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Unless you’re a big-time movie buff or have trained as an actor yourself, the term “method acting” is probably not one you encounter beyond the odd Oscar season, if someone like Daniel Day-Lewis is nominated. And even then, the reference is typically in passing, which begs the question—what is method acting anyway?
I’m glad you asked. Partly because it gives me an excuse to dust off my own theater degree, but mostly because method actors tend to get lumped together under such a vast umbrella of varying approaches that the method acting definition itself has lost a lot of its original meaning.
It’s gotten so off course, in fact, that the people who invented method acting in the first place might not even recognize it today. What began as a groundbreaking technique to help performers connect to their subject matter has in some cases been twisted into a dangerous excuse for actors to mistreat themselves and the people around them.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start at the beginning.
Method acting is a performance technique with roots in the early 20th century. Its foundation was built by a Russian actor and director named Konstantin Stanislavski, who valued actually putting yourself into a situation as acting preparation instead of just imagining it onstage. The goal was to use your own personal experiences to ask yourself what you would do and feel if you were in your character’s position.
But Stanislavski method acting has changed a good bit between the 1920s and modern day. In its journey from Russia to the United States, Stanislavski’s system was molded by three important practitioners of the craft: Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner. The trio began as students of the Moscow Art Theater (MAT), and went on to establish the Group Theater together. Each could easily carry their very own article, but since Strasberg is the one most closely identified with those who created method acting, he’s the one we’ll focus on.
Strasberg backdoored Stanislavski’s original system, encouraging his students to ask what internal motivations could make their characters behave the way they do. In essence, he centered the technique more on psychology than circumstances, which is how it’s been adopted by many modern actors.
With over a century of use and an extremely broad definition, method acting has cropped up on a ton of resumés. (Just type “definition method acting” into Google and add your favorite actor’s name, and see what I mean). But here are some of the biggest names associated with the technique:
- Marlon Brando
- Marilyn Monroe
- Daniel Day-Lewis
- Phillip Seymour Hoffman
- Robert De Niro
- Christian Bale
- Joaquin Phoenix
- Forest Whitaker
- Kate Winslet
- Ryan Gosling
- Angelina Jolie
- Leonardo DiCaprio
- Jessica Chastain
- Chadwick Boseman
While going method isn’t inherently dangerous, it does need to be practiced responsibly and maturely on set to ensure that no one experiences physical or emotional harm. That’s because while some other methods compartmentalize acting and real life, the method attempts to merge the two. And when you blur the lines between yourself and a character, you have to be careful what you let in—and what you let out.
In most irresponsible forms, method acting is used as an excuse for actors who cross a line on set, like Jake Gyllenhaal, hospitalized after punching a mirror in Nightcrawler, or Jared Leto, who refused to come out of character while filming Suicide Squad.
Like any technique, actors use method acting to bring themselves closer to the character they’re portraying. They want to understand the things the characters have done and the way those things made them feel, which informs what they will do and how they will feel in the future.
It’s about building up empathy for the person you’re playing so that you can fully immerse yourself in the role, which can mean thinking up what you would do in their same situation, or dreaming up circumstances from your own life that would inspire the behavior that’s written on the page. It’s just about deciding—what does method acting mean to you?
If you want to try the technique in your own work, there are some easy steps you can take to get yourself there.
Step 1: Mark Up Your Script
Make a copy first, because this is about to get messy. Mark out each “beat” that occurs during your character’s lines—moments when your motivations change. For example, if you’re playing a child pleading for a puppy, you might say:
“Please, Mom? // I’ll take good care of him! // Have I told you yet today how much I love you?”
The hatch marks represent beats and could be noted like this: begging // reassuring // flattering.
Step 2: Make a Personal Connection
Once you have your beats marked out, think of a situation in your own life where you felt each of those things. That will give each beat some oomph and added texture—something interesting to do that feels both unique and genuine because it’s informed by your own experience.
Step 3: Practice, Practice, Practice
Once you’ve connected to a lived experience, it’s time to run the scene over and over again. At first, you’ll have to pause to remember your link to the experience, so do as many repetitions as it takes until the process feels seamless. And voilà! You’re living in your character’s reality without even registering the switch back and forth to your own.
Try the Method Yourself!
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