How the Best Method Actors Prepare for their Roles

We’ve all seen actors lose themselves in roles so deeply, they transport us to a different time and place, and for some of us, that’s why we go to the movies. But how do they do it? This post explores one particular acting technique that can drive actors to life-altering performances. We seek to answer what is method acting by defining it and giving some examples of the method actors of our time.

Watch: A Beginner's Guide to Method Acting

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Define Method Acting

What’s the method acting technique

There are many types of acting and all have different histories and origins. But some require more work than others. What kind of work? Well, the preparation behind some of the most astounding acting performances we’ve seen, comes from the Method technique.

Method Acting Definition

What is method acting?

Method acting is a technique or type of acting in which an actor aspires to encourage sincere and emotionally expressive performances by fully inhabiting the role of the character. It is an emotion-oriented technique instead of classical acting that is primarily action-based. It was further developed and brought to American acting studios in the 1930s by Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan.

However, Konstantin Stanislavski, a Russian actor and theatre director invented the technique in the early 1900s. Stanislavski did not call it method acting back then, but his ideas created a model to help actors build believable characters. Stanislavski’s approach was to encourage the actors to draw from personal experiences and memories in order to garner real emotions, and to connect with the characters. This stood in stark contrast to the more traditional, theatrical and classical acting of that time.

Famous method actors

  • Marlon Brando
  • Robert De Niro
  • Heath Ledger
  • Dustin Hoffman
  • Hilary Swank
  • Michelle Williams
  • Adrian Brody
  • Daniel Day-Lewis
  • Kate Winslet

A Quick Distinction

Method acting vs character acting 

Character acting refers to the type of acting that include eccentric, stylized roles. Method acting is realism based preparation applicable to all roles. Character actors can use the method acting technique as part of their preparation, however it is mostly associated with realistic, dramatic performances.

Lee Strasberg further developed the technique effectively creating “method acting.” His operating theory is that the actor should live the character he or she is playing even when not on stage or in front of the camera. This is why many method actors refuse to break character until filming is over. The lengths they go to embody the role often become obsessive involving serious weight loss, a change in sleeping habits and dietary norms, and more.

Before we jump into the actors and some method acting examples, watch this quick clip on what is method acting that highlights some of the more recent and extreme examples.

A brief overview of Method acting

Now, let’s look to some of these examples in greater detail.

Method Actor Meaning

Famous method actors with examples

Method acting is a type of acting that yields such incredible performances, the audience gets completely lost in the worlds of the character. How does an actor prepare for this level of performance, for some actors, the performance of their entire life?

An Oscar win is always a nice reward, but of course, not the only. And the madness that surrounds method acting is real and often frightening. Below are a few examples of actors who prepared so extensively, their performances help define the technique itself.

Marlon Brando
One of the original method actors. To prepare for The Men, Brando stayed in a hospital bed for an entire month to get in the mindset for the injured veteran he’d be playing. In Brando's best films, he doesn't seem to be acting at all but embodying the character. 

Marlon Brando explains why acting is necessary

Robert De Niro

De Niro is known to do whatever is necessary to truthfully convey his character. He’s faithful to the method and we can see that in many of his films. For Taxi DriverDe Niro worked 12-hour shifts and would pick up passengers in New York City during breaks on set. It is this kind of dedication that comes across in the best De Niro movies.

For Raging Bull, De Niro went through a significant physical transformation for the film's last act. Production on the film shut down for months while De Niro gained close to 70 pounds. In this clip, he explains why it was important to him to actually gain the weight.

De Niro on why gaining weight for Raging Bull was important

Playing terrifying Max Cady in the 1991 remake, Cape Fear, De Niro reportedly paid $20,000 for dental work. He paid to have his teeth ground down in order to look more terrifying. That in itself, terrifies me.

Pacino and De Niro share stories from decades in acting

Hilary Swank
Hilary Swank prepared for her role in Boys Don’t Cry, playing a transgender male, by spending a full month living as boy. She lost a ton of weight so her cheeks would look hollow, wrapped her chest, and stuffed socks in her pants to feel more like a boy.

Hilary Swank discusses her career and acting techniques

Dustin Hoffman
While shooting Marathon Man, Hoffman deprived himself of so much sleep, he apparently stayed awake for two whole days before filming a few scenes. He was in such bad shape, fellow actor, Laurence Olivier allegedly asked, “Why not try acting? It’s much easier.”

Hoffman was actually exhausted filming Marathon Man

Adrian Brody
The Oscar-win for The Pianist was probably more of a relief than anything else. Adrian Brody didn’t just drop weight to play the Holocaust survivor, nor did just learn the piano, practicing for four hours each day. He gave up his entire life and disconnected himself from society. He gave up his apartment, car, he disconnected his phone, and left for Europe to embody his character. He in turn, also lost his girlfriend.

What is Method acting according to Adrien Brody?

Kate Winslet
In order to play a former Nazi guard in The Reader, Winslet spoke in a German accent at home with her family. It took her several months after filming to get back to herself.

Watch Kate Winslet discuss her acting techniques

Daniel Day-Lewis

Daniel Day-Lewis’ commitment to the characters he portrays encapsulate the entire concept of what it means to be a method actor. In The Crucible, he decided to live on set. The set was a replica of a colonial village with no running water or electricity. Using only the tools settlers had in 17th century America, Day-Lewis built his own house on set. 

Further embodying the time period of the character, he refused to wear a contemporary winter coat on the Gangs of New York set, which nearly cost him his health, catching pneumonia. He also had a butcher flown in to teach him how to cut up carcasses — a fairly casual decision. 

And of course for Lincoln, he didn’t break character from seven months before shooting until the last day. He even texted with co-star, Sally Field, only in character.

Day-Lewis might be the most consistent method actor

Heath Ledger

Heath Ledger descended into madness in order to prepare for the role of the Joker in The Dark Knight, locking himself in his apartment for an entire month. In his self-imposed isolation, he practiced his laugh and scribbled his Joker-like ramblings into a notebook. After all, every actor who played the Joker has to bring a level of madness to the role.

He unnerved everyone on set with his strange demeanor and his complete avoidance to anyone who didn’t address him as the Joker. Watch some clips of Ledger on and off set.

Watch Ledger around the set along with some extra footage

Method preparation and complete immersion served the character and the film well in his near perfect performance, but sadly, not the actor. His posthumous Oscar-win somehow champions the technique while asking ‘was it worth it?’ Below is a quick clip from the documentary, “Too Young to Die,” as Ledger’s father goes through his notebook.

Ledger's dad goes through his notebook

There are so many more method actors — Jack Nicholson, Christian Bale, Rooney Mara, Michelle Williams, Val Kilmer, Shia LeBeouf. 

All, at some point or another, have lost themselves entirely in their characters to give the most authentic performance possible. 

Whether or not it’s always worth it, remains up for debate, but there’s no denying the courage, skill set, and truth the actors breathe into the characters when they choose to work in this technique.

UP NEXT

Marlon Brando's best performances

Brando is known as the poster boy for method acting, and for good reason. If he had made just one or two great films, that would have been enough — but he made many. Our list covers his best performances from a career that defined Method acting and acting in general.

Up Next: Brando's best → 
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