What Is Method Acting? Delving Into the Immersive Dramatic Discipline
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 7 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. 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.

Method Acting: Definition

Method acting was established by three key acting teachers: Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner. Working together at the Actors Studio in New York City, they would come to define this technique, which has become ubiquitous ever since.

Method acting is a systematic approach to utilizing an actor’s real-life emotions and history as a tool that will create the role. A series of exercises are employed to develop the actor’s artistic talent and draw a blueprint the actor can use to bring a character to life.

Think of it as the actor implementing their own experiences through life, from childhood trauma to last night’s dinner, as a filter through which the character can speak. This imbues the performance with the genuine emotions which come out of a character’s thoughts and actions.

The desired result is a fully immersive psychological transformation that will be expressed in every aspect of a character’s behavior. In other words, the actor truly becomes the character. In many cases, the actor will spend hours a day or even months of production supplanting their personalities with their characters’ behaviors.

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

You may have heard tales of actors going through a physical transformation to prepare for a role. Famously, movie stars have done everything from drastically changing their weight to learning martial arts to bring their characters convincingly to life.

Aside from matching the appearance of the character, the opportunity for an actor to “live” in the character’s physical shape can inform the psychological performance. For example, if one becomes overindulgent with food, gaining a lot of weight, they will feel differently about themselves, which will come through in their new physicality.

On the other hand, if an actor needs to prepare for the role of a superhero, training to be a strong fighter can also change the inner attitude in a way that will affect the audience. Consider in your own life how everything from physical pain to a runner’s high can change your mood. This aspect is exploited by the method actor to better employ their craft.

Behavioral Preparation

You may have heard instances of famous actors spending weeks or months at a job that their characters have. From following a doctor on their rounds to flipping burgers at a fast-food joint, method acting can call for vigorous adoption of a character’s behavior at the visceral level.

Other behavioral techniques used in method acting include a series of exercises that can help change the meaning of ordinary sentences. By having pairs of actors repeat the same sentence to one another over and over again while changing the tone of their voice or intent of the message, their own behaviors can change mentally and physically over time.

Another famous aspect of behavioral preparation is when actors stay in character in between shots and even when they go home. By constantly walking, talking, and interacting with people in real life as their characters, they maintain the mindset that creates the character. This is an extreme expression of a method acting technique, which is not always advised.

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. 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 three names are among the standouts that have graced film employing method acting.

Marlon Brando

Perhaps the most influential actor of his generation, Marlon Brando was a dedicated practitioner of method acting. 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 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. 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 his performance was convincing.

Is Method Acting the Best Approach for You?

Entire generations of actors have not only been inspired by those who practice the discipline but also swear by it. Whether or not you opt to use it yourself, understanding it will nevertheless be a tool you can use in your own performance. While there are plenty of other approaches to acting, method acting is undeniably one of the most intense and all-encompassing of them all.

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.