What Is Method Acting? Delving Into the Immersive Dramatic Discipline
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 9 min read

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Actors use a variety of strategies and approaches when it comes to honing their craft. The goal is always the same: to convincingly express the character to the audience. That is the primary mechanism that allows film viewers to lose themselves in the story.

There are many disciplines that actors can employ to effectively practice their dramatic art. For many years, even preceding cinema, there was what was called classical acting. Refined for those performing in theater, in classical acting, the focus was to use the body and voice in an exaggerated way to reach audiences often seated far from the stage.

In the film age, a whole new raft of techniques would arise. All of them began with a Russian acting teacher named Konstantin Stanislavski (as we shall see). His legacy would help reinforce the proposition that acting for cinema is a decidedly different skill than acting on stage.

Method acting in film has become one of the most well-known and controversial approaches for performers and their strive for creating an authentic performance. Stories can sometimes trickle out of how a movie star's descent into the method school's approach has caused real-life drama on sets. Some actors reject the entire process, but nobody can deny the results at the end of the day.

If you're ready to lose yourself in the world of method acting, then let's take a look at what that means.

Before Method Acting

As already mentioned, the precursor to method acting was the Stanislavski method. His actors' training techniques were the launchpad for what would come after. As he wrote about in his classic educational tomes, An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role, his idea was to craft realism in performance by asking these questions about the character:

Who am I? Where am I? When is it right now? What do I want and why? How will I get it? What do I need to overcome?

These are the same questions a screenplay writer must ask their character when scripting a narrative. The actor has to make the words real: they have to not only answer those questions, but they must also take on aspects of the character. When acting in character, it is they who make the decisions that bring those answers about.

When the actor immerses themselves in the character's circumstances, they adopt the emotional processes that the character goes through. To achieve this, they have to apply their own emotions to serve the character's authenticity. Stanislavski's techniques were a revelatory breakthrough. His work would inspire the nascent method school of acting.

school of acting

Method Acting: Definition

The development of method acting in the 20th Century can be attributed to three influential teachers: Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner, who collaborated at the famed Actors Studio in New York City to define this transformative technique. Method acting is a systematic approach that taps into an actor's real-life emotions and history, using them as a powerful tool to breathe life into a character. Through a series of exercises, character actors undergo a deep acting process, drawing on their own experiences, from childhood trauma to mundane moments like last night's dinner, as an emotional filter for their roles.

Affective Memory, also known as emotion memory, plays a crucial role in this method, infusing performances with genuine feelings emanating from the character's thoughts and actions. The desired outcome is an all-encompassing psychological transformation, where the actor truly becomes the character, manifesting in every aspect of their behavior. This immersion can be so profound that actors may spend hours daily, or even months during production, supplanting their own personalities with those of their characters, leading to periods of excessive fatigue and even erratic behavior.

Such dedication to the process of method acting may also involve strict diets or lifestyle changes to better align with the character's traits, all in pursuit of creating a truthful and emotionally charged performance. While demanding, this technique has become ubiquitous in the acting world, producing memorable portrayals that resonate deeply with audiences, and solidifying method acting as a powerful and enduring force in the world of acting.

Method Acting

Method Acting: Preparation

There are three basic preparation strategies in the method acting technique, each focusing on a different aspect of performance. By combining all three aspects, the actor can transform into the character, delivering work that will compel and convince at every level.

Psychological Preparation

Method acting trains actors in the transformation of their emotions in performance to match what the character was going through. A technique that Stanislavski coined as “sense memory” has the actor re-experience past real-life events to achieve emotional authenticity in character.

For example, if the story calls for the death of a loved one, the actor can recall how they felt when they lost a loved one and plug it into the moment. There are various such techniques that can achieve the goal of genuine emotive expression for actors. Method acting requires the performer to tap deeply into their own psychology to effectively transmit the character's experience to the audience.

A series of exercises are employed so that the actor can more effectively access those emotions on cue. For example, if you need to be ready to portray surprise, a director can prompt other actors to do something unexpected to elicit that genuine emotion. Pushing emotions to this realistic boundary can create exciting results. A balance must be maintained, however, as the actor can lose themselves in the role after the cameras stop rolling.

Physical Preparation

In the 20th century, method acting introduced a new dimension of physical preparation that revolutionized the craft of acting. Actors began undergoing drastic physical transformations to immerse themselves fully into their roles. These metamorphoses allowed them not only to match the appearance of their characters but also to tap into their psychological and emotional depths.

Some have gone to great lengths to embody their characters convincingly. For instance, in preparing for the role of a character with cerebral palsy, a method actor might spend a period of time studying the condition, observing individuals with this condition, and learning to replicate its physical manifestations. Similarly, a method actor portraying a paraplegic painter may employ various techniques, such as using stuffed socks to simulate the loss of limb function, to better understand and convey the character's experience.

On the other hand, physical preparation can also involve sculpting one's body to fit the demands of a character. For example, if an actor needs to portray a superhero, they might undergo intense training to become a strong and agile fighter, which not only alters their physical appearance but also affects their inner attitude and mindset. This inner transformation, influenced by the physical training, can significantly impact the authenticity of the performance and resonate with the audience.

Behavioural Preparation

Behavioural preparation in method acting pushes actors to extraordinary lengths to internalise their characters' traits. They might immerse themselves in a character's job for weeks or months, flipping burgers at a fast-food joint or shadowing a real doctor on their rounds. Engaging in a series of exercises, actors alter the meaning of sentences through changes in tone and intent, leading to mental and physical behavioral shifts over time.

A notable technique involves actors staying in character between shots and even in their daily lives, constantly walking, talking, and interacting as their characters. This extreme expression of method acting aims to maintain the mindset that brings the character to life. Though a powerful tool, this constant immersion can also burden actors with the weight of their characters, and it's not always advised. Nonetheless, these examples of method acting demonstrate the profound impact it can have on performances, enriching the craft of American actors and shaping the world of classical acting since the 17th century. As method acting persists, cultural critics continually evaluate its implications in current events and the broader landscape of the performing arts.

method acting technique

Method Acting in Film

One of the reasons that method acting is so prevalent in film is because, unlike theater, performances are necessarily broken up into out-of-sequence sections. In a theatrical play, an actor chronologically follows a narrative in real time. The evolution of the character happens organically before a live audience. In the space of a few hours, the character's entire journey can be felt by the actor.

In cinema, however, performance happens in bits and pieces. Films are necessarily shot out of the chronological narrative of the story. Virtually every scene requires multiple camera setups, constantly interrupting the performance.

This means that the actor may be called to “drop in” to a specific moment on cue. They can't build the performance up from the last scene. Instead, they must be able to switch on the emotion immediately called for on the spot, often in multiple takes. Method acting trains actors to be able to access those moments more precisely, allowing for a consistent performance to emerge after weeks of shooting out of order is edited into a brief cohesive narrative.

Famous Method Actors

Ever since the 1950s, method acting has been making its way from classroom theory to timeless cinematic performances that have won countless Academy Awards. Making waves both on screen and in real-world discussion, the relentless discipline of its practitioners gives audiences and professional critics alike much to be awed by. Some of the most well-renowned thespians have made their mark by delving deeply into the approach. The following four famous actors are among the standouts that have graced film employing method acting.

Konstantin Stanislavski

Konstantin Stanislavski's legacy as a Russian actor, director, and dedicated practitioner of the craft is indelibly linked to the burden of method acting. His relentless pursuit of emotional truth and authenticity revolutionised the art of performance, leaving an enduring impact on actors and audiences alike.

Marlon Brando

Perhaps the most influential actor of his generation, Marlon Brando was a dedicated practitioner of method performances. From purposefully acting irresponsibly and wearing dirty shirts to embody his character in A Streetcar Named Desire to stuffing cotton into his cheeks to sound more like a Mafia don in The Godfather, the lengths that Brando went to transform himself are legendary.

Anne Hathaway

Simultaneously identifiable and chameleon-like, Anne Hathaway leans heavily into method acting to make her characters come alive. In the TV show WeCrashed, she portrays the real-life co-founder of WeWork, Rebekah Neumann — who happens to be a vegan. To prepare for the role, Hathaway adopted Neumann's raw vegan diet as one dimension of her transformation.

Daniel Day-Lewis

As the foremost modern-day method acting movie star, Daniel-Day Lewis, recipient of many Academy Awards, has been known to take his roles a little too far. For the film Lincoln, he so insisted on staying in character, that fellow cast and crew members recall that they never met Lewis: he was always Lincoln, making it a very demanding role to perform. Co-star Sally Field reported that for months before shooting, he would even text her in character. While that may be deemed as extreme, there is no denying that Daniel Day - Lewis' performance was convincing.

Jack Nicholson

In the realm of method acting, Jack Nicholson's brilliance shines through his masterful use of affective memory and sense memory exercises. By tapping into his own emotions and immersing himself in his character's surroundings, Nicholson's performances transcend the screen, leaving an indelible mark on cinema history.

Jeremy Strong

Jeremy Strong's embodiment of Kendall Roy in the hit TV series Succession not only impressed audiences but also left his fellow actors in awe of his method acting prowess. With emotional recall from his personal experiences, he shouldered the burden of method acting, delving deep into Kendall's complexities to deliver a truthful performance that resonated profoundly. Strong's commitment to his craft resulted in an emotional experience on set, as he navigated Kendall's tumultuous journey with remarkable authenticity. His ability to draw from his own life experiences and seamlessly merge them with Kendall's character showcased the true power and impact of method acting, leaving an indelible mark on both the show's narrative and the hearts of viewers.

Is Method Acting the Best Approach for You?

Acting the Best Approach

Throughout the years, favorite actors have found inspiration and guidance from the discipline of method acting, with many even swearing by its transformative power. While each actor may choose their preferred approach to the craft, understanding method acting can undoubtedly serve as a valuable tool in enhancing one's performance. Its intense and all-encompassing nature, delving into actual feelings and requiring immersion for an extended period, sets it apart from other acting techniques.

If you're ready to level up your acting skills, check out Daisie for courses taught by industry leaders in film. Ask questions, discuss and learn together with like-minded creators and start practicing your skills.