Is method acting a good strategy?
In the picture above, there are two actress’s practicing their method acting techniques at the Method Acting School based in West London. This school specialises in preparing young aspiring actors for the TV and Film industry by teaching them the understanding of what it means to use an important muscle that is the unconscious mind.
The is quite a lot of controversial views on whether this training and learning techniques are a great, essential tool for actors to connect with the character they play or whether it is a dangerous practice that consumes the mind to the point of phycological damage.
What is method acting and how does it work for actors in the film industry?
Method acting or ‘The Method’ is series of training and acting techniques, developed by Russian theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski. This training consists of actors considering their own personal experiences to get an idea of how the character feels. For example: A young actor with little or no experience about the characters ‘given circumstances’ (another technique by Stanislavski) is casted as an arsonist who is remorseless to anything living. By the actor having no experience in being an arsonist, that person would have to think about scenarios in which they would feel anger or something else that they could be helpful to them. Once the actor has thought about a situation that can help them feel emotion, they would then need to think about how they would behave if they were in the same situation as the character.
Actors inhabit the mind of their character and often use this technique off set at home or out and about. This helps them keep those emotions and that thought process going through their mind for the next time they are required to perform.
Robert De Niro is one of Hollywood’s most famous actors and has been in some amazing film productions over the years. He is a method actor and has had actor training by some well respected teachers in the industry. Robert was taught by Stella Alder who is one of Americas most famous theatre teachers who specialises in method acting, and Lee Strasberg, a Polish-born American actor and theatre practitioner. Strasberg was that heavily influenced by Stanislavski’s work that he ended up co-founding the Group Theatre and went on to run the Method Acting School in New York City. This makes Robert De Niro one of the most versatile actors of his generation as he is one of the most famous male actors in the film industry.
De Niro stated that “I always tell actors when they go in for an audition: Don’t be afraid to do what your instincts tell you.” He is a strong believer in acting instinctively in order for the casting director to not only see that you can portray the character well but also show that you are versatile and a unique actor. If you have seen some of his work, you know that he can play pretty much any part from a character in a comedy (Jack Burns in Meet the Fockers 2000) or a character in a horror film (David Callaway/Charlie in Hide and Seek 2005).
I have also studied method acting in college and university and I have to say it is a really intense experience. There were points where I completely went into a trance like state. There are five processes that you go through during the early stages of character development when using Stanislavski’s technique which are:
- Concentration of attention
- Emotional memory
I found that when I reached these steps, it did help me personify characters as I went through Stanislavski’s techniques which I of course an essential part of physical practice in drama and for professional actors in the film industry.
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The side effects of method acting
Method acting may seem like a great way to embody a character for many actors. On the other hand, is it entirely safe, what physical and psychological effect can this have on people and is it worth it?
Joaquin Phoenix played Joker in the film Joker 2019. He went to extreme lengths in order to embody this character. In any video production, you have to question whether the techniques being used are a safeguarding issue that is simply being led forward without thought. I know that from my own personal experiences, method acting techniques can allow you to lose clarity in daily life.
For example: I performed in a college production called Holloway Jones that has so many controversial issues. I played Holloway’s mum who is a former drug addicted who was in prison for many years. Of course, I had never taken drugs in my life so therefore apply these techniques to my acting work was essential for me.
I was really intrigued to know what it felt like to take drugs and the different effect each have on the mind and body. I decided to phone a local drug and alcohol support line to gain some perspective. The lady I spoke to was very helpful and put me in touch with a man who was in remission for cocaine (which is what my character was addicted to). My experience speaking with him was very insightful and very overwhelming. Cocaine is a very addictive and destructive drug. This man had lost his septum after fifteen years of drug abuse. The feelings he felt were isolation, happiness for short periods of time, fear and many more. It was a really tuff time for him.
I carried out my own research of course but it was important for me to find out first-hand what drugs can actually do and make you feel. I decided to expose myself to situations where I would be able to experience the same feelings. For insolation, I would lock myself in a room for a long period of time, turn off my phone and not socialise. For happiness, I would do something that would bring me joy temporarily such as eating chocolate. For fear, I would imagine a scenario in which I lost my whole family.
I have to say it did take its toll on my mental health after only testing out these methods for two days. I started to feel overwhelmed and dissociate from my normal life as I became fully immersed in my characters life – not in a good way.
Joaquin Phoenix is known for be an extremely versatile actor who truly embraces every aspect of the characters life. Many refer to him as a young Daniel Day-Lewis (another great method actor). In an interview he stated that “The first thing was the weight loss, that’s really what I started with. As it turns out, that impacts your psychology, and you really start to go mad when you lose that much weight in that amount of time. There’s also a book about political assassins that I thought was interesting, and breaks down the different types of personalities that do those sorts of things [I do in the film].” The actor lost fifty-two pounds for the role and stated that he started to feel “energised and exited” once he reached his target weight for the role.
Of course, many people would say that this is method acting taken to an extreme. That this isn’t healthy for the body and mind. I would agree to extent. I think that this type of method acting is extreme however an actor knows their limits. Having studied drama and theatre for four years, I know first-hand that it’s all about trial and error with techniques. Many actors in the film industry use other methods from various practitioners and are successful at portraying the character.