Madness in the method: How far is too far?

Jamie Armstrong traces the history of method acting, analysing its place in the modern era.

Jamie Armstrong
10th December 2019

New film releases or recent Academy Award winners highlight a growing fascination with the process and story behind making a film. Method acting and the intrigue surrounding it, increasingly central to a film’s greater narrative.

Method actors as we know them, generally reflect Lee Strasberg’s psychological approach that built on Konstantin Stanislavski’s theory of activating less-controllable emotional processes to encourage truer, more sympathetic acting. Strasberg’s approach takes the internalising process further, actors using techniques to reproduce a character’s emotional process through engaging and recreating emotions or sensations from the actors own life.

Lee Strasberg's (above) development of Stanislavski's ideas form the basis of what we call 'method acting'. Image: Wikimedia

Ostensibly, the technique makes sense. Oscar winners Marlon Brando, Daniel Day-Lewis and Jared Leto all utilized method acting to fine results. Leonardo Di Caprio achieved an overdue Oscar after eating raw bison liver and suffering through -25C temperatures making The Revenant (2015). Adrien Brody mastered the piano, starved himself and left his girlfriend to play Holocaust survivor Władysław Szpilman in The Pianist (2002) for an Oscar. Method acting’s deep engagement with a role is obviously helpful for actors to truly embody a character.

But this modern obsession with ‘staying in character’, living rather than acting a role, is something Strasberg never believed was part of method acting. Whilst, the success stories highlight advantages of method acting, it cannot be denied that the growing discourse around actors and their commitment to perfecting a role has led to a culture of masculine one-upmanship and unnecessary adversity. Many actors’ deployment of method acting strays wildly from its theoretical origin.

Klaus Klinski’s obsession with perfecting his role in Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), led to Werner Herzog threatening Klinski with death because of the actor’s approach and behaviour. Documentaries have chronicled the lunacy of some actors’ commitment to staying in character. Jim Carrey’s performance as Andy Kaufmann in Man on the Moon (1999), saw him refuse to drop character to the mental detriment of Carrey and his fellow actors. Jared Leto’s preparation for Suicide Squad (2016), entailed sending cast members dead rats and used condoms. Seemingly, for every Brody there is a Klinski. For every Leto there is a creepier Leto.

Klaus Klinski (right) and Werner Herzog (left) have a spirited disagreement on the set of Aguirre back in 1971. Image:Flick-JerryPaffendorf.

Method acting and cinema, whilst gallantly committed to creating ‘true art’ have become bastions of inappropriate behaviour and practices. But cinema isn’t alone in this issue, an interesting comparison being the professional kitchen. The fire, passion and torment of the traditional French brigadier system, seems alluring, true art created through suffering. Nowadays, however, pans aren’t thrown at line chefs and Gordon Ramsey can’t aimlessly hurl vicious abuse. The world has changed, yet those who create ‘art’ seem reticent to change with it.

Daniel Day Lewis, perhaps the greatest method actor of his, or any other, generation. Image:Wikimedia

Method acting and filmmaking often follows this antiquated ideology. Suffering makes great art- and that is the only way. Method acting’s blinkered vision creates a culture, whereby actors are engaged in a sick competition of who can suffer the most, the Academy Awards rewarding this fight to near-death.

But this may have to change. Emilia Clarke’s recent revelations regarding sex-scenes and nudity called for greater regulation and discussion of filmmaking culture and practices. In a #MeToo landscape one must remember that whilst cinema can be art, film sets are workplaces.

Nobody wants to deprive the world of Robert De Niro’s method actor inspired performance in Taxi Driver (1976), which certainly benefitted from his experience driving New York cabs. But method acting can’t remain a male-dominated competition for who can suffer the most, regardless of its impact on performance.

Laurence Olivier once questioned Dustin Hoffmann’s character-driven decision to stay awake for 72 hours, saying “My dear boy why don’t you just try acting.” God only knows what he would have said had Hoffmann sent him a dead rat and used condoms.

The below clip from Vox seeks to answer the question of why the Academy of Arts & Sciences seem to love practitioners of the Strassberg method.

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