Austin Butler is a serious contender, not just for the 2023 Best Actor Oscar, but for Doing the Absolute Most when it comes to his method acting. Nearly two years after Elvis wrapped filming, Butler retained The King’s thick Mississippi drawl. Method acting in general is mostly reserved for guys. And that reflects how male actors’ performances have historically been taken more seriously, and they’ve been allowed to take far more extravagant liberties for the sake of their art. A woman could never get away with Austin Butler’s style of method acting and how that exposes a bigger double standard.
Austin Butler is a serious contender, not just for the 2023 Best Actor Oscar, but for Doing the Absolute Most when it comes to his method acting. Nearly two years after Elvis wrapped filming, Butler retained The King’s thick Mississippi drawl. Setting aside what we all might feel about that, let’s take a beat, and just imagine if an actress did this. Yes, Austin Butler has been mocked on social media; still, let’s face it, the guy’s still getting awards, praise from the Presley family, and puff piece after puff piece. But if a female actor didn’t see her family for three years, cried on set, spent all day every day obsessively listening to recordings of their own voice, and carried on in their character’s accent for more than a year? Let’s be real. She’d be called insane.
In fact, method acting in general is mostly reserved for guys. And that reflects how male actors’ performances have historically been taken more seriously, and they’ve been allowed to take far more extravagant liberties for the sake of their art. Here’s our take on how a woman could never get away with Austin Butler’s style of method acting and how that exposes a bigger double standard.
Austin Butler is rightfully getting his flowers for a star-making performance as Elvis Presley. It almost seems like he was born to play this role…even his ex-Vanessa Hudgens thought so. Except for one tiny detail…Butler was born in Anaheim…California. So…how did he turn from that to this? A little thing called method acting.
After being cast in the coveted role of The King in July 2019, Austin Butler, then a relative unknown, decided to throw himself wholeheartedly into the role. Elvis was supposed to start shooting in March of 2020 in Australia, and when it was delayed, Butler decided not only to stay in Australia, but also to stay in character. While quarantining, Butler pinned photos of Elvis’s life all over the walls, and used his alone time to work on the all-important Elvis voice. He memorized interviews, speeches, and repeated them until they sounded exact. But that wasn’t the only way he showed his dedication.
Austin Butler: I had months where I wouldn’t talk to anybody, and when I did, the only thing I was ever thinking about was Elvis. - Variety
But turns out, that level of intense preparation and intensity has downsides. According to Butler, his body began shutting down after wrap, forcing him to be bedridden for a week. He also couldn’t shake the character. When he arrived for his next role, director Cary Fukunaga said, that Butler was still “very much Elvis”. As the world would soon learn, Butler just…kept on going with the voice. And the internet began to notice.
Austin Butler: I don’t think I sound like him still, but I must because I hear it a lot. - Variety
After months, Butler finally admitted that maybe he sounded a little different. Even his dialect coach chimed in, saying that because he spent three years in the voice, it could be there forever. But at the same time, he was earning rave reviews for his performance, and commended for his dedication. Elvis’s own family were thrilled with the Method details he captured of the real person.
Pricilla Presley: About three fourths into the picture I’m going, this is amazing, he had Elvis down to a tee. - E! News
In February, Butler won the Golden Globe, and sounded like this while accepting the award. He also won a People’s Choice Award, was nominated for a critic’s choice award, and entered the running for the Oscars, SAG awards, BAFTAs, and even the grammys.
The performance and the method became deeply intertwined, and deeply respected. To understand why, here’s a brief history of Method Acting, how it became synonymous with prestige and acting as Art, and how it got twisted up with masculinity.
When you hear the phrase Method Acting today, your mind typically goes to one of the following: classic movie stars like James Dean and Marlon Brando, the young guns of Hollywood’s Renaissance like Dustin Hoffman and Robert Deniro, or the modern actors who have taken method acting to the extreme like Succesion’s Jeremy Strong or Suicide Squad’s Jared Leto.
But to understand how we got to Austin Butler permanently altering his vocal cords, we have to step back in time. In 1906, Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski compiled a series of his acting techniques into what he called “the system”. In basic terms, Stanislavski believed that actors should experience and feel what their character is going through. He taught actors to find motivations for the character and to use their own memories to draw out a true emotional response.
After Stanislovski took off in the US in the 30s, nearly every every big actor of Hollywood’s golden age studied under one of three acting teachers –Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner and Lee Strasberg– who were closely associated with Stanislovski’s ideas, eventually known as “The Method”.
Jenna Mulroney: Because I will be employing the “method” method of acting. - 30 Rock
One of Adler’s students, Marlon Brando, revolutionized acting forever through his performance as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. To this day, Marlon Brando’s acting isn’t just seen as the pinnacle of the Method, but even as the epitome of acting – the man who tortured himself for his Art – as well as a raw, rugged masculine ideal [“
Edward Norton: He changed the idea of the type of person male actors wanted to be. They wanted to be visceral, not polished; they wanted to be masculine; they wanted to be masculine. - The Joe Rogan Experience
And he had a profound impact on the next generation of actors, including Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert De Niro. In his preparation for Taxi Driver, a young De Niro not only got his cab driving license, but also worked 12-hour shifts for over a month in New York City. For Raging Bull, the actor famously gained sixty pounds for the role. So De Niro tipped the scales, no pun intended, toward a new way of Method acting that now involved changing your physicality and living as your character beyond the confines of “Action” and “Cut”. Daniel Day-Lewis famously doesn’t break character while filming a movie. He remained in his wheelchair during and after the shoot of “My Left Foot”. He spent half a year teaching himself how to skin animals and build canoes in preparation for “The Last of the Mohicans.” Following in those footsteps, Leonardo DiCaprio ate a raw bison liver while filming “The Revenant”.
And the Oscars have shown time and time again just how much they love not only method actors, but the legend around a performance.
Tian Wang: Since 1951 there have been 132 Oscars awarded for Best Actor and Best Actress, and 59 have gone to actors with some training in method acting. And 33 of these Oscars method acting techniques to prepare for the role. - Vox
But one can’t help but think that if Meryl Streep kept speaking like Miranda Priestly, if Claire Foy kept speaking in Received Pronunciation, or if Margot Robbie kept her thick Brooklyn accent, the public would see them as mentally unstable instead of a bit extra in a charming and endearing way. So where are all the female method actors?
Women have been studying method acting just as long as the men have, but they don’t receive nearly as much of the respect, awards, or legendary status as Actors. Elaine Stritch, Candice Bergen, and Cloris Leachment studied under Stella Adler. Diane Keaton, Joanne Woodward, and Grace Kelly under Sanford Meisner. And Strasberg taught Anne Bancroft, Jane Fonda, Ellen Burstyn, and even Marilyn Monroe.
While all these women are of course Hollywood icons, history has forgotten that they were method – both because we inherently associate it so deeply with masculinity and because women’s performances just aren’t as idolized as men’s, nor taken as seriously.
Actresses have tended to use the method in the way Stanislavski intended – seeking a deep internal understanding of their character’s inner life, motivations, and backstory. The only extreme external methods women are allowed to do? Change their bodies.
There are articles and award-campaigns around Method women’s performances, but they almost exclusively revolve around actresses’ astonishing weight loss or weight gain – or some version of physical transformation. Extra points if a beautiful actress makes herself quote unquote ugly. Charlize Theron gained thirty pounds for Monster, and “uglified herself” - Won the Oscar.
Rosamund Pike lost and gained 13 pounds three separate times while filming Gone Girl. Oscar nom. Anne Hathaway lost 25 pounds for Les Miz and shaved her head and won the Oscar. Natalie Portman lost 20 pounds for Black Swan. Oscar. Rooney Mara underwent lip, brow, nose, ear and nipple piercings to play The Girl with the Dragon tattoo. Oscar nom.
And Hilary Swank? She not only lived as a man for a month and got her body weight down to 7 percent for Boys Don’t Cry, but she also gained 23 pounds of muscle for Million Dollar Baby. Oscar for both. But it’s worth saying that none of these actresses had clickbait-y stories about their behavior, other than their body modifications. The Collider article, “30 Method Acting Moments That Went Too Far” features just four female performances. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ulJXiB5i_q0 There was a time where men were kind]
And this is because extreme Method acting often entails behaviors that just aren’t accepted from women. Sometimes the male Method actor mainly tortures himself – like when Adrian Brody sold all his belongings for The Pianist, Colin Firth couldn’t get rid of the stutter he spoke in for The King’s Speech, began having headaches and pinched a nerve, or Gary Oldman developed nicotine poisoning from smoking so many cigars while living as Winston Churchill.(All three won the Oscars.)
But there are also the stunts – when they’re making others suffer. Sometimes it’s relatively minor inconveniencing – For Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis forced the cast, crew, even Steven Spielberg himself to call him Mr. President. Sometimes it’s more demanding – on the set of My Left Foot, Day-Lewis played a character with cerebral palsy, the crew was “forced to feed him his food, and even carried him between sets”. And sometimes it’s worse – Dustin Hoffman verbally harassed and slapped Meryl Streep on the set of Kramer vs. Kramer. Again, he won the Oscar. Jim Carrey remained in character as Andy Kaufman 24/7 while filming Man on the Moon – leading to drunken tirades, crashing a convertible, and even storming into Steven Spielberg’s office demanding to talk about Jaws. Golden Globe nomination.
Only recently has there been growing concern, criticism, and at times backlash to extreme method acting.
Sikowitz: This method acting exercise is becoming tedious. - Victorious
When Jared Leto terrorized the crew and costars of Suicide Squad with hijinks included gifting Margot Robbie a live rat, sending a dead hog to castmates, and handing Will Smith an envelope full of bullets, this was pitched by the PR team as evidence of his work ethic and genius. But the story didn’t quite land that way. To many, the behavior came across as self-indulgent and self-important, if not disturbing – and Leto’s heavily cut-down performance wasn’t gushed over.
In December of 2021, Jeremy Strong’s method acting received a huge online backlash after a condescending New Yorker profile described examples like Strong reportedly wanting to be hit with real tear gas, in a crowd of extras, while filming the trial of the Chicago 7. Even his Succession costars seemed to exude some judgment and concern.
Brian Cox has even quoted Laurence Olivier’s famous quip to Method adherent Dustin Hoffman, “Why don’t you just try acting, my dear boy?”
Still, while Strong faced ribbing on social media, he also got a lot of people criticizing the article and coming to his defense – including big stars like Anne Hathaway, Aaron Sorkin, and Jessica Chastain. And he won a Golden Globe just a month after the profile came out.
So the only real consequences any male Method actor has faced is occasionally being made fun of online. It’s easy to imagine a woman being fired for Jared Leto’s Suicide Squad stunts. Women have been blacklisted for far less. The fact is today’s actresses have two jobs, to perform as their character when the cameras are rolling, and to perform as a level-headed woman while they’re not. To be labeled difficult is a death sentence for an actress.
Katherine Heigl: At the time when I was sort of mouthing off and voicing my opinion about whatever whatever, I didn’t quite realize how fast it could spread like a wildfire almost. - The Meredith Vieira Show
The closest female comparison we have to a Butler-like Method Mania comes from Mother Monster herself. In 2021, when Lady Gaga starred as Patrizia Reggiani in Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci, between pre-production and filming, Gaga stayed in character for a year and a half and spoke with an Italian accent for nine months. Like Butler’s awards campaign, Gaga’s centered on elaborate tales about her extreme method acting. Living as Patrizia included writing an 80-page autobiography, carbo-loading with pasta and bread, and taking photographs of things Patrizia would find beautiful.
But there’s a reason that she’s the only actress with this publicized level of stunt-ery. And that’s because well…she’s Lady Gaga. A star who became famous for her stunts, her costumes, her aura. It’s part of the package.
Also, crucially, Gaga’s accent did not continue after filming. And still, the results of Gaga’s and Butler’s publicity turned out quite differently.
For her efforts, Lady Gaga received mostly positive reviews, with many expecting an Oscar nomination. But critics were harsh when it came to the voice, with some calling it “Borrowed from Mario Brothers”, “infamous” and “Slavic”. So she puts in the work, tortures herself, goes what most would consider to be too far. Sounds like the male formula for an Oscar right? Wrong. While there’s no way to know why Gaga ultimately didn’t get the nomination, it’s clear that Austin Butler was perceived as taking his work so seriously, and Lady Gaga on the other hand, was seen as taking herself so seriously.
Method acting changed the craft forever, leading to more realistic, naturalistic, and thoughtful interpretation of character. But somehow it also transformed into a way to show off one’s masculinity through endurance, hardship, and suffering. The problem is women aren’t allowed to go to the insane lengths of impossible demands and erratic behavior as men with method acting. So they’re not considered to be as dedicated. Quite the catch-22.
It’s just one of many discrepancies that still exist in Hollywood, like how films centered on male characters win more awards, actors and actresses are still not paid equally, and this year there are, again, no females nominated for Best Director. Maybe one day we’ll live in a world where actresses could send bullets to their costars or crash a car in the name of Art. But for now, they’ll just have to act.