How far is taking it too far when method acting? asks James Davies

Y9 Scholar’s Project:  How far is taking it too far when method acting?


For my Scholar’s project I will be discussing the topic “how far is taking it too far when method acting?” What does this mean? This means: how long does it take to affect your mental health, how long could it take to affect your social and family life like relationships and how long can it take to completely change who you are? To understand what any of this means and the explanations for any of this, you must first understand what method acting is.

Method acting is a form of acting which aspires to give the most realistic performance both emotionally and physically. This is usually achieved through extensive research and out of rehearsal practice, learning the tendencies and traits of the character you’re playing. This can be done with both roles depicting real people and parts that have been created for a piece, it’s also used on stage and on screen. This technique has been used in a wide range of ways from sitting at a desk all day studying every detail of a part to hours spent in the character’s head space. The method is still rather controversial and some still believe that it shouldn’t be advised to use this technique. Probably one of the main reasons why it is still partially frowned upon is because of it’s origin.

The Method originated in Russia and was initially created by Russian Theatre Practitioner, Konstantin Stanislavski. Back then, it was quite a different system, Stanislavski’s original idea was for actors to tap into their memories and recall how they felt at those times, whether that time was first learning to ride a bike to something as traumatic as maybe a family member dying. He believed this made a more convincing performance for the actor and audience, rather than sinking into the thoughts of their character and losing touch. Stanislavski said in his Autobiography “My Life in Art “, he mentioned his first performance on stage, saying how he disappeared into his own thoughts and imagination, creating the illusion that he was an Oscar winner in his mind, but he rushed his lines and gave a terrible performance. He then believed that if the actor recollected those emotions that they had felt, they could use them in their performance and be less likely to forget where they were. This system was adopted by Americans like Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler after they were taught by some of Stanislavski’s students, Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya. However, the version of The Method that they taught to the Americans was an unfinished version of Stanislavski’s system and didn’t involve as much of an understanding of the human Psychology and how tapping into possibly traumatizing memories could affect it. Nowadays, people will use more of their characters memories/experiences which can cause other things to happen rather than delving deep into their own.

One way that people method act is to spend hours and sometimes days, even weeks physically becoming their character to attempt to enter the mindset of their role fully. One such actor is Daniel Day-Lewis, renowned for his method acting. He has used the method many times and is known to put himself through physical strain for a role. One of Day-Lewis’s most infamous uses of the method was during the filming of “Gangs of New York”, a film where he played a crime lord know as Bill ‘The Butcher’, he reportedly: became a butcher’s apprentice; Hired a circus to learn how to throw knives; only wore century appropriate clothes, even if it meant contracting pneumonia; refusing to take modern medicine to stop the pneumonia and finally, parading around Rome (where it was filmed) as Bill, getting into fights with people. Next, Day-Lewis played Gerry Conlon, an Irish man sentenced to prison who spends 15 years proving his innocence. To fully become Gerry, Day-Lewis spent 2 nights in a cell and apparently had the crew shouting insults at him. He then reportedly was interviewed for 9 hours straight. I believe this is taken too far as he is endangering himself and other people, both mentally and physically. If you look at the example of “Gangs of New York” Day-Lewis put himself in danger by refusing modern, warm clothing and refusing the medicine after getting pneumonia, this puts him in danger. Again, it also said that he would start fights with citizens, and if the article is anything to go by, he would be fully in character, believing he was fighting as Bill ‘The Butcher’, and so would probably not be holding back. Also, in the lesser known film “The Ballad of Jack and Rose”, he played a father who lived on a remote island with his daughter, for this role, Day-Lewis lived isolated for the majority of filming, putting relationships and possibly his mind at risk. This is especially odd as his wife was the director of this film. Another good example to look at would be his role “My left Foot” where he played a disabled artist and spent much of the filming in a wheelchair.

Following on from the last point, another actor that has used the method is Heath ledger. Although also using the method, Ledger seemed to focus more on the mental aspects of the technique, diving into the characters mind through research and practice rather than straining yourself physically, but he did this to an extent which could be seen as worrying. One time when the actor used the method in this way was when working on the 2008 superhero thriller “The Dark Knight”. In this film Ledger plays The Joker, a psychopath who is a sadistic, self-proclaimed “agent of chaos”. For the role, Ledger said himself that he spent months locked away in hotel room creating what he calls a “character diary” in which he would make notes about the character and how to easily slip into the role, this included a backstory Ledger made. In this example, Ledger also studied other psychopaths at the time to get in the mindset of a real one, one that may or may not have committed atrocities. After the filming of “The Dark Knight” had concluded, Ledger was left in a bad mental state from his dedication The Method, some believe that this was what led to his death a few months after the filming which occurred from an overdose. In my opinion, this is unnecessary and bad for the actors mental health, especially the use of real-life psychopaths. Furthermore, in the film Brokeback mountain Ledger spent so much time becoming the character that some directions, and regards for personal safety, were forgotten. In one scene, Ledger’s character was supposed to turn and cry into a wall but ledger “Really wanted to go there” according to co-star Anne Hathaway and instead punched the wall, almost breaking his hand. Although delivering an outstanding performance, the actor put his own safety below the scene in importance which is rather careless and should try to never be done. Back to the point, Ledger has put not only his physical health but his hand in danger in his pursuit of entering the mind of a character, but both have resulted from his possibly too in-depth research. While it may be entertaining to watch on the TV or in the cinema, the mental turmoil that the actor could have gone through must always be kept to a minimum.

There are still lots of actors who did and still do use The Method the correct way as it was intended. One would be Marlon Brando, who is acclaimed for many roles such as Vito Corleone in “The Godfather”, Colonel Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now” and Terry Malloy in “On The Waterfront”. Brando would think about how a character would react in a situation and not just how the audience want them to react, thinking logically and using the character’s mindset without having to physically or mentally endanger himself. An early example of Brando’s style of The Method was during one of his acting classes with Stella Adler, considered a pioneer of method acting. She asked the class to act like they were chickens and a bomb was about to land, the majority of the class ran around clucking and shouting, as the audience would expect and like to see. On the other hand, Brando sat in a corner and pretended to lay and egg, when asked why he did this he said “I’m a chicken-what do I know about bombs?”. Continuing from the previous point, Brando would use his own experiences and emotions, but mainly his knowledge of the character he was playing, if he was familiar with a character he would then be able to logically react in ways that the character would, like with the chicken example. This is different compared to other actors who use the modern day version of the method which is quite different from its original design. The most common form of method acting nowadays is done physically, where actors put themselves in the same physical situations as the character and then recreate that on stage/camera. The problem with this is that they are just creating the emotions they would feel in that situation rather than the character so they are acting as themselves when they emulate it. Also, Brando’s form of the method is less endangering as it doesn’t involve taking yourself to your physical limit or entering the mind of a psychopath for example, it’s just memories and reason.

Compared to these extremely dedicated actors, there are still a great number of performances that are without the use of the Method and still just as convincing. One such actor is Laurence Olivier. Olivier has contributed much to the acting world over his career, even having a theatre in the national theatre in London named after him. Olivier both directed, produced and starred in movies. He never used the method, he even disliked it. He got an Oscar for his role in Hamlet as The titular Prince of Denmark. For many years, this version was considered the definitive Hamlet on the big screen. There have been some more recent examples that could contend with it for that title but this doesn’t denote Olivier’s performance. However, the performance that I am considering for this is his role as Dr Christian Szell in Marathon Man, this is because he starred alongside prominent Method actor Dustin Hoffman. Marathon Man is about marathon runner and history student Thomas “Babe” Levy who ends up caught in an international scandal, involving Nazi war criminal Dr Christian Szell, because of his brother’s work. Olivier has been credited for this performance many times and it is one of the first roles to come to mind when thinking of Laurence Olivier. The role Was very gritting and would have sent any method actor into a deep and dark mindset from which they might not have escaped, but Olivier handled the role with caution and gave a brilliant performance. Not only was the role very impressive and difficult, he was working alongside a devout method actor, Dustin Hoffman. One conversation that the pair had has been quoted many times. After being asked by Olivier how a previous scene in which his character had stayed up for 3 days had gone, Hoffman admitted he too hadn’t slept for 72 hours, after which Olivier replied “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?”. This implies that the modern era of method acting isn’t even acting as it was meant to be when created by Konstantin Stanislavski, it’s now just copying.

In conclusion, I think that taking it too far while method would be if it endangers you in any way whether that be putting yourself in dangerous and isolating positions or attempting to enter a deep and dark mindset, if it puts your mental or physical health at risk then you have taken a step too far. I would advise using a method similar to that of Marlon Brando however you could research real-life examples of people similar to the character you are portraying, but don’t feel the need to try to be like one of the real-life examples, just think with reason and remember the role you’re playing. Either that or not even use the method. As shown by Laurence Olivier and  many other actors, the method is not necessary for a good performance and even if you attempt it in safe circumstances, it is still very easy to put yourself into those dangerous situations because you may be tempted to make your performance as realistic as possible.






Daniel Day-Lewis:
Heath Ledger:
Marlon Brando:
Laurence Olivier:

A Dream of Passion by Lee Strasberg

On method acting by Edward Dwight Easty