One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 83
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
Method acting is easier to identify than it is to define, at least for the layman who doesn’t study or research the craft. Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously opined when asked to describe the kind of material that exemplified obscenity, “I know it when I see it.”
For a time, this idea of “seeing” a fine performance referred primarily to noting the physical transformations and lifestyle changes that an actor would go through for a role, the kind of purely visual “acting” that has become very identifiable with method acting over the years. Think of Robert De Niro in 1980’s Raging Bull, where his preparation for the role of self-destructive middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta included De Niro training with LaMotta himself, competing in three actual fights in a Brooklyn ring (De Niro won two of them) and then De Niro binge eating for four months to increase his weight from 145 to 215 pounds in order to portray Jake in his older years.
There’s more to method madness than just gaining a lot of weight and getting in the ring, of course, as I learned in theater director and historian Isaac Butler’s fascinating new book, The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act.
The history of the acting style primarily originated with Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavski, who co-founded the Moscow Arts Theatre in 1898. The MAT drew acclaim for its production of such Anton Chekhov masterpieces as The Seagull, Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard.
Aimed at producing a more realistic acting, as opposed to a showier, more heightened approach, “the system” (as Stanislavski named the training he developed) focused on affective memory, concentration and in-depth script analysis. To achieve emotional truth in the presentation, the actor would have to mine his own life experiences and memories to correlate with the character’s motivations and actions. Bringing this kind of strength to a character, Stanislavsky stressed, requires a strong psychological and, yes, physical commitment.
In America, Polish-born theater director, actor and teacher Lee Strasberg of New York City’s Actor’s Studio organization (which Strasberg helmed from 1951 until his death in 1982) was supportive of Stanislavski’s system. Strasberg adapted it to the U.S. using his own “method.” Unique to Strasberg’s technique was his insistence that actors go beyond emotional memory and use a “substitution” technique to temporarily become the characters they are portraying.
This is heady stuff for those of us who don’t act, though we can usually identify strategy when we see it. One of the first times I “saw” it was in Marlon Brando’s performance as Stanley Kowalski in the 1951 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire. Directed by Actor’s Studio co-founder Elia Kazan, it is generally considered to be the first major example of method acting in the cinema.
And what an example! Brando’s heated portrayal of Kowalski is dripping with emotion and power. Brando’s Kowalski is always moving, always sweating, always fiddling about, always on the brink of some kind of anger or violence. As strong as the material and dialogue is, it is Brando’s simple presence and the apparent melding of his external self to the character that clearly stirring inside of him that draws us in and dazzles. It’s that presence that made Brando eminently watchable in so many films. And not just classics like On the Waterfront (1954), The Young Lions (1958), Burn! (1969) and The Godfather (1972), but also such relatively unheralded pictures as Bedtime Story (1964), The Night of the Following Day (1969) and The Missouri Breaks (1976).
There are probably hundreds of well-known acolytes of the “Method”—either formally trained or informally observational—who have let it loose on the big screen. From Al Pacino to Adrien Brody, Lee Grant to Lupita Nyong’o, Ben Gazzara to Brad Pitt—they’re out there, sweating it out and going through God-knows-what in their heads to deliver the perfect performance.
Tales of the preparation and behavior of method actors in the cinema have a long history, and the talented performers at the center of these stories are usually comfortable in explaining their approach or confirming what others may have been saying. (Well, maybe not Brando or De Niro.)
What follows are a half-dozen of my favorites. The performances are all outstanding.
Trust me—I know it when I see it.
Dustin Hoffman in "Marathon Man" (1976)
The scenes where Hoffman’s graduate student is kidnapped and tortured by Laurence Olivier’s Nazi dentist and his crew was the basis for one of the most famous tales of a method actor’s methods. Upon Olivier asking Hoffman how he prepared for the scene, wherein his character had been awake for three nights in a row, Hoffman revealed that he had stayed up for 72 hours to get into character. “My dear boy,” Olivier reportedly replied. “Why don’t you just try acting?”
Daniel Day-Lewis in "The Last of the Mohicans" (1992)
During the production of Michael Mann’s sweeping epic version of the James Fenimore Cooper classic in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, dedicated method actor Day-Lewis remained in character as the frontiersman Hawkeye around the clock. This included stalking, shooting and skinning his own meals, learning the crafts of his adopted Native American tribe, carrying a rifle with him in between takes and living in the wilderness over the course of the months-long shoot.
“If he didn’t shoot it, he didn’t eat it,” Mann once said of his leading man’s on-set dining ritual.
Hilary Swank in "Boys Don’t Cry" (1999)
In preparation for the audition for what would be her breakthrough role in the Kimberly Peirce-directed drama, Hilary Swank spent a month living as a man—cutting her hair, binding her breasts and sticking socks down the front of her jeans. Reportedly, she was so convincing that Swank’s longtime neighbors believed that the actress had invited her brother or her cousin to move in for the season.
Jim Carrey in "Man on the Moon" (1999)
After winning the part of iconoclastic comedian Andy Kaufman for the Milos Foreman-directed biopic, Jim Carrey was, in his own words, “out of my control.” Not only did Carrey star in character as Kaufman both on and off the set for the duration of the production, he would take it out into the public. One incident found him storming Steven Spielberg’s offices at Amblin Entertainment in Kaufman’s Tony Clifton character and demanding to see Spielberg so the two could talk about “that shark.” A 2017 documentary, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, details Carrey’s method approach to his role.
Forest Whitaker in "The Last King of Scotland" (2006)
In preparation for his role as Ugandan leader Idi Amin Dada in the 1970s, Whitaker lived for three months in Uganda, learned how to speak Swahili, mastered Amin’s East African accent and even learned how to play the accordion. During these preproduction months, Whitaker also gained 30 pounds, which probably wasn’t as much fun as it sounds. “I have to say, this was a role I played 24 hours a day almost, even in my sleep sometimes, because my dreams would include Idi Amin,” Whitaker said. “I guess I was totally consumed by the character toward the end.”
Kate Winslet in "The Reader" (2008)
For her role as a former guard at a Nazi concentration camp, Winslet immersed herself in documentaries about that period in German history. She also adopted a thick German accent and would speak to her kids that way when she got home after work. “It’s like I’ve escaped from a serious car accident and need to understand what has just happened,” Winslet later said about the months it took for her to “recover” from the role, which won her the Academy Award for Best Actress the following year.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.