People often ask us who our favourite method actors are, but with so many of Hollywood’s top actors relying on the Method, naming our favourites is extremely challenging. Did you know, for example, that over 80% of Best Actor Oscar-winners this century have been method actors?
Ultimately, picking our favourites comes down to a mixture of who has achieved the most critical acclaim, who has gone the furthest in their dedication to method acting and a healthy dose of pure personal preference. With that in mind, here are 10 of our top famous method actors.
A student of method acting pioneer Lee Strasberg, Al Pacino is one of the most famous and committed proponents of the Method. As well as having used method acting to secure 8 Academy Award nominations and 1 win (for Scent of a Woman), Pacino is particularly admired among method actors for his ability to play in a range of styles. He has embodied characters at the extreme ends of the spectrum, from the wild Tony Montana in 1983’s Scarface to his more subtle Oscar-winning performance as Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade in Scent of a Woman.
Speaking to the Guardian, Pacino explained the essence of method acting:
“You have to look for the human in all the characters you play.”
Getting into the mind of a serial killer is particularly challenging for any actor. Charlize Theron did such a good job of it for her portrayal of Aileen Wuornos in 2003’s Monster that she won the Academy Award for Best Actress. Legendary film critic Roger Ebert called it: “one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema.”
Theron understands that being a great actor means:
“Your job is to go for the emotional truth”.
This is what has allowed Theron to successfully avoid type-casting with diverse roles in such critical hits as North Country, Young Adult and her recent film-stealing performance in Mad Max: Fury Road.
Jack Nicholson is one of the most critically respected actors of all time with 12 Oscar nominations to his name and three wins, two for Best Actor and one for Best Supporting Actor. He is also a devoted method actor who once claimed:
“There’s probably no one who understands method acting better academically than I do, or actually uses it more in this work.”
Nicholson is highly committed to his craft. For his first Oscar-winning role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest he spent months living in an asylum. His other wins were for the comedy As Good as It Gets (Best Actor) and Terms of Endearment (Best Supporting Actor).
Those who work with Nicholson often comment on his ability to spontaneously come up with very different takes on the same scenes, offering directors a real choice. He is also frequently praised for his high levels of professionalism. Director Tony Richardson explains:
“He can come on the set and deliver, without any fuss.”
This is the essence of a great method actor.
Two-time Best Actress Oscar-winner Hilary Swank’s career is all the more impressive for the fact she bagged two Academy Awards by the time she turned 30. This demonstrates perfectly how it doesn’t take a lifetime to become an elite actor if you can just master the Method.
For her first Oscar-winning role as a transgender man in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry, Swank spent months going out disguised as a man. Swank cut her hair short, bound her breasts and stuffed socks into her underwear so she could experience what it was like to pass as the opposite gender. According to Swank:
“It really showed me how much we use our identity and our gender to communicate”.
For her second Academy Award-winning role in 2004’s Million Dollar Baby, Swank undertook extensive boxing training for two months. Often working out as much as 5 hours a day with a professional boxing trainer, she put on 19 pounds of muscle and learned to understand the boxer’s mentality of having to “get out of the way of [yourself]”.
Perhaps the best-known story about Dustin Hoffman as a method actor was his approach to his role in Marathon Man. Wanting to achieve a sense of his character’s mental and physical deterioration due to the stresses he was undergoing in the story, Hoffman stayed up for 3 days and 3 nights. Hoffman’s committed performance helped to make the film a critical and commercial success.
Hoffman originally studied method acting at the Actors Studio in New York and ultimately went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actor twice, once for Kramer vs. Kramer in 1980 and again for Rain Man in 1988.
After a stunning debut in Luc Besson’s Léon: The Professional, filmed when she was just 12 years old, Natalie Portman has gone on to have a highly varied and successful career. Perhaps best known for her starring role in Star Wars Episodes I-III, Thor and Thor: The Dark World, Portman’s most critically-acclaimed role was playing the lead in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress.
Portman undertook over a year of intensive ballet training, including 6 months were she trained 5 hours a day, 6 days a week. This training not only got Portman into shape for the role and allowed her to do a certain amount of her character’s dance scenes herself, but also helped her get into the headspace of a professional dancer. She explained:
“You are constantly putting your body through extreme pain, so you get that understanding of the self-flagellation of a ballet dancer.”
Robert De Niro
1976’s Taxi Driver was one of the key performances that really made Robert De Niro a star. In preparation for his leading role in the film, De Niro worked 12-hour shifts as real New York cab driver to give him a reference when creating the character. He also made use of animal exercises, a classic Method technique, whereby he based his physical performance in the film on a crab, whose side-to-side motion he felt represented the character’s indirectness.
De Niro’s dedication to the Method earned him an Oscar nomination for Taxi Driver, one of 7 he has picked up over his career. He has won twice, picking up Best Supporting Actor for The Godfather Part II and Best Actor for Raging Bull.
With two Academy Award nominations for Best Actress to her name, British actress Naomi Watts is one to watch. She studied acting under Stella Adler and has worked on critically acclaimed projects including Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman and 21 Grams, David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.
Recently Naomi Watts devised a clever way to develop a deep bond with her co-star Matthey McConaughey for Gus Van Sant’s Sea of Trees. To simulate the closeness of the married couple they were playing on screen, Watts and McConaughey spent a month and a half exchanging emails in character.
“If you can’t get in a room with a person and see their eyes and take time with a conversation, writing can be a good way to connect.”
Daniel Day Lewis
A legend among method actors, Daniel Day-Lewis has won the Academy Award for Best Actor 3 times, a feat unequalled by any other actor. His first win came for 1989’s My Left Foot, his second for 2007’s There Will Be Blood and the most recent for 2012’s Lincoln.
Day-Lewis is particularly well-known for his dedication to authenticity and the extremes he is willing to go to in preparing for his roles. For Last of the Mohicans, Day-Lewis spent 6 months living alone in the Alabama wilderness only eating food he had tracked and killed himself.
He is also known for his refusal to break character on set, preferring to keep himself to himself between takes. Day-Lewis is notoriously interview-shy, but has explained in the past that he prefers staying in character as it takes less energy than slipping in and out between filming. It also allows him to focus all of his efforts on his performance.
No list of method acting legends would be complete without mentioning the magnificent Meryl Streep. With an astounding 19 Oscar nominations to her name, Streep is the most frequently nominated performer in Hollywood history.
Streep is also one of only 6 actors and actresses to have won more than 2 Oscars. She took the Best Actress gong for Sophie’s Choice in 1982 and The Iron Lady in 2011 and also picked up the Best Supporting Actress award for her part in 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer.
Speaking at the University of Texas, Streep explained what motivates her as an actress:
“The thing [that’s always] ignited my own excitement about working is to know more about somebody: What made them do this? What in God’s name went wrong?”
This desire to understand a character’s motivations is absolutely key to method acting as it allows you to relate the character to your own life experiences and motivations. Getting this right time and again is what has made Meryl Streep perhaps the greatest actress of her generation and one of our most valued method actors.
Join these Hollywood legends by learning method acting
If you want to become an elite actor like these Hollywood legends, you need to learn the Method. Our Studio is the UK’s leading provider of method acting tuition and has produced numerous successful professional method actors over the years.
Our ever-popular courses include 3-Day Method Acting Boot Camps and our One-Year Ultimate Acting Programme. We teach you everything you need to know to master the Method and become a successful professional actor. Unlike most acting courses, we also focus heavily on the business of acting, giving you the skills and resources to start finding paid acting work the moment you graduate.
To find out more, please take a look around the rest of the website and, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.