Method actors use a number of different method acting techniques to create performances with a depth and believability most other actors simply cannot match. Learning these techniques allows actors to find inspiration on cue, meaning they can always deliver the goods when required.
This is why method actors are so often praised, not just for the quality of their acting, but also for their high levels of professionalism. By mastering the core techniques of method acting used by the likes of Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep you can become a truly elite actor.
The founder of method acting, Lee Strasberg, believed that “tension” was one of the main issues that could get in the way of an actor’s performance. Strasberg worked out that by getting his students to relax effectively, they were more open physically and mentally.
3 time Oscar-winner Jack Nicholson is a keen student of method acting. According to Nicholson:
“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.”
When in “neutral”, method actors put aside all of their natural expressions and mannerisms, turning themselves into a blank slate. This allows them to build their character from the tiniest movements up to create a complete physicality for their role.
Strasberg created relaxation exercises that actors like Jack Nicholson still use to this day. Nicholson explains:
“It’s a way of locating the tensions, the tiny tensions, the problems with your instrument that get in the way of getting into a role.”
Learning to properly relax, identify any issues with your instrument and give yourself a neutral canvas on which to work is the absolute foundation of method acting.
The job of an actor is sometimes described as the ability to “feel on cue”. This means being able to walk into an audition, onto a stage or in front of a camera and produce believable emotion at the drop of a clapperboard.
Affective memory means using our own, real life experiences as a source for generating those emotions we need for our acting. This is based around something we have all experienced – when we think of a particularly happy, sad, embarrassing or otherwise emotionally charged moment and feel a surge of that same memory all over again.
Christopher Walken famously used this technique for the Russian roulette scene in The Deer Hunter. Needing to produce a feeling of being betrayed, ostracised and alone, Walken recalled how he had felt upon being sent away to summer camp as a child. The result was a standout performance that helped to secure Walken’s reputation as a young actor to watch, giving a significant boost to his acting credentials and career.
As method actors, we learn to harness and refine this process allowing us to instantly and naturally produce the emotions required for a performance. Learning to control this process gives you a high level of control over your own feelings meaning you really can “feel on cue”.
Sense Memory/Emotional Memory
Sense memory is one the most important method acting techniques for using affective memory. The theory of sense memory is based around the realisation that our emotions are often tied to our memories through our five main senses. For example, the smell of a freshly baked cake may remind us of our last birthday and the happiness we felt. Or the sound of a song might remind us of an ex-partner and the sadness we felt when the relationship ended.
Our senses have a way of cutting past our logical brain and connecting directly with our emotions. This is why deliberately evoking a sensory memory connected to a powerful emotional memory can allow us to produce real emotions when needed for a performance.
Learning to use sense memory involves recalling moments of strong emotion in high sensory detail, pulling up a version of the memory so rich and real that the associated emotions are instantly triggered. When done correctly this method is highly effective and completely safe, unlike some myths you may have heard in the press!
This is one of the most powerful method acting techniques we teach. One of the signs of a good actor is that they never appear to be performing for an audience. Instead, they give the impression that they are behaving as they naturally would in the situation they are acting out. This is what we call “public solitude” or being “private in public” i.e. an actor is able to be exactly as they would in private while performing for an audience.
The first step to achieving this sense of public privacy for method actors is to carry out a private moment exercise. This involves taking an activity that you would normally do in private and then doing it in public in order to get comfortable with the feeling of sharing private moments with multiple people.
Perhaps one of the more extreme examples of this was when Jack Nicholson once spent the best part off a year being naked almost all of the time when at home, even when people came around. This was to help him get used to the idea of being naked in front of lots of people so it wouldn’t faze him when required to do so in front of a camera.
The goal is to overcome our natural sense of self-consciousness so we can learn not be affected by the knowledge that what we are doing is being observed. This is absolutely crucial and is something many actors take years to master, if they ever do. The private moment exercise speeds up this process significantly allowing you to have the confidence of a professional within months rather than years.
Creating a unique physical presence for your characters is a key part of bringing them to life. Giving a character a distinctive way of moving, including the way they walk, hold themselves and any particular ticks or habitual actions they have gives real depth to a performance.
One of the key ways method actors come up with a coherent, naturalistic physical performances is to base them on members of the animal kingdom. For the film Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro envisioned his character, Travis Bickle, as a crab. He saw the methodical, side-to-side motion of a crab as fitting the way of Travis’ indirect way of approaching people.
For his Oscar-winning performance in A Streetcar Named Desire, Marlon Brando imagined himself as a gorilla. This helped him create a sense of his character, Stanley Kowalski, as powerful, confident and intensely masculine.
These animal exercises allow method actors to explore the connection between the physical and psychological aspects of a character – how the way we think and feel affects the way we move and vice versa. By understanding this, we can help to create a rich and believable psychology for our characters by finding the appropriate way for them to move.
“You talkin’ to me?” Robert De Niro’s line from Taxi Driver is arguably the most famous line in the history of cinema, but did you know it was improvised?
Being able to improvise effectively is really important for actors, especially during auditions and the rehearsal process. One thing people often misunderstand, however, is that improvisation is not all about tearing up the script and coming up with your own lines.
Improvising as a method actor is as much about developing your character and learning to follow your instincts about how they would say their lines as it is about the actual words you are saying.
De Niro is a big believer in following your instincts as an actor. He once explained:
“I always tell actors when they go in for an audition: Don’t be afraid to do what your instincts tell you.”
One of the key improvisation techniques method actors use is sensory improvisation, which relates back to sense memory. This is where an actor tries out different sensory exercises to stimulate different internal emotions to see which is most effective for the scene. In this way, even though the words the actor is speaking are the same, the way they are said can be very different. This allows other actors and the director to try out different versions of a scene to find which is most impactful.
Even the best method actors will experience moments during rehearsals when what they are doing isn’t quite working. This might be a particular line that they can’t figure out how to deliver, or perhaps not being able to decide on the best action to take during a key moment.
This sort of confusion and tension can ruin a performance, making it very hard for everyone involved to move forward. “Speaking out” is a method acting technique that resolves these issues. An actor who is speaking out will break from the scene they are rehearsing and articulate exactly what problems they are experiencing and then return to the scene.
By vocalising the problem in this way, the actor brings it to the attention of their co-stars and the director and saying the problem out loud can often be enough to help the actor figure out a way around it.
Learning to identify these moments of difficulty and being able to recognise and articulate the reasons behind them allows actors to quickly resolve problems and move forward with rehearsals in a productive way.
Learn the core method acting techniques in just one year
If you want to become the best actor you can be, learning method acting techniques is an absolute must. Over 80% of Oscar-winning actors this century have used the Method and you could learn to act just like them in just a single year.
At the Brian Timoney Actors’ Studio, we offer world-leading method acting techniques tuition to actors from all around the globe. Our 1-Year Ultimate Acting Programme is a comprehensive programme of study which gives in-depth training in all aspects of method acting. What’s more, we give a strong practical grounding in the business side of acting, meaning not only will you have the skills, you will also know just how to get out there and get paid work using them.
If your dream is to become a professional actor, then stop dreaming and get in touch now so we can make your dreams a reality.