The Madness In The Method

3 December 2012 by Mikey Papadopoulos

“I really imagined this guy was kind of burning.  His internal dialogue and his rationalization of his philosophy were burning so intensely that he would just look like that.  Not because he spent any time in the gym, or because he was careful about his diet.  Although, I’m sure he only fuels himself with like very intense things” 

   - Matthew Fox speaking to about his Alex Cross character Picasso.

With the staggeringly underwhelming Alex Cross hitting cinemas, most of the talk has been focused on Matthew Fox, who has undergone a remarkable physical transformation to play the film’s villain- a cage fighting, special forces assassin. It has been said he’s gone ‘full method’. We think he looks like he has been photoshopped on to the body of a plasticine bodybuilder,  but it does remind us that some actors really relish more preparation for their roles than merely using their imagination.

We take a look at some of the actors who favour a bit of ‘Method’ and some of the ridiculous… er…dedicated ways they have ‘found’ their characters.

So what is ‘The Method’? Well, there are various forms. Derived from ‘The System’ by Russian actor and theatre director Constantin Stanislavski, the idea is that an actor uses personal experiences to find the emotions of the character- to ‘become’ them. After the horrors of World War II, movie audiences seemed to respond to these more naturalistic performances, and the days of mannered stars such as Clark Gable were ebbing.

Marlon-Brando-DIAt the vanguard of this new approach was Marlon Brando, who was a revelation as a paraplegic war veteran in The Men, spending weeks preparing in a wheelchair at a military hospital. Brando is arguably ground zero for ‘Method’ actors. James Dean, Martin Sheen, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro have all taken inspiration from Brando and his performances. Films like A Streetcar Named Desire, The Wild One and On The Waterfront helped change American cinema forever and Brando was hailed a genius.

However, this inspiration for a generation of American actors was very public about his notion that ultimately, acting was inherently ‘silly’. As his career progressed (and declined), he chased pay cheques rather than parts, and neglected to bother to learn lines. During the filming of Superman, he famously read his cues from cards placed strategically around the set, including from the super-nappy of the baby Kal-El.

This fading dedication of their idol did not dissuade his acolytes from the Method path. De Niro’s breakthrough role in Taxi Driver may or may not have been helped by the young actor’s Method approach, driving a New York cab 12 hours a day for a month.

Raging-Bull-De-Niro-DIHis reputation was sealed by his preparation for his role as Jake La Motta in Scorsese’s masterpiece, Raging Bull. He boxed 1000 rounds to make sure he looked the part. He even took real fights, winning two. He then gained 60lbs to play a paunchy La Motta in later life.

All this is legendary, but more importantly, is understandable. You want to look like a fighter? Learn to box. Want to look like a fat old man? Put weight on. De Niro’s performance is rightly considered one of the greatest of all time, however, for his role as Al Capone in The Untouchables, De Niro insisted on wearing the same type of silk underwear as Capone. Does having one’s undercarriage cupped appropriately help channel an infamous mob boss? Apparently so.

The younger generation of actors seem to wear their ‘method’ preparation as a badge of honour, and studios use it as a marketing tool- an opportunity to sell how authentic this film will be. Christian Bale, who is Machinist-Bale-DI6’1”, dropped to just over 8 stone for his emaciated performance in The Machinist, eating only a can of tuna and an apple a day. Bale is obviously an exceptional actor and the weight loss helped give the film a hallucinatory feel, but did the risk to his health and his shocking appearance overshadow the story? How many people who cite Bale’s physical transformation have actually seen a film that only grossed only $1m?

Adrien Brody, an actor who takes being serious seriously, had himself locked in a mortuary draw between takes on The Jacket to help capture his character’s despair. When Brody breaks down on camera, it’s apparently for real. When the audience shrugs, it’s every bit as real.

When Jim Carrey played Andy Kauffman in Man On The Moon, he never broke character on set, becoming every bit as irritating and punchable as the tedious and overrated Kauffman himself. However, any discussion on dedicated, and possibly mental method actors, will eventually turn to Daniel Day Lewis.

There is an argument that Day-Lewis is the greatest screen actor we’ve ever seen. Stories about his preparation, and behaviour on set are legion. His performance as disabled Irish writer Christy Brown in My Left Foot may be the greatest ever committed to celluloid, indeed a stunned George Clooney was so overawed, he almost quit acting, thinking rightly, that he could never emulate it.

My-Left-Foot-Day-Lewis-DIHowever, to achieve the appearance of cerebral palsy, Day-Lewis spent so much time hunched over, he broke two ribs. He hunched so hard, HE BROKE RIBS. That’s so inspirational. And so utterly barking. He didn’t come out of character on set, demanding he be fed and pushed around in a wheelchair to get an understanding of the frustration a disabled person often feels.

This immersive technique served him well when he prepared for The Boxer, getting coached by Barry McGuigan. For his role in In The Name Of Father, he had himself put in solitary confinement to better understand the mindset of a political prisoner. For The Last Of The Mohicans, Day-Lewis lived in the wild for months, hunting and fishing to better understand Hawkeye’s challenges. During filming of the upcoming Lincoln, cast and crew had to refer to him as Mr. President at all times.

Of course, none of this explains what the hell was going on during the musical Nine.

‘The Method’, and this kind of immersive preparation is synonymous with serious, intense and ambitious actors. All of whom are men. It’s often perceived as the welcome mark of a man suffering for his art. But is there an element of macho posturing?
Laurence Olivier was reported to have asked an intense method-heavy Dustin Hoffman during Marathon Man, ‘why don’t you just act?’ Sadly, the story is apocryphal but the sentiment does stand. The common misconception is that all great actors must use ‘The Method’ but that is far from true. All decent actors prepare for their roles, but don’t feel the need to find some profound psychological insight to generate their performance.

Gangs-of-New-york-Day-Lewis-DILiam Neeson, who worked with Day-Lewis on Gangs Of New York found the latter’s refusal to leave character between filming profoundly annoying, describing the Day-Lewis approach as ‘b*llsh*t’. Neeson’s approach didn’t stop him being every bit as awesome as Day-Lewis in Gangs Of New York, as well as in Schindler’s List or Michael Collins.

Anthony Hopkins another screen titan who is never knowingly underprepared describes many method actors as ‘a pain in the arse’. He even avoids appearing with many of them, ‘they're unpleasant to work with and I don't think they're always that good either.’

Meryl Streep may be the finest actor alive today yet she isn’t ‘method’. Neither is Robert Downey Jr, Denzel Washington or Tom Hanks all of whom have a rather enviable list of great films behind them.

Tales of thespian commitment and suffering fill column inches and bulk up celebrity interviews but does anyone really care? If we didn’t hear about the minor discomforts undergone by so many pampered millionaire actors while honing their ‘craft’, would they be even more insufferable?

Ultimately, actors will always be measured by the power of their performances rather than the scale or nature of their preparation. Daniel Day-Lewis produces great work because he is a great actor. Robert De Niro is horrible in Rocky & Bullwinkle, and astounding in Goodfellas, irrespective of how he prepared.

Which is bad news for the majority of preening, self important, Hollywood 'talent', including the unfortunately anodyne, but impressively beefy Mr. Matthew Fox.