performances from actors. And as history shows, these principles will evolve as well.
For more tips and tricks about acting and filmmaking, check out the articles below.
Cover image of There Will Be Blood via Paramount.