Talking to a self-proclaimed method actor can be difficult work. Listening to someone talk about the importance of their ‘craft’ is like listening to someone talk about really discovering themselves on their gap year. On most accounts it sounds increasingly repetitive, obnoxious and self-unaware.
Method acting, when taken to its extreme, seems to embody a philosophy that places an actor’s craft above all else. Its perceived pretentiousness is grounded in its self-importance. Most of its practitioners do not seem generously enlightened by the fruits of method acting, but seem to bestow it with some sort of special, ethereal quality, which only they have been lucky enough to catch onto. It makes method actors seem like giants and the rest of us seem like mere mortals who didn’t quite get the memo.
In turn, method acting gets extensive, yet bad, press. There are numerous examples of its extremity. In The Jacket Adrien Brody subjected himself to hours wearing a straight jacket locked in a morgue drawer. Whilst filming The Man In The Moon, Jim Carrey adopted the persona of Andy Kaufman full-time, alienating his co-workers and his girlfriend in the process. Daniel Day-Lewis chose to use a wheelchair and to be spoon-fed off camera throughout the entire shooting of My Left Foot, the former decision resulting in two broken ribs. Simply put by Cracked magazine, method acting may as well be “the art of torturing yourself to prove you’re an artist”.
You can’t deny its success though. Daniel Day-Lewis is probably the most famous contemporary actor who employs method acting, and with three Academy Award wins under his belt method acting clearly works for him. He is amongst a whole arsenal of reputable actors such as Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson, who all swear by method acting. These actors obviously have their critics, but for the most part they are well-respected, if not idolised. Many method actors are not even identified as being method actors, and therefore method acting is only thought of in relation to its most famously extreme practitioners.
Its associated pretentious is also a little misplaced. Lee Strasberg aptly summarised that “method acting is what all actors have always done whenever they acted well”. Method acting refers to approaches actors take to develop the thoughts and feelings of their characters in order to create more authentic performances. Obviously there are more varied and complex definitions of method acting, but good acting does seem to encompass method acting to some degree. A good performance seems inseparable from really understanding and knowing a character. The whole aim of method acting is authenticity, and its spirit simply makes sense.
The “Method” may imply a singular, specific approach to method acting, but this is simply untrue. We could start discussing Constantin Stanislavski, Lee Strasberg and their other significant counterparts in detail, but there’s no need to get too technical here. The “Method” and method acting are two different things. What’s important is to recognise that different methods work for different actors. No one is saying Day-Lewis is necessarily doing it right, even if he is winning Oscars.
Method actors swim in the same turbulent waters as say existentialists and vegetarians; their cause seems to many, at best, obnoxious and irritating and, at worst, utter nonsense. Method acting seems to suffer from the same woes, in that its most basic definition is mired by the spirit of its most extreme and dare I say frustrating followers.
Method actors, just take heed of one simple suggestion. We get it, method acting can be pretty good, if not even incredibly productive. Some people just don’t need to harp on about it so much.
Photograph: David James.