Case Study: Jack Nicholson’s Method Acting

Posted on 4 July 2016




Jack Nicholson has been acting professionally for nearly 60 years, having made his professional debut in 1958’s The Cry Baby Killer. He is one of the industry’s most decorated actors, having won three Oscars, two for Best Actor and one for Best Supporting Actor. With 12 Academy Award nominations to his name, Nicholson is second only to Meryl Streep for total number of nominations.

How has he achieved all this? Simple: method acting.

Jack Nicholson is a master of the Method 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.”

For aspiring actors there is much to learn from Nicholson’s career about how to use method acting to take your craft to the level of a truly elite actor.


Getting serious about research

One of the pillars of method acting is affective memory which is the art of using your own past experiences to add a foundation of truth to your current performance.

Speaking to Esquire Nicholson once said:

“You gotta make it come from the inside. It’s all about who you are. That’s all you can really contribute. I feel autobiographical about whatever I do.”

However, for top actors like Nicholson, it’s not enough just to use their existing experiences, they go the extra mile to gain an insight into the minds of their characters. This often involves doing extensive research, meeting people and undergoing experiences that can help inform their acting.

Nicholson won his first Oscar for his role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where he played Randle McMurphy, a convicted criminal sent to a mental institution for evaluation. To get into character, Nicholson (and the rest of the cast) spent several months living in an asylum, including going to group therapy and spending time with real patients there.

This level of dedication paid off with one of the best known and most memorable performances of Nicholson’s career.


Knowing your instrument

One of the most important things for any actor is to know your instrument i.e. yourself. Understanding the theory of acting isn’t enough – you need to be able to apply that theory effectively. Many actors know all the right things but allow themselves to overthink, allowing their conscious brain to get in the way of their performance.

Nicholson uses classic method acting relaxation techniques devised by Lee Strasberg to remove any tension from himself that could “get in the way of getting into a role”.

He explains:

“The idea is to get the physical body, the emotional body and the mental body into neutral. Then you should be able to hear through the voice what’s actually happening inside.”

By getting yourself into “neutral” like this, Nicholson can then allow his instincts, honed by his method acting training, to take over. This produces performances that do not feel calculated but are utterly convincing, engaging and fundamentally truthful.


Always being able to deliver the goods

One of the things method actors are often complimented on is their sheer professionalism. Understanding the Method means an actor can produce reliable results again and again because they have a clear, repeatable process – they are not leaving anything to chance.

Tony Richardson, who directed Nicholson in The Border, said of the actor:

“He can come on the set and deliver, without any fuss, without taking a long time walking around getting into it.”

This is the epitome of the kind of actor you can become through method acting. Having the full range of method acting tools at your disposal means always being able to find your character and produce the necessary emotions on demand. This is what it means to be a professional actor, rather than an amateur with some degree of natural talent. Industry professionals do not want to take risks on an actor who may or may not be able to do the job on the day – they want actors like Jack Nicholson who can “come on the set and deliver, without any fuss”.


Learn to act like Jack Nicholson

To become a great actor like Jack Nicholson you need to learn the same acting technique used by Jack and the majority of elite actors – method acting! Method acting is used by 80% of Oscar-winning actors of this century and gives you the tools to create scene-stealing, instantly iconic performances just like those of Jack Nicholson and other greats in the field, such as Robert De Niro and Daniel Day-Lewis.

At the Brian Timoney Actors’ Studio we offer the UK’s leading method acting tuition, including our one-weekend Method Acting Boot Camp and our year-long Ultimate Acting Programme. Our courses cover everything you need to truly master the Method as well as helping you to understand the business of acting so you have all the skills you need to become a full-time professional actor.

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.


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