There are many different schools of performance that come under the umbrella term of method acting. The case studies may be impressive and highly entertaining, but they shed light on bizarre extremes and question the worthiness of the self-confessed ‘method actor’.
Stella Adler’s take is focused upon the actor conjuring up emotions solely from the scene, excluding personal memory. Marlon Brando and Robert de Niro are amongst her most legendary students. In preparation for New York New York, de Niro learned to play the saxophone to ‘virtuoso standard’. Due to his dedication to training for Raging Bull, he was estimated to be amongst the top ten middleweights in the world. During the months leading up to the filming of Taxi Driver, he worked twelve hour shifts as a cabbie.
Daniel Day-Lewis has his own very personal vision of method acting which became evident in his portrayal of the severely paralyzed Christy Brown in My Left Foot. He refused to leave his wheelchair between scenes, regularly asking to be carried over technical equipment and wires. His sustained hunched position in his wheelchair caused him some discomfort too, earning him two broken ribs. His role in The Name of the Father as Gerry Conlon required substantial weight loss. He maintained his Northern Irish accent on and off set, demanded that crew throw coldwater at him and verbally abuse him, and even spent time in a solitary prison cell.
The pinnacle of intensity struck him when starring in Hamlet in the National Theatre. Day-Lewis had an uncontrollable fit of terror during the first scene with his father’s ghost; he sobbed hysterically and refused to go back on stage.
Physically, Christian Bale has pushed himself to the limit in many roles of various extremes. For American Psycho, he studied the book avidly and refused to socialise during the filming period. He spent months tanning and working out to achieve an Olympian physique. The Machinist saw him lose 63lb in order to play the emaciated Trevor Reznik, before the director and doctor forced him to stop. He also studied insomnia at great length, and deprived himself from sleep for prolonged periods.
Forest Whitaker’s role as Idi Amin brought a new extent of research that lead to his greatest success to date. He spent time in Uganda reading books about Amin, watching footage, meeting his relatives, his friends and even his victims.
Adrien Brody attracted attention in The Pianist. Having sold his apartment and car to replicate his character’s loss of everything at the hands of the Nazis, he withdrew for months, learning to play Chopin on the piano. In his role as Jack Starks in The Jacket, Brody spent hours on end in a ‘sensory deprivation chamber’ to prepare for scenes in a morgue drawer. Between filming he insisted on being locked in the drawer, kept the straight jacket on when possible and refused to speak to anyone on set.
Recalling Daniel Day-Lewis’ traumatic appearance on stage, I cannot help thinking that method acting is somewhat lost on film, not to mention being unpractical and rather self-indulgent. On stage it makes more sense, as the direct dynamic of performance savours more of the intensity that can be lost through a camera lens. Lawrence Olivier famously questioned the nature of this practise regarding co-star Dustin Hoffman, who had refused to sleep and wash prior to the filming of Marathon Man. On regarding Hoffman’s state, Olivier commented casually, ‘why don’t you just act, dear boy, it’s a lot easier’. I could not agree more.