From Jim Carrey to Jared Leto: why Hollywood went mad for method acting
In 1999, Jim Carrey was sitting on a beach in Miami, having just received the news that he was to play America's strangest, most polarising comic Andy Kaufman in biopic Man on the Moon, when 30 dolphins shot out of the water and Kaufman tapped him on the shoulder. Kaufman said, “Sit down, I'll be doin' my movie.”
The only problem was that Kaufman had died in 1984. Carrey – who has described his experience preparing for the role as “psychotic” – had already gone full method. “What happened afterwards,” Carrey said in a 2017 documentary about the insane lengths he went to for the role, including refusing to be called by his real name for the entire four months of filming, “was out of my control.”
Carrey stayed in character when Kaufman's own family visited the set (even telling Kaufman's biological daughter, who had never met her father, that he loved her), got into an offscreen fight with his onscreen “dad” Gerry Becker, and began heavily drinking and smoking for the first time in his life.
He later said that he didn't feel “like I made the film at all. I feel like Andy made the film.”
The method madness paid off – Carrey was lauded by critics for his role and won a Golden Globe for Best Actor. But, according to Martin Freeman, his behaviour should never have been celebrated.
“For me, and I'm genuinely sure Jim Carrey is a lovely and smart person, but it was the most self-aggrandising, selfish, f---ing narcissistic bo----cks I have ever seen,” Freeman told the Off Menu podcast.
“It's highly amateurish; it's essentially an amateurish notion because for me it's not a professional attitude. Get the job done man, f---ing do your work. ”
“He should have got fired. Can you imagine if he had been anybody else he would have been sectioned let alone fired, he would have been got rid of. It's the ridiculous leeway given to some people,” said Freeman.
Freeman's scorn for Carrey “losing himself” in his craft so publicly is reminiscent of what Spencer Tracy, one of the most natural actors to have ever stepped in front of a camera, used to tell every young acting hopeful: “Show up on time, know your lines, don't bump into the furniture" and “never let them catch you at it.”
But Carrey wasn't the first nor the last actor to make such a public display of his method.
In preparing to play Batman’s nemesis The Joker in comic-book movie Suicide Squad, Leto got himself into character partly through a series of in-character tricks and stunts, which were widely described as part and parcel of the 44-year-old Oscar winner’s method acting approach.
One involved sending cast members sex toys, used prophylactics and pornographic magazines flecked with what was hopefully glue. Leto required the crew to address him as Mr. J during the shoot – J for Joker rather than Jared – while after hours, he tormented the actor playing his henchman with phone calls throughout the night.
In Tracy’s day, some studios would have probably turned to the Mob to hush this kind of stuff up. But now it’s a point of pride – a kind of off-screen validation of Leto’s commitment to his art. We’ve heard about it many months before Suicide Squad’s release for the same reason The Revenant’s promotional campaign made so much of its cast’s arctic ordeal, and Shia LaBeouf talking about turning up drunk to play a moonshine distiller in Lawless, dropping acid for the drug-infused The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, and pulling his tooth out to play a Second World War tank gunner in Fury.
More than ever, we seem to want to catch actors “at it” – and in return, they seem increasingly keen to be caught.
Take the 16 Best Actor Oscars that have been awarded since 2000. (For women, things are very different, as we’ll discover in a while.) Nine – more than half – went to actors whose winning approaches were widely characterised as method acting.
Matthew McConaughey (2014, Dallas Buyers Club) lost three stone in weight. Jamie Foxx (2005, Ray) glued his eyelids shut. Adrien Brody (2003, The Pianist) sold his house and car and moved to Europe, then went on a crash diet and took four hours of piano lessons a day. Forest Whitaker (2007, The Last King of Scotland) learned to speak Kiswahili, play the accordion, and spent three and a half months in Uganda. Eddie Redmayne (2015, The Theory of Everything) studied Stephen Hawking’s writings for four months – Whitaker, you lightweight – and interviewed around 30 patients in a neurology clinic.
There’s always a lot of talk about actors ‘disappearing into roles’, but in situations like these, that’s not what’s actually happening at all. Instead, what ends up on screen is a kind of actor-character hybrid, and the hard labour of bringing the role to life becomes part of the reason – sometimes even the main one, in fact – we want to watch.
One problem with the new craze for method acting is that it has almost nothing to do with real method acting in the slightest, which was adapted from the teachings of the Russian theatre director Konstantin Stanislavski by the American acting coach Lee Strasberg in the 1930s.
Stanislavski had no interest in film acting – he likened it to chopping wood – but Strasberg had caught the Moscow Arts Theatre’s Stanislavski-directed 1923 tour of the USA, and was stunned by his players’ subtle intensity and control. It looked nothing like cinema, where performances (still silent at this stage) were rooted in the hyper-expressive traditions of melodrama and vaudeville.
But it was also far removed from the precision and grace of western stage acting, which was heavily influenced by British theatre. In the time it took Strasberg to develop his method, another style of acting came and went: the briskness and breeziness of Golden Age Hollywood, where actors’ characters tended to fit with a continuous screen persona. But after the Second World War, the public mood was grey and uncertain. Strasberg’s method – which by this point had become his Method – put those neuroses on screen.
Strasberg was intrigued by what he called the actor’s “central problem”: having to plausibly “feel” things along with their character while remaining in control of their craft.
He took as his jumping-off point a question posed by Yevgeny Vakhtangov, a Stanislavski disciple: if your character has to behave in a particular way, what would motivate you, the actor, to behave that way for real? Strasberg’s answer was a technique that became known as substitution: rather than conjuring the emotion cold, actors should dip down into their own lived experience to find a mood or behaviour that fits.
During his 1932 Broadway production of Success Story, Strasberg asked his leading lady, Stella Adler, to play an intimate scene as if she and her lover were stranded in a small boat on a moonlit night. That the scene was actually set in an office was by-the-by. Adler’s imaginary boat took her performance where it needed to go.
Improvisation – within limits – was also key. Actors are at odds with their characters by virtue of the mere fact that they know the plot of a film or play in advance. So Strasberg encouraged constant experimentation in the pace and tone of line readings, in an attempt to stimulate what he called the “continuous flow of response and thought” that made for plausible drama.
Strasberg never planned it this way, but method and the movies turned out to be a perfect match. Film’s splintered shooting style, in which scenes are often completed out of story order, and are performed over and over again until the right take comes along, made it impossible for actors to coherently live out their characters’ stories.
But method is all about moments – it’s a technique that thinks in shots and close-ups. Sir Laurence Olivier, a lifelong method sceptic, once conceded Strasberg’s training could be “wonderful for film actors, as the camera zeroes in and captures two people being real together. The problem in the theatre,” he quickly qualified, “is being real 50 yards away.”
To see method acting saunter into cinema in real time, watch Marlon Brando’s entrance in A Streetcar Named Desire. Brando was a pupil of Adler’s, and the first of the Strasberg set after John Garfield and Montgomery Clift to make it big in Hollywood.
Vivien Leigh, Brando’s co-star, was a classical actress – and she gives the film’s faded heroine, Blanche, a certain poise even when she’s flustered that feels like an invisible acknowledgement of the camera’s presence. Brando’s Stanley Kowalski, on the other hand, seems not to even know it’s there. After their first exchange, Brando walks forwards so close to the camera you think he’s going to knock it over, while idly scratching a pectoral muscle.
In the next shot, he itches his back with his thumb – then wanders to the sideboard and grabs a bottle of bourbon, before mumbling something that sounds a bit like “Man, liquor goes fast in the hot weather.” The cumulative effect is a casual intensity you can’t take your eyes off – and he breaks two of Spencer Tracy’s three rules in his opening scene.
As well as Brando and Clift, Adler trained Warren Beatty and Robert De Niro, while Strasberg’s students included James Dean, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman, whose method approach during the making of Kramer vs. Kramer was flatly sadistic. Between takes, he’d goad his more technical co-star, Meryl Streep, about the recent death of her real-life lover, John Cazale, from lung cancer, and before one crucial scene he slapped her across the face.
There were a few method actresses – Julie Harris, James Dean’s co-star in East of Eden, was one – but the style overwhelmingly lent itself to stories about masculinity under threat, where a character’s macho exterior masks some kind of subcutaneous torment. (Brando’s ex-boxer grappling with his conscience in Kazan’s On The Waterfront might be the archetypal method role.)
That’s why method acting is a predominantly male gig, and also why you never find method acting in comedy. If you’ve ever wondered why Hollywood has seemed to hold drama and male acting in a far higher regard than comedy and female acting since the 1950s, it’s largely method’s fault – and it might take method’s downfall to restore both actresses and comedies to their pre-war standing.
In an interview for the 1961 book Actors Talk About Acting, Leigh herself expressed bemusement at the method craze. “They never seem to do any comedies at Lee Strasberg’s school,” she said – and you can just imagine the ring of innocence in her voice – “whereas comedy is much more difficult than tragedy – and a much better training, I think…. It’s much easier to make people cry than to make them laugh.”
For his part, Strasberg didn’t think he’d come up with anything new: he’d just given a name to the technique actors had always used, mostly unconsciously, to produce their best work.
In third century B.C. Athens, a celebrated tragic actor called Polus carried an urn of his own dead son’s ashes on stage to play the mourning Electra. His performance, wrote the Roman scholar Gellius in the kind of blurb Harvey Weinstein would murder for, “filled the whole place not with the appearance and imitation of sorrow, but with genuine grief and unfeigned lamentation.”
Crucially, as Gellius later points out, the Athenians had no idea what was actually in Polus’s urn – which is also how Daniel Day-Lewis likes it. Of the nine supposedly method-based recent Oscar-winning performances mentioned above, Day-Lewis gave two of them. And while his own extensive off-screen preparations are legendary – and really do seem to yield tangible on-screen results – he rarely discusses them, and only then with reluctance.
His performance as the oil baron Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (which won in 2008) was built on extensive research of turn-of-the-century prospecting culture, and voice recordings of those who participated in it. And while playing Abraham Lincoln for Steven Spielberg (for which he won in 2013), he refused to drop character even in text messages, signing off communications with his co-star Sally Field with an affectionate ‘Abe’.
He also contracted pneumonia during Gangs of New York, lived off the land for The Last of the Mohicans, and never left his wheelchair while playing the cerebral palsy-stricken artist Christy Brown in My Left Foot, the role for which he won his first Oscar. Dedication like that rather puts sending condoms to your co-stars into perspective.
Whether method acting’s reputation can survive the like of Carrey and Leto’s antics remains to be seen – although if it doesn’t, that might come as some relief. Let’s not forget how delightful the alternative can be: actors like Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr and Channing Tatum are watchable in ways that method’s madness could never account for.
A great screen persona is its own kind of dramatic truth – and unlike even the best Brando mumble, it's an act you can’t be caught in.