What is Method Acting, and Why is it Important?
When the media talk about method acting, they often like to focus on wild stories about actors pulling out their own teeth or losing large amounts of weight for a role, but this is not what method acting is. So, what is method acting? Well, fundamentally, method acting is a series of mental techniques the very best actors use to enhance their performances by allowing them to call up real emotions on cue.
Method acting is not, as some in the media would have us believe, an extreme technique used by only a tiny minority of actors. It is, in fact, a system for better understanding and utilising the practices great actors have always used in their performances. As the founder of modern method acting, Lee Strasberg once said:
“Method acting is what all actors have always done whenever they acted well.”
The history of method acting
The term ‘method acting’ was coined by the great actor, director and acting coach Lee Strasberg to describe his approach to producing a more realistic style of acting. The basic principle of Strasberg’s method was that actors should draw on their own experiences to inform the way they embody their characters, thus adding an increased sense of realism to their performances.
Strasberg’s students include many of the acting greats of the 20th century, including Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Jane Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Mickey Rourke and more. It’s also worth noting that Strasberg didn’t just talk the talk – he was also a highly accomplished and respected actor, receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his part in the Godfather Part II.
The legacy of Lee Strasberg’s method acting techniques is still being felt today, with over 80% of Oscar-winning actors in the 21st century being method actors.
How method acting works
There are a number of techniques involved in method acting, but at the most basic level it is about being able to find inspiration as an actor on cue. It’s no good turning up to the theatre, or on set and not knowing whether you will be able to deliver the goods or not. Leaving things up to chance like that would certainly not be tolerated in any other profession! Method acting allows you to generate real, honest and engaging performances every time by using reliable, repeatable processes to get into character and produce the emotional truth needed for a great performance.
Method acting requires us to create a realistic, believable inner life for our characters so that they will feel real to the audience. We do this by understanding our own psychology and how this relates to the characters we are being asked to inhabit. By tapping into our own emotional experiences, we can imbue our characters with those same emotions as required, producing performances that are far more authentic than if we were simply “pretending”.
“I think that at their cores, psychology, cognitive science, and theater are all trying to do the same thing, which is understand why people do the things they do, our range of behavior, and where it comes from”.
Method acting allows us to understand the emotions underlying a character’s words and actions, then find those same emotions inside ourselves and bring them out on demand.
Method acting techniques
Creating a great performance is not as a simple as remembering how you felt in the past and then “pretending” to feel the same thing in front of an audience. There are a number of processes method actors go through in order to find the emotional truth required for a role.
Being able to relax as an actor means breaking down any barriers between you and your performance. Any tension you feel can block the true expression of your thoughts and emotions. This can easily cause you to overthink things and result in a performance that feels stiff and unreal. Method actors learn relaxation techniques that allow them to remove any blockages between them and their performance so they can offer something that feels truly spontaneous and real.
Three-time Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis once said of method acting:
“All you’re trying to do is lay the groundwork, which might allow the imagination to free itself.”
This is why relaxation is so key – it allows you to take all the preparation you have done for a role and use it instinctively and imaginatively to create a raw and fluid performance, rather than something that feels too calculated or mechanical.
Tapping into strong, emotionally charged memories from our own lives is vital for creating strong emotions when acting. Affective memory lets us safely and reliably bring up powerful memories and use them to inform our performances. This is the key to finding inspiration on cue and is what separates professional actors from amateurs who may offer a brilliant performance one day, then be unable to recreate it the next.
Our memories are intimately connected with our senses. Think of the way hearing a favourite song from your youth instantly brings back the feelings you experienced when you first heard the song. Or the way the smell of food makes your mouth water with the memory of a wonderful meal you once had. Method acting teaches us to understand how our senses trigger our memory. This allows us to use our senses to recreate past emotions by recalling the senses associated with certain feelings and essentially hot-wiring our brains into pulling up the required emotion.
Making the private public
One of the hardest things about acting, whether on set or on stage, is forgetting that people are watching you and really losing yourself in your performance. It is a fundamental part of our human nature that we act differently in private to how we do in public. Overcoming that is an absolutely vital part of method acting as it means you can stop “performing” and start delivering something much more honest. Method acting training gets you used to making the private public and gives you techniques to help you feel totally natural doing so.
Acting is about using your whole body and method acting does not overlook this. Learning how to really engage with your body and use movement to create characters is absolutely fundamental. Understanding how different kinds of people move and how this reflects their personality unlocks your ability to truly inhabit a character, both physically and mentally. Method acting training also looks at how our physical movements and the way we hold ourselves both reflect and influence our emotions, leading to performances that feel truly alive and three-dimensional.
Creating a unique physical presence for your characters is one of the most challenging aspects of acting. Animal exercises encourage actors to look to the way animals move to inform their performances. This is a trick often used by many of the most elite actors. Famous examples include Robert De Niro basing his performance in Taxi Driver on a crab. He felt his character was indirect and so tended to shift from side to side, while Marlon Brando used the physicality of a gorilla for his role as the brutish Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Method acting research
One of the aspects of method acting the media often love to focus on is the amount of research or preparation various actors do for their roles. For example, Robert De Niro spent months training as a boxer for Raging Bull including taking part in three real boxing matches (of which he won two). However, it’s important to understand that this sort of preparation is not actually method acting.
What this kind of research does do, however, is give the actors involved real experiences to draw on for their method acting. Ultimately, it is understanding how to use the emotions experienced during that preparation to inform your performance – that is what we mean by method acting. Without this understanding, all the research in the world won’t help you because you won’t be able to apply it to your acting.
This is especially important for up-and-coming actors. Chances are you won’t have the time or financial resources to spend months doing the kind of in depth preparation an actor like Robert De Niro or Daniel Day-Lewis is able to do. This does not mean, however, that you can’t be an effective method actor. Learning the process of method acting means you can take your existing experiences and use them to inform your performance, even if you don’t have experiences that directly relate to what you are being asked to portray. This point is so important, because it reinforces the point that method acting is for everyone, not just a tiny minority of actors with the resources to spend months immersing themselves in a sport like boxing, or whatever else it might be.
How to become a method actor
If you are serious about becoming a method actor then you need to find a great mentor to help you do it. Sadly, Lee Strasberg is no longer with us, but our method acting classes continue his legacy of excellence by opening up the world of method acting to a new generation. We offer both a short one-weekend Method Acting Boot Camp and our year-long Ultimate Acting Programme which covers everything you need to become a successful, professional method actor, including a full understanding of the business of acting.
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.