Did you hear that Christian Bale gained over 40 pounds for his role in Vice? Or, how about the infamous time the ‘crazy’ Jared Leto allegedly posted used condoms to his co-stars in Suicide Squad? The term ‘going method’ has long-defined such bizarre behaviour, providing an excuse for male actors, in particular, to act how they desire on set in pursuit of a deeper artistic truth of performance. For the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis, Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio, it is not enough to embody a particular character, they must suffer for their craft under a bunch of superfluous rules that serve only to bolster their ego.
The so-called ‘method’ originated in New York in the 1930s and ‘40s by key members of The Group Theatre, including Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg who based their thinking on Konstantin Stanislavski’s theory of ‘the system’. Much like the ‘method’, the ‘system’ was an approach to training actors that focused on the ‘art of experiencing’, with an emphasis put on actors transferring their lived experiences to their characters, helping them to react more naturally to certain situations.
As ‘the system’ became more popular and actors vowed to find more intricate ways to prove themselves as performers, ‘the method’ was born thanks to the likes of James Dean, Marlon Brando and Dustin Hoffman. Though the techniques of these actors were not the ones outlined by Konstantin Stanislavski, instead ‘the method’ had mutated into something that actors saw as a 24/7 commitment to living as their character. They weren’t transferring a lived experience, they were emotionally ‘becoming’ a character to extract through psychological and physical torment.
Having long gone hand-in-hand, the concept of the tormented artist has existed throughout human history, from the psychosis of Vincent van Gogh to the mental health issues of former Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, to the extent that some now wrongly romanticise such a tortured existence.
Of course, one doesn’t have to suffer to unlock the creativity of expression or to legitimise their work, though look at cinema and you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. In the pursuit of accessing a deeper truth to their performance, the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis demanded to be spoon-fed whilst playing a disabled man in My Left Foot, Jim Carrey tormented the whole set of The Man on the Moon under the pretence of being ‘possessed’ by Andy Kaufman and Shia LaBeouf refused to shower on the set of Fury.
There are countless such stories throughout contemporary cinema that include the likes of Gary Oldman, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, with actors seemingly trying to one-up each other in pursuit of critical adoration and the coveted Best Actor Academy Award. Regardless of any of these performances being any good, such actors are consistently favoured by awards shows who feel that pain and suffering equate to a significant acting achievement.
Is ‘method acting’ a triumph of performance and craft, or is it indeed nonsense. Quickly becoming the standard to which we hold quality performances in Hollywood, the rotten behaviour by the likes of Jared Leto on the set of Suicide Squad has been accepted as a legitimate form of accessing a deeper performance. As the actor recently told Entertainment Weekly, “I’m an artist at the end of the day. If I do something risky and you don’t like it, basically, you can kiss my ass”.
Instead, as indeed Leto graciously suggests, it seems as though ‘method acting’ is merely a practice of egotistical navel-gazing with Hollywood perpetuating a lie that ‘suffering equates to quality’. As such, the likes of Gary Oldman, Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio will continue to pursue physical and mental torment whilst hampering the well-being of their crewmembers, all in the name of ‘the method’.
Acting can be mastered through several different methods and popular cinema shouldn’t be blinded into thinking otherwise. As the great Laurence Olivier told Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man, “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting? It’s so much easier”.