What It Means To Be ‘Method’

For many, including myself, when you hear “Method acting” you instantly think of the top echelon of actors; the ones who have mastered their craft after years of training and take it so seriously that they immerse themselves in their performances unlike any other. They transform their bodies by either gaining or losing weight for roles, looking almost unrecognizable. Stay in character when cameras stop rolling, research roles by doing puzzling exercises. When we catch wind of these efforts it’s often thought, that person is going Method. But recently it dawned on me that we may have veered from the understanding of what this treasured acting style really is.

It all started for me when I came across this 2010 Edward Norton interview on Vulture (what, you don’t deep-dive your favorite actors?):

NORTON: I’ve never called myself a Method actor. I never got much out of that whole line of thought, personally. The problem is there’s this romance, this sort of legend of the Method and the Actor’s Studio and Lee Strasberg. But the truth is that actual distinction about what these different ideas were, and what is what, has been totally lost. You’re describing it correctly, but the truth is, every lazy entertainment journalist, basically they say that someone’s a “method actor” if they do anything …

VULTURE: If they gain ten pounds …

NORTON: Yeah. Ironically, it’s sort of the opposite. The Method as Lee Strasberg described it was the idea that your emotional memory and your sense memory was the conduit through which you accessed all of what you needed for the work — and it was the deepest and most intense way for you to bring out the deep truth of a certain piece of work.

VULTURE: Do you encounter people who do it that way?

NORTON: No, that’s the irony. I haven’t worked with a person in my career who I would say is a Method actor.

It’s kind of hard for me to imagine Edward Norton hasn’t worked with a Method actor (in fact, he has, it was De Niro), regardless though, the point is he wouldn’t know it because as he points out the technique is more internal than external.

So what does it really mean to be Method?

Some history. The style of acting that would become known as Method has evolved over the eras; first practiced by the Greeks and then becoming more defined in the modern era by Russian actor and theater director Constantin Stanislavski post World War II. Finally, actor and teacher Lee Strasberg used Stainislavski’s techniques to form what we now call “The Method.” Which is defined on The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute website as being a technique that “trains actors to use their imagination, senses and emotions to conceive of characters with unique and original behavior, creating performances grounded in the human truth of the moment.”

Thanks to Strasberg’s teachings at The Actor’s Studio to the likes of our co-founder Robert De Niro as well as other acting legends like Al Pacino, Ellen Burstyn, Dustin Hoffman, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, to name a few, Strasberg was suddenly thrust into the spotlight and regarded as the “father of Method acting in America.” (There are other acting styles that take from Stainislavski’s technique, the most notable are those created by Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner, however neither are considered Method acting.)

But the definition of Method acting would begin to be confusing to the laymen in the late ’70s and early ’80s when Strasberg’s alumni went beyond his key message of capturing a character’s essence internally by also molding the character physically. The most legendary is De Niro’s transformation as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull from chiseled boxer in his prime to overweight wash-up after he hangs up the gloves.

De Niro’s decision to gain tremendous weight instead of having the make-up department create the illusion was a jolt for movie fans and aspiring actors alike. It was tangible proof that he was one of the most dedicated actors of his time, launching a hunger by fellows actors to physically embody a character, not just spiritually. And because De Niro trained under Strasberg people concluded, this is Method acting!

What followed would be decades of actors doing outlandish things for roles. Matt Damon admitted that he almost did major harm to his body when he dropped weight for his role in Courage Under Fire, you may recall Christian Bale’s skeleton form in The Machinist, Jim Carrey supposedly annoyed the hell out of everyone working on Man on the Moon because he always stayed in his Andy Kaufman character. There are countless others to bring up, but I can’t leave out perhaps the person who goes beyond everyone else: Daniel Day-Lewis. We’ve heard everything from him being carried to set while playing disabled artist Christy Brown in My Left Foot, learning how to make a canoe to prepare for his role in Last of the Mohicans, to staying in character even on the ride home from the set of Lincoln, as Jared Harris (Lane Pryce from Mad Men) told The New York Times: “At the end of the day sometimes we’d ride back in the car, and he’d stay in character but talk about Mad Men…”

It’s safe to say not all of these actors studied under Strasberg or trained at The Actor’s Studio or The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, which he and his wife Anna founded in 1969. But we’ve pretty much lumped these performances together in the popular lexicon as being Method acting.

“Lee never called it Method acting,” Anna Strasberg, who is also the Artistic Director of the Strasberg Institute, told me over the phone last week. “At the end of his life he gave in and he said, ‘okay,’ but he wanted you to learn how to express your impulses and your imagination without having to explain them. It’s your work, you have to learn the exercises and once you learn them you use them the way you need to.” When I asked if that meant transforming your body for a role or staying in character when off set, she answered, “Everyone does it their own way. There are exercises to feel trapped by fat. You don’t need to gain the weight.”

Strasberg recalls going to see an early screening of Raging Bull with Lee and De Niro. “Lee was asking him things that he would ask an actor that he knew was a master at what they were doing, and they discussed it. Lee would go, ‘But you know there are exercises you can do,’ and they both laughed about it and went on to something else.”

Geoffrey Horne teaches the second-year students at the Strasberg Institute and is a 30-year acting veteran. He got his big break playing young Lieutenant Joyce in the classic The Bridge on the River Kwai, but you’ll likely remember him best for his final role, playing the elder man Kristy Swanson is cheating on Adam Sandler with in Big Daddy (Sandler was one of Horne’s students). He trained under Lee Strasberg at 21 in a class that included Mike Nichols and Geraldine Page. For Horne, Method acting is all about realizing that you are interesting, something Strasberg made him believe more than anyone else in his life. “I was brought up in a middle class way where what you did for a job or went to school was important. Those things meant nothing to Lee Strasberg,” Horne told me. “He was the first person to tell me I was interesting, not because of my looks or how tall I was or how thin I was, it was I, me the inner Geoffrey. I had never experienced that before. That was a revelation to me; that anybody found me interesting. It was astonishing.” And that is what Horne has been dedicated to teaching his students for the last three decades. He does not want his students to get caught up in the antics professional actors do for their roles, but to focus on the basic exercises.

“People have a misunderstanding of what the Method is,” he says. “The formula is when you start working as an actor you say to yourself, ‘If I was in that character’s situation how would I behave?’ Then you keep on working and say, ‘What do I have to do so I can behave that way?’ But not to do some fake thing where the audience is only seeing the imitation of something and not experiencing anything.”

But Strasberg reiterates that every actor has their own truth, and how they get to that truth once they’ve mastered the craft is up to them. “Once a person learns the work it’s theirs. Lee used to say, ‘It’s not mine, it’s what the actor gets from it and gives to it.’”

De Niro rarely talks about acting. But earlier this year at a 20th anniversary screening of his directorial debut, A Bronx Tale, which we put on with First Time Fest, a brave soul did ask him during the post screening Q&A about his approach to acting and his thoughts on actors who go too far for their roles.

“I don't know what the dangers are because I've never experienced that,” De Niro answered. “If you're saying somebody gets so involved in their role that they are going to wind up losing themselves and go crazy, I've never seen that ever. Ever. Ever. Ever. I think actors, the best thing you can do, I always feel, is at the end of the day whether it's Stella Adler or Lee Strasberg, either technique—and they overlap a lot—at the end of the day actors use whatever can work for them. When you are in the moment you have to use what's good for you. You can think about your mother that died last week, you can think about this you can think about that, my two things are you don't hurt yourself, you don't hurt others and everything else is okay. Whatever your wildest imagination can make you arrive at that point at that scene, that's fine.”

It might be too late to stop actors from changing their pants size for a role. Along with the attention it brings, many times for top actors it can summon little gold statues (what’s up, McConaughey!). But if anything, aspiring actors reading this should understand that being Method is not a ticket to greatness. Like any profession it takes a decade of work to become successful. Horne says no actor becomes great until they are in their 30s, regardless the recent hot stars popular culture wants to hype. So put aside those aspirations to literally starve yourself or spend time in a mental ward for a role and just concentrate on doing the work. Your body and psyche will thank you.

[Photos: (top-bottom) Lee Strasberg, Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, Strasberg in class]