What is method acting?
July 2, 2004 8:19 PM   Subscribe

What is method acting? [mi]

Some preliminary Googling suggests that method acting involves the actor trying to "become" the character, to try to portray the character as they would truly be in private. My rather naive question is why wouldn't an actor try to do this.

What are some good examples of method acting? Similarly, what are some good examples of definitively non-method acting, where the actors brought something to the table by explicitly not trying to realisitically portray their character? All I can think of is some David Mamet movies like Glengarry Glen Ross.

I'm thinking primarily of cinema, but some plays would do as well.
posted by alidarbac to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think Nicolas Cage is an example of a current method actor. Basically, the way I've always understood it is that the actor tries to become the character, so much so that while filming they act as the character, even when they are not on camera. You can generally get a sense of someone being a method actor if they refer to the character as I, rather than speak of them in the third person.
posted by sugarfish at 8:36 PM on July 2, 2004

also, you often had stars always being stars, no matter who they played...Bette Davis or Joan Crawford, for instance, were always Bette Davis as Jezebel rather than just Jezebel--they never totally became the character. I see John Malkovich as one of the current crop that's always John Malkovich first, and whatever character second.
posted by amberglow at 8:44 PM on July 2, 2004

Method acting developed in the 50s as an alternative to tradtional, highly technical acting. Before then actors did not try to get inside their characters' minds, so to speak, to understand their feelings and their situations. Instead, they just acted—that is, they tried to appear sad or angry without actually making themselves sad or angry.

James Cagney was one of the most famous technical actors. In fact, he never liked method acting, and late in his life in his autobiography wrote wrote about how he actually looked down upon method actors and thought that a professional shouldn't have to go through all that preparatory nonsense.

There's a famous anecdote about Dustin Hoffman and Lawrence Olivier. Reportedly while filming Marathon Man Hoffman's character was supposed to be extremely tired and worn out. So Hoffman, a method actor, stayed up all night before the day of the shoot and came to the set exhausted. Olivier asked Hoffman why he looked so awful, and Hoffman explained. Olivier quipped, "Why not try acting?"

Personally, I think method acting is a huge step up from what existed before it. When I watch old movies, I find that the characters never seem as deep or real as they do in really good movies nowadays. The "acting" always seems a little bit shallow, on the surface.
posted by Khalad at 8:45 PM on July 2, 2004

Method acting seems so normal to me too, that I never quite understood how it was a breakthrough. That's one of the funny things about philosophies, though. What's obvious to one person will be a revelation to someone else.

The main idea of method acting is not just to get inside the character's mind, but to draw on personal experiences to make the situation more real - ie, playing an assailant, remember the time you got so angry at your neighbor that you almost struck him - etc. You really try to relate to the character by imagining your own emotional experiences in the situation.

I think one reason for the shift towards method acting might be screen vs. stage - on stage, you have to do a little more "acting" - project your voice, stand so the audience can see you, etc. On film, there is room for a little more intimacy, although of course there is also a lot more artificiality, with scenes shot out of sequence, heavy make-up, intense lights, blah blah blah.
posted by mdn at 8:58 PM on July 2, 2004

also, you often had stars always being stars, no matter who they played...

As opposed to today, where we have Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz and Ben Affleck and Tom Cruise who always play Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz and Ben Affleck and Tom Cruise? "Method" or no, actors who have the ability to reinvent themselves and grow to create a unique character seem exceedingly rare.
posted by Danelope at 9:06 PM on July 2, 2004

Here here Dan.

Sean Penn is a strange case, a method actor who always comes off as Sean Penn. Best of both worlds, in my eyes.
posted by tomharpel at 9:28 PM on July 2, 2004

A Russian guy named Stanislavsky started the whole thing. His book, An Actor Prepares, is still a common sight on drama class syllabi everywhere.
posted by varmint at 9:41 PM on July 2, 2004

An interesting post on this very subject -- discussing Brando, even -- from Sheila O'Malley just three days ago.
posted by davidmsc at 10:26 PM on July 2, 2004

Warning: Method acting can be taken too far.
posted by boaz at 10:55 PM on July 2, 2004

I'm gonna fuck this up because it's a big hairball in my brain but I remember a story (perhaps it's actually a joke) about two method actors in a play (I don't remember the actors or the play). In the first act, one of the actors pulls a gun from a drawer. It's being set up to be used in the final act.

However, the actor who holds the gun accidentally pulls the trigger and the cap fires. The gun was pointed right at actor 2 and because he was method, he fell to the floor, "shot". The actor with the gun gasped and said, "My god, I've killed him."

/end of story

You mentioned Mamet in your post. He's got some interesting thoughts on acting and drama in general and I suggest you hit the library and pick up his books, True and False and Three Uses of the Knife.

Mamet (who was once an actor, then an acting teacher, and then denounced drama schools as ridiculous) wrote in his book On Directing Film (I'm paraphrasing) that an actor does not need to "know his motivation". An actor cannot act the room she just came from. He believes that an actor need only deliver his/her lines and perform the actions of the play in the most uninflected way possible. (He also believes that movies should be shot and edited like this.) It takes a lot of balls to make movies this way and Mamet's fortunate to be such a superb writer that he can pull it off (in fact, I believe his writing is pushed further into the limelight because it then becomes the focus of piece).

Also, though the Hoffman/Olivier example posted above is more famous, if you take a look at the extras on the dvd of the film The Edge (coincidentally written by Mamet), there is a superb 20 second clip in the middle of one of those cheesy EPKs where Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin (one of Mamet's fave actors) are playing two exhausted men (they've been running from a bear in the woods). The camera is rolling pre-take and Hopkins is standing on his mark. In the background (if I remember correctly), Baldwin is literally running in circles and dropping to the ground and doing push ups. He then goes to his mark and continues running on the spot. He nods to the director, "Action" is called, and Hopkins and Baldwin appear completely out of breath. Hopkins is acting. Baldwin is exhausted. Both are convincing. Baldwin is method, Hopkins thinks it's bullshit (tremendous Hopkins interview here).
posted by dobbs at 11:19 PM on July 2, 2004

I have always wondered if method acting is what makes some actors so unstable. I've used what amounts to the method in writing, and find it can really leave me in a strange headspace, and not always easy to get out!
posted by Goofyy at 12:18 AM on July 3, 2004

From the San Francisco Chronicle's obituary (here) of Marlon Brando:

"Brando stayed in "Streetcar" for two years and never appeared onstage again. How could he top that? Instead he switched to Hollywood, beginning his career with a fine independently produced film about paraplegic war veterans, Fred Zinnemann's "The Men." To research the role, Brando spent a month in bed at a Veterans Administration hospital."
posted by emelenjr at 5:09 AM on July 3, 2004

Method acting is a style of acting developed in the 50s at the Actors' Studio by Lee Strasberg (who also played Hyman Roth in "The Godfather Part II").

It was influenced by Stansilavsky's system, but it's not the same as Staninslavky's system.

A major component of Method Acting is something called Sense Memory. The idea is that if you have to play a scene in which you win a million dollars, you think back to a time when you won something (it doesn't have to be a million dollars). You get in touch with how you felt when you won whatever you won. And you use those feelings to create the character's feelings.

Stanislavsky championed Sense Memory early in his career, but he later rejected it. There's an anecdote about a young Stanislavsky teaching an acting class in which one of his students was Michael Chekhov (Playwright Anton Chekhov's nephew). Stanislavsky assigned Chekhov a scene in which his character's friend dies. Chekhov was supposed to use Sense Memory -- remembering a death in his own family. After Chekhov played the scene really well, Stanislavsky praised him and asked him who in his family he used. Chekhov said, "my father." Stanislavsky asked Chekhov how his father died. To which Chekhov replied, "he's still alive."

The point was the imagination -- imagining your father dying -- can be as powerful (and for some people more powerful) than memory.

Once, I saw an interview with Rod Steiger in which he asked how he played an emotional scene where he had to cry. He said, "It's easy. All I have to do is imagine my daughter dying..." and he couldn't even go on. He got choked up just thinking about it in the interview. But his daughter was alive. So that wasn't Sense Memory.

Strasberg's technique has had a HUGE impact on acting in America, but most modern actors -- even if they were influence by The Method -- don't call themselves Method Actors. The term is a little bit tainted. It's vaguely connected with diva-ish behavior and going to crazy extremes, supposedly because they make you seem more real (like really shooting up because your character is a drug addict). To many actors, saying "I'm a Method Actor" is similar to women saying, "I'm a Feminist." Many women have been influenced by the Feminist movement, but they don't like calling themselves Feminists, because the term is a bit tainted.

It's a mistake to think that Method Action (or Stanislavskian acting) is realistic and "mechanical" acting is fake. The real difference between the two is this: Method (and similar schools) teach the actor to work from the inside out. In other words, you start with the characters internal states -- how he feels and things -- and let that govern his external appearance. You never just smile because your character is supposed to be happy. You make yourself happy, which will cause you to smile.

"Mechanical" actors work from the outside in. But that doesn't mean they just make faces and gestures and don't feel anything. It means they meticulously work on the character's exterior and gradually let that sink into their insides -- into their inner life and feelings. Anyone who thinks mechanical movements can't lead to strong, inner emotions should talk to a dancer!

Both techniques are after the same thing: realistically telling a story.

If acting seems bad, that's tells you more about the actor than what system he uses. In other words, whatever system he is using, he's not using it well. But there have been fantastic performances using both styles. "Marathon Man" is a great example. Hoffman and Olivier are both wonderful. Hoffman is famous for working from the inside out* and Olivier is famous for working from the outside in (he claimed that he couldn't play a part until he knew exactly what his character looked like, and he'd spend hours trying on false noses, wigs, etc.)

[*In reality, Hoffman uses a bit of both techniques -- as do most actors. When he played Captain Hook in Spielberg's film, he used an external technique, basing his character's voice on William F. Buckley, Jr. (rather than just letting the voice bubble up from his character's mental state).]

Whether an actor uses Sense Memory or not, it's likely he will use Stanislavsky's system to some degree (because it's taught in nearly all acting schools). The basic idea of Stanislavshy's system is that in any given scene, you try to determine what your character wants. Generally, you try to express this as a simple verb: My character wants "to convince," "to win," "to kill," "to console," "to flee." The verb should be very active. Then each line you speak and each physical action you do become tactics to try to achieve this goal. Things that stand in your way -- i.e. other characters who try to stop you from achieving your goal -- are obstacles (you can also have internal obstacles, as in a thief whose goal is "to steal the jewels" but is in love with the woman who owns them). You try to overcome the obstacles and achieve your goals by trying different tactics. Your character also has an overall goal for the entire play, which is his "Superobjective." So you don't try to act happy or sad. You try to achieve your goal, which will wind up making you happy or sad, without you trying to fake those emotions.

This technique works for both internal and external actors, and it has nothing to say about whether you use sense memory, imagination or false noses. Even David Mamet respects it.
posted by grumblebee at 5:38 AM on July 3, 2004 [2 favorites]

James Woods is a good example of a classic method actor, hilariously parodied in an episode of the Simpsons (which is sort of a meta-parody of The Hard Way). Pacino, though larger-than-life today, could disappear into his roles completely in films like Dog Day Afternoon.

mdn hit upon a key point. The cinematic revolution of the 70's changed filmmaking from "theater with more money better equipment" into its own unique storytelling style. A more natural, realistic style of filmmaking allowed method acting- a more natural, realistic style of acting- to flourish.
posted by mkultra at 7:07 AM on July 3, 2004

grumblebee's answer is terrific. My fiance and I were just sitting here debating what we had learned in our acting classes several years ago, and we couldn't remember all the details. I did have a question - we knew Stansilavsky trained Strasberg, but I also seem to remember that there another famous American acting teacher, a woman, who was trained in a different way (better suited to her needs) - and who set up a rival school and style to Strasberg. Anyone remember the name?

The other thing is that we must remember that we are talking almost exclusively about North American acting. In Britain, traditional technical or 'presentationalist' acting appears to still dominate. My fiance points to Michael Caine as an excellent presentationalist.

My fiance also wants to say, in the nicest way possible, that listening to non-actors discussing acting can be really fun, because it's kind of like listening to "Kids say teh darndest things". It's just really hard to understand what actors do from watching them - I tried to study acting for four years (wasn't brilliant, and quit because only the brilliant work in theatre), and at the end of it, I still barely understood what I myself was trying to do. It's such a weird grabbag of technique and instinct.
posted by jb at 8:18 AM on July 3, 2004

Sorry - my fiance has something also to add to mkultra's comment.

He thinks that it may actually be the other way around - the manner in which films are made today works against method acting. Actors are asked to do scenes out of order, to film a scene several times, each with a different reading on the lines, even to do a certain kind of look. All of this would lend itself much more to presentationalism than method. Method is still used, but more inspite of the environment than because of it.

My own experience has been rather like this. I wasn't trained in method formally, but was trained in Stanislovsky's objectives, and also had a natural tendancy to act from the inside out. In theatre this was much easier; I was only ever in one short film, and that was very difficult (and I was very bad).
posted by jb at 8:24 AM on July 3, 2004

jb, are you talking about Uta Hagen?

I disagree that film became cinematic in the 70s. Film was understood to be a totally different medium from the very beginning. Take a look at some serious silent films (not the comedies, which were extrapolated from vaudiville) and you'll see they are very sophisticated visually, and not at all like plays. There are also plenty of films made before the 70s (see "Citizen Kane") that are uniquely cinematic.

I take it you meant only that film ACTING matured in the 70s. I disagree with that too.
posted by grumblebee at 9:29 AM on July 3, 2004

Grumblebee reminds me of the enduring gag line snarking the Method:
"What's my motivation?"

jb, or maybe Stella Adler?
posted by obloquy at 3:49 PM on July 3, 2004

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