When it comes to acting, there are several different approaches. Some go to work, become their character for a day, and then go home. Others don’t even bother becoming a character, they just play versions of themselves in every role (yes, I’m looking at you Ricky Gervais). And then there are the Method Actors. For them, simply playing a role is not enough – they must absorb themselves in it and become that character. They adopt the accent day and night, they lose weight…anything to perfect that performance. Discover the madness behind the camera in our Top 10 Most Intense Method Actors.
1. Natalie Portman
Anyone who’s seen Natalie Portman’s movie “Black Swan” will not be surprised that the actress found it hard to shake the character off during filming. It’s a relentless film, full of tension and jagged music that puts your nerves on edge and Portman’s character is a psychotically stressed dancer in the world of classical ballet – one of the only careers that rivals Hollywood for ferocity and pressure. So, for the role she not only resumed her ballet dancing (she studied for 9 years as a child), she also lost 20 pounds and looked almost child-size in the film. The method paid off, as she gained a Best Actress Oscar for the role. Ever dedicated, Portman also shaved her head on camera for her role in “V for Vendetta”, even though it led to months of people staring at her in the street. Movie stars get that anyway, right?
2. Jim Carrey
Zany Jim Carrey, star of “The Mask” may not seem like the most obvious Method Actor. You’d imagine that, off-screen, he was an easy-going buffoon, like his “Dumb and Dumber” character. But give him a straight movie and he takes it very seriously. The movie in question was 1999’s “Man on the Moon”, a study of troubled comic Andy Kaufman, and Carrey admits that he never left the character. He says “I was in character 24 hrs a day as either Andy Kaufman or Andy’s alter-ego Tony Clifton” and behind the scenes footage testifies to that – not only did Carrey stay in Clifton’s sunglasses at all times, he also interacted with other cast members in character, using Clifton’s voice and aggressive manner. Intense indeed!
3. Christian Bale
Someone else who never comes out of character while shooting, Bale famously had a massive rant at a lighting tech on the set of “Terminator:Salvation”, talking all the time in an American accent instead of his native Welsh. But this was no isolated incident – Bale, who insists he is “not a Method Actor” loses and gains weight for every role, losing a massive 5 stone for 2004’s “The Machinist” before bulking up again for his Batman films, through the tried and tested method of ice cream and pizza. 2009’s “The Fighter” saw him losing that same 5 stone again, and he has since returned to a more normal weight. He also distanced himself from cast and crew during the filming of “American Psycho”, in order to keep a sense of mystique around his psychopathic character Patrick Bateman. And yet, he says he’s not a Method Actor. We beg to differ. But we’ve seen what a temper he has, so maybe we should just agree with him…
4. Dustin Hoffman
One of the legendary Method Actors of the 70s, a golden age for intense acting, Hoffman was famously rebuked by Laurence Olivier, a well-known critic of “The Method”. The story varies, but it always goes a little like this: In the mid-70s, Hoffman was filming “Marathon Man” with the veteran actor. The role called for the character to be severely sleep-deprived, having been up for three days continuously. As a Method Actor, Hoffman decided to take this on board and stayed up for three days in preparation. Arriving exhausted on set, Olivier is reputed to have said “Try acting, dear boy…it’s much easier”. Sadly, it seems this story is part-apocryphal – Hoffman’s partying was more to do with the break-up of his marriage and less to do with the role. But it’s still a great story!
5. Renée Zellweger
Like her former partner Jim Carrey, Zellweger is associated with the lighter side of the entertainment business. But that doesn’t mean she can’t still employ The Method. And she famously did so, in preparation for her role as iconic singleton Bridget Jones. When she was cast, Bridget fans were outraged, protesting about the American actress’ lack of both curves and Britishness. So, she worked on both, downing pints of Guinness to flesh out her slender frame, and receiving voice coaching to perfect her London accent. She even went undercover for three weeks, working at a London publishing house in order to really connect with her inner Bridget. When the film came out, even die-hard fans had to admit that Zellweger had nailed the character, and both that film and the sequel were hugely successful.
6. Joaquin Phoenix
From someone who started out as just River Phoenix’s brother, Joaquin Phoenix has gone on to become an extremely credible actor in his own right. When he played Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line”, he learnt to play guitar from scratch and insisted on being called “J.R.” on set (for John R. Cash). He also improvised the scene in which he pulled a sink off a wall, by actually just pulling a sink off a wall – it wasn’t scripted, he was just in the moment and it happened like that.
But that’s all minor, compared to the weird hoax that was “I’m Still Here“. Phoenix announced he was retiring from acting and starting a music career, and it was all filmed as a documentary, as he grew his transitional beard and struggled to make it as a musician. After the film was released, Phoenix made another announcement – he wasn’t retiring after all, the film had just been a publicity stunt. Clearly someone who struggles to separate film from reality…
7. Heath Ledger
Ever wonder how the late Heath Ledger got his Joker to be so compelling? It was by living the unhinged character, day and night, while shooting. He had some high expectations to live up to – following the legendary Jack Nicholson – and the initial fan response to his casting was dismay. But Ledger threw himself into the role, shutting himself away and meditating on the role while reading comic books. As he put it: “I sat around in a hotel room in London for about a month and I just locked myself away and formed a little diary and experimented with voices. I ended up landing more with in the realm of like a psychopath, someone with no empathy.” The result was a terrifying, astounding performance but it was to be one of Ledger’s last, sadly, as he died shortly after filming wrapped.
8. Marlon Brando
And now onto one of the giants of Method Acting, Marlon Brando. Famous for such films as “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “The Wild One”, Brando was one of the first actors to employ this technique. His method was known as Stanislavski’s System, and relied on actors drawing on their own experiences to flesh out their roles. The logical conclusion of this is that if you don’t already have the experience needed for that role, you go and get it. So Brando did, with his very first film “The Men”, shot in 1950. In it, he played a paraplegic veteran and to get into character, he spent two weeks in hospital receiving therapy and learning to use a wheelchair. Apparently, producers were impressed by his dedication but also panicked at his lacklustre performance in rehearsals, mumbling his lines and failed to interact with his co-stars. But the minute the cameras were rolling, the Brando magic emerged and he delivered a flawless scene, earning a standing ovation from the crew. An exceptionally controlled actor.
9. Daniel Day-Lewis
And now an actor who is keeping Brando’s legacy alive and proving that Method Acting is not just restricted to the past. For his award-winning role as Abraham Lincoln, Day-Lewis fully immersed himself in the President’s life. He signed text messages as “The Commander in Chief” or “A” and crew members said it felt as if Abraham Lincoln was sitting in front of them. Lucky really, as he insisted on being addressed as “Mr President” at all times during shooting. He showed similar commitment to other roles, getting an apprenticeship in butchery for “Gangs of New York” and using a wheelchair throughout the shoot of “My Left Foot” in which he played Christy Brown, an artist with cerebral palsy. He even allowed himself to be spoon-fed in order to stay in character and says he find it easier than “jumping in and out” of roles. That’s commitment!
10. Robert DeNiro
No list of Method Actors would be complete without DeNiro, widely considered to be one of the finest actors of all time. His numerous intensive preparations include learning to box for “Raging Bull”, working as a cab driver for “Taxi Driver” and living in Sicily for “The Godfather:Part II”. He even threw anti-Semitic insults at Jerry Lewis during filming of “The King of Comedy“, in order to inspire wrath in his co-star. He truly is an inspirational actor, though you have to wonder just what kind of mental torture preparation he did for his role as psychotic father-in-law-to-be in “Meet The Parents”. You wouldn’t want to date any child of his, would you?