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How Filmmakers Can Harness the Power of Method Actors

Jourdan Aldredge

Exploring the history of method acting and how modern filmmakers can work with this famous approach. Get the insight.

Mainstream film media absolutely loves the narrative of having a film’s star perform as a method actor. We’ll get into many of the famous examples later, but just the term “method actor” probably brings to mind names like Daniel Day-Lewis or Christian Bale.

Sure, it’s a cool concept to get some easy press, but does having your lead actually walk around set in character help a production? And, how do the directors, camera operators, stunt doubles, and make-up artists work with such sometimes combative personalities?

Let’s dive into the powerful, crazy, and, at times, necessary world of method acting. We’ll explore the term, its history, and highlight some of the finest performances while examining how filmmakers can harness these great artists’ works.


What Is a Method Actor?

First, let’s clear some things up about the definition of method acting and a method actor. The Cambridge Dictionary defines method acting as “a style of acting in which an actor tries to understand and feel the emotions of the character he or she represents.”

However, for many film fans, the term is often misconstrued, focusing on an actor’s willingness to change their body by gaining or losing weight (as we can see many times with the aforementioned Christian Bale) or by making permanent changes (as we’ve seen recently with Shia LaBeouf getting large tattoos for a performance).

Method acting has since become a bit of a catch-all term for any form of acting in which an actor tries to immerse themselves within the character — emotionally and/or physically. From a filmmaking perspective though, it’s important to understand the basics of method acting, and how there are actually several different styles and approaches.


The Basics of Method Acting

The first versions of “method acting” that we can trace back through theater and performance history comes from the famous Russian actor Konstantin Stanislavski and his own unique technique which has been since labelled as Stanislavski’s system.

Dating back to the early 1900s, this system was one of the first to focus on an “art of experiencing” as a way to help actors better develop their performances by focusing on their own emotions and subconscious behaviors.

Stanislavski’s system would eventually give way to several other variations of this “self-focused” technique which have become popular acting perspectives. Three important approaches synonymous with the method acting style come from three different teachers and focus on three different methodological aspects:

While each approach is unique, they all share the same self-focused style and have taught several of the most famous method actors working today. In particular, Sanford Meisner and his Meisner Technique is often used as a form of method and improvisation and has been helpful for indie filmmakers like Wendy McColm, which she talks about in this interview.


Famous Method Actors and Roles

As mentioned at the beginning of the article, there’s nothing Hollywood loves more than hearing about a great method acting performance. And, as you can see in the video above, there are plenty of notable examples of actors going to some crazy extremes to look and act the part — 24/7. However, for every Daniel Day Lewis or Christian Bale performance, there are plenty of non-blockbuster roles where actors channel the method approach.

Here are some notable examples of famous actors in iconic roles using the method approach:


Filmmaking with Method Actors

So, the question remains, how do directors actually work with method actors on set? And, how can filmmakers work best to harness these powerful performances? There certainly can be challenges to working with method actors at times, but I’d argue that for many of the examples above, the pros far outweigh the cons.

Even if it might be a bit of a PR stunt, having a dedicated method actor on your set means that you’re working with a real student of the acting craft, someone who’s honed their skills in a specific technique. It’s still important to work with method actors as you would with any non-method approaches, and communication will always be crucial.

However, method actors do offer some keen advantages, as their approach helps provide a consistency to a role that can be steady throughout production. If an actor can stay connected and in character from the very first table reads, throughout rehearsals, and into the final days of filming, they should be able to easily replicate performances while continuously honing their character.

Method is also a very helpful tool for filmmakers who like to encourage improvisation on set and in different scenes. Yes, method actors do occasionally break — nobody’s perfect. But having a method acting background to rely on when being asked to venture into improvisation and ad-libbing dialogue can be key to bringing out some truly spectacular performances.


The Future of Method Acting

Truth be told, there’s actually some studies and essays out there that argue that method acting doesn’t really need to be this magical catch-all term. Instead, one could argue that method acting is just how most actors approach their roles at all times. As long as a performance comes from a place of self-connection and empathy, any actor could be classified as “method.”

There’s also a bit of controversy about the practice of method acting. You’ll find plenty of examples of actors taking the approach too far, as well as discussions about why we never hear about the great female method actors and how it can be  potentially dangerous for Black (or people of color) actors to practice method acting.

Ultimately, as film and video content continues to evolve in new and exciting ways, the principles of method acting will remain an important factor in how actors develop intriguing performances. And, as history shows, those principles will continue to evolve as well.


For more acting and filmmaking tips and tricks, check out these articles below.

Cover image from There Will Be Blood via Paramount.