Method acting has long been a point of contention in Hollywood – some say it’s pretentious and unnecessary, others think it’s an integral part of creating a real, truthful character on screen. After being heralded for decades, the method has in recent years begun receiving a lot of backlash. Even performances that are still seen as good are getting pushback for how the actors seemed to get a little too into their roles – like Joaquin Phoenix in Napoleon (or Joker or I’m Still Here), Jeremy Strong in Succession, or Austin Butler in Elvis. So what’s really behind this turn against method acting? Here’s our Take.
Chapter 1: So What Is Method Acting, Anyway?
If you’ve ever watched an interview where an (most often a male) actor talks about their process to get ready for a role, you may have heard the term “method acting” before. And many of the on-set horror stories you’ve heard where an actor acts like a jerk to their coworkers can, unfortunately, often be attributed to method acting as well. But what is method acting, where did it come from, and why is it so polarizing to actors and to audiences? Here’s a super quick overview:
Method acting as we know it derives from the work of Konstantin Stanislavski and three acting teachers who refined his method in their own ways: Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, and Lee Strasberg. Lee Strasberg is most affiliated with “the method” and his acting school even owns the trademark for that phrase. He studied Stanislavski’s System, which relied on “affective memory”: the technique where actors rely on their own intense memories and feelings to get into character. Even though Stanislavski eventually abandoned this technique, saying its results were inconsistent, Lee Strasberg adapted it to create his “Method”, which is closer to what actors study today – it’s what they talk about when they mention “getting into character.” Method acting going awry can often be attributed to sense memory: if actors are recalling their own trauma to get into character, one can imagine that even when the cameras aren’t rolling, it might be difficult for the actor to break out of their heightened emotional state and be able to joke around at craft services with their fellow actors or be kind to the hundreds of people working around them to ensure a successful production.
The second potential detrimental quality of method acting is sensory immersion: The Method calls for actors to get deep into the world of their characters, and then shut other stimuli out so they can recall their memories properly. For example, Robert DeNiro actually worked as a cab driver to prepare for his role in Taxi Driver. If an actor is so focused on staying in character, recalling their own memories, they may go to extreme lengths to prepare, making it even more difficult to “turn off” the character – like Austin Butler still having the Elvis voice two years after filming the titular role, or Jeremy Strong’s fellow Succession actors reacting negatively to his intense process. While in these cases the actor’s choice of method did clearly lead to some great performances, it does seem to have had a lasting impact on them, and not necessarily always a good one. And some of the most notable examples, the most trotted-out stories on press tours, are all about method acting having gone a bit awry.
Chapter 2: The Modern Method Acting Backlash
One reason actors are still “going method”? It produces results. Some of the most lauded actors of all time are method actors, like Marlon Brando, Daniel Day Lewis, and Natalie Portman. But nowadays, with the constant surveillance of social media (and even actors telling on themselves in interviews) the reports on the bad behavior that can arise as a result of method acting have reached a fever pitch, leading folks to question if The Method is really the best way to pull out a good performance.
Beyond what negative repercussions it might have for their own psyches, under the guise of “commitment to a role”, actors (usually men) seem to think they have an excuse to treat their fellow actors and crew poorly – sometimes to a very concerning degree. A case study in this petri dish of bad on-set behavior is none other than Jared Leto. For his performance in the popular movie Suicide Squad, Leto mailed some very unpleasant “gifts” to his coworkers, including sending them dead pigs. Viola Davis later explained it helped motivate her to “have her stuff together”, but we can’t help but think that some people in the cast must have found that quite traumatic. Yes, Suicide Squad ended up being successful, but successful enough to justify going that out of line? Wouldn’t that movie have made millions anyway because of its being a part of a mega-franchise?
But in the end, method acting doesn’t guarantee box office success or Oscars. Jared Leto also applied grueling method techniques to his role in Morbius, a movie that was universally panned, becoming a meme for how campy and terrible it was. Apparently, Leto was so method he would use his character’s crutches to limp to the bathroom between scenes, slowing down production and causing enough headaches for the crew that the film’s director had to step in and ask Leto to use a wheelchair for his bathroom breaks instead.
Getting too committed to your role may cause stress to fellow actors and crew, but it also seems to take a devastating toll mentally and physically for the actors who engage in it as well. Jeremy Strong’s performance as Kendall Roy in Succession elevated his profile, garnered him Emmy awards and nominations, and the respect of his fellow actors, but also led to some concerns. Succession had numerous incredibly funny moments but was ultimately a tragedy, especially for eldest boy Kendall who, spoiler alert: doesn’t get control of his dad’s company at the end of the series, even though he seemed like the heir apparent. Strong, who doesn’t identify as “method” but rather uses “a method” got immersed in the world of the show and maybe took it a little too seriously. A viral New Yorker profile seemed to mock how intensely committed he was to the character and the show. And he pulled a number of stunts on set: he even tried to jump in the river while shooting his final scene in the show, claiming he thought Kendall wanted to die.
This type of behavior is definitely extreme, and likely even negatively affected his fellow actors when he was so method he didn’t want to rehearse. What was even more telling about his behavior was the quotes from his fellow actors in the piece. Kieran Culkin who played Roman said “He puts himself in a bubble … That might be something that helps him. I can tell you that it doesn’t help me.” And Brian Cox who played Strong’s father might have been his biggest detractor, saying “It’s a particularly American disease, I think, this inability to separate yourself off while you’re doing the job…The result that Jeremy gets is always pretty tremendous. I just worry about what he does to himself. I worry about the crises he puts himself through in order to prepare.” This set off a media cycle, where Brian Cox had to give multiple interviews, reaffirming his beliefs about Strong’s acting, and his commitment to it. And Strong has spoken at length about the heaviness, the weight of carrying Kendall Roy around with him, saying in that profile that he takes the role of Kendall as seriously as he does his own life.
Another actor who seems to subscribe to the importance of the emotional pain of method acting is Joaquin Phoenix. His approach to acting (and even some parts of his public life) can at times make some audience members uncomfortable. Even when giving a best actor speech for Joker (a role that seems to make any actor who plays it go incredibly over the top) he seemed to get a little swept up in method acting. He lost a whopping 52 pounds for the role, which affected his mental health – he told The Associated Press, “Once you reach the target weight, everything changes. Like so much of what’s difficult is waking up every day and being obsessed over like 0.3 pounds. Right? And you really develop like a disorder.” And who can forget when he pretended to quit acting to become a rapper, which was actually just a ruse for the movie I’m Still Here? These stunts make other strange or concerning choices Phoenix has made, like asking the crew to treat extras like prisoners for a prison scene in Walk the Line – not letting them use the bathroom, eat, or drink – feel like part of a larger issue where this kind of behavior had been normalized to a degree that people stop really questioning it. He apparently even asked his dentist to help him shut his mouth on one side to help him create his jaw-clenching character in The Master and, unprompted, smashed a toilet on the set of that film. But even though Phoenix has won Oscars and Golden Globes for some of the roles we just mentioned, some critics claim his same sort of depressive anguish and intensity seems to permeate every role he inhabits, even turning the dictator Napoleon into a bit of a sad sack. While Phoenix is undeniably a talented actor, audiences and critics alike have begun to wonder if all of this is really necessary to eke out a great performance. Does he really think this level of personal investment is required to bring these characters to life, or is he using the roles as an excuse to act out negative behavior that wouldn’t be seen as acceptable outside of the haze of the method? There’s also, of course, the question of who is even ‘allowed’ to go “full method” in this way. As we discussed at length in our previous video, women are almost never afforded the same leeway to go all in on a character in this way, and with this type of behavior. We’ll link that video for you to watch at the end of this one and in the description if you’d like to dig more into that topic!
Chapter 3: Why Are We Hearing So Many Method Stories Now?
Method acting has been around for decades, but telling and retelling the stories of just how committed actors are to their roles has become another way to cut through the noise of the thousands of shows and movies coming out each year all seeking audience engagement and awards. In the world of streaming, where people have so many endless options available to them at any given moment, actors are a very important part of the marketing of a film or television show: hearing about how intensely committed an actor was to a role might draw in the interest of more viewers. And making a film or TV show costs millions of dollars, involves hundreds of people, and many, many hours of time, so some companies may just let an established and famous actor act however they please (no matter how badly they’re behaving) to get the job done. But how much of this behavior is just parading around to create a narrative for Oscar buzz, and how much is genuinely necessary? For example, Joaquin Phoenix has given stellar and grounded performances in films like C’mon C’mon and there were no stories about Phoenix harming himself or others to deliver those performances. Films themselves are starting to grapple with this question as well. May December, stars Natalie Portman (who herself went full method for her Oscar-winning role in Black Swan) as an actress looking to boost her career with a twisted, dramatic role, and shows the dark lengths she’s willing to go to to really become the character.
The need to build a story around the creation of a film or show to sell it to audiences has ballooned in an attempt to rise to the top – whether that’s in SEO or at awards shows – that’s led to more and more coverage of this issue. Instead of just getting mentioned as an offhand example of the dedication the actor had for their role in a glowing piece, stories are now starting to take a more truthful look at what these actors are doing and how it’s affecting not only them but also the people that have to work with them. This doesn’t mean that everyone needs to give up the method for good, or that it can’t be used in a positive way. People across the board have just been rethinking the stories we’ve been told about how bad behavior is often necessary to achieve success. Actors should certainly be free to use the acting method that works best for them, but maybe it’s just time we take a step back from lauding the more openly destructive versions. Actors shouldn’t have to harm themselves or others to create a great character, and holding up times when they do as examples of real acting only serves to make younger up-and-coming actors feel that they, too, need to behave this way if they want to be seen as proper actors. So while the current day method acting backlash may at first seem a little out of left field, it’s really just a small part of a larger movement to create safe workplaces and have open conversations about the negative ramifications of holding up destructive behavior as cool when it’s coming from a very specific section of the population. So going forward, we can start to focus more on rewarding actors for what they bring to a role, not what it takes out of them.
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