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5 Actors Who Turned Method Acting Into an Art Form

As someone who's struggled with anxiety, I was terrified of passing it to my sons. That's why I discovered ways to promote their well-being.

Robert DeNiro: An Icon of the Method During the 1970's and 80's

He picks up the phone, and before his agent can even utter a word, Robert DeNiro immediately says, “I'll take it!” This joke about the septuagenarian actor underscores his current reputation as a thespian who will take any role as long as it comes with a hefty paycheck. But for those of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s, he was seen as quite the opposite—one of the best actors of his generation who was extremely selective about the parts he took. We watched him transform onscreen into the characters he portrayed, whether it was the self-destructive boxer Jack LaMotta in Raging Bull, the mentally unstable cabbie in Taxi Driver, or the young mob boss in The Godfather Part II. Like Marlon Brando before him, DeNiro became an icon of the acting technique called the Method, giving authentic and emotionally charged performances that left audiences in awe and getting nominated for a multitude of Oscars.

The Origins of the Method

The late acting teacher, Lee Strasberg, is known as the “father of the acting method in America.” Young actors of the '50s, '60s, and '70s admired his revolutionary approach and longed to study with him. His pupils included such famous names as James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Dustin Hoffman, Jane Fonda, Paul Newman, and Al Pacino. Method acting emerged at a time when people were fascinated by Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis and the idea of “making the unconscious conscious.” Patients in therapy were helped when they released their pent-up fears and emotions. Audiences in the theater were entertained when actors broke down in tears or exploded with fury.

Strasberg pushed his students to dig deep into their unconscious and use what they found there for their roles. He demanded they shoot for psychological truthfulness so their acting didn't seem like acting. He wanted performances that were raw, real, and human. Tennessee Williams, the esteemed playwright of A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie, chose method actors to appear in many of his shows, admiring their dedication to realism. He said of them, “They act from the inside out. They communicate emotions they really feel. They give you life.”

Actors Used to Their Characters Through Method Acting

DeNiro is not the only popular movie star who's cashing in and diminishing the craft of acting in the process. Just as he returns to the trough for the Meet the Parents sequels, other actors take the same easy route by doing franchise flicks. Johnny Depp makes more Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Ben Affleck suits up for another re-incarnation of Batman, and Tom Cruise falls back on the Mission Impossible series.

Other famous actors such as Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, and George Clooney always seem to play it safe, portraying likable versions of themselves onscreen rather than metamorphosing into someone new for each role. They're not method actors, doing lots of research on the character and then becoming that person on screen. But, thankfully, we still have some prominent thespians who embrace the Method and turn in unforgettable performances. Here are 5 Oscar-winning stars who are considered outstanding method actors:

Daniel Day-Lewis Exemplified Total Commitment Playing a Man With Cerebral Palsy Who's Wheelchair Bound

1. Daniel Day-Lewis

The English thespian and recipient of three Academy Awards for Best Actor recently announced his retirement at age 60. Although he remains private about the reasons, some speculate that his dedication to method acting and its intense preparations may have taken its toll. Day-Lewis was known for staying in character on and off the set while filming his movies. He lived in the woods for six months, learning to skin animals and build canoes for The Last of the Mohicans. He refused to leave his wheelchair and insisted on being spoon-fed while doing My Left Foot, and he learned to speak Czech for The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

2. Sean Penn

Because of their dedication to keeping it real, some method actors such as Sean Penn have gotten a reputation for being difficult. Writer Cameron Crowe said the young upstart actor insisted on being called by his character's name Jeff on the set of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Actor John Leguizamo said that he was scarred for life while working with Penn on Causalities of War and still twitches with fear whenever they bump into one another. He recalls of the filming, “Sean Penn is a sergeant and we kidnap this Vietnamese girl and we gotta gang rape her and my character refuses and Sean's gotta slap me into submission, and of course, Sean doesn't believe in stage combat because he's too method for that shit, so he's slapping me for real.” Despite Leguizamo's complaints, the Method paid off for Penn as he went on to win two Best Actor Oscars for Mystic River and Milk.

3. Marlon Brando

When one thinks of method actors, Marlon Brando immediately comes to mind, especially in his starring role as the brutish Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. This tour de force led to his first Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards. He eventually won for On the Waterfront and The Godfather. While he didn't have much respect for the acting profession in his later years, the young Brando was a serious and dedicated acting student under the tutelage of Stella Adler.

Unlike Strasberg, Adler believed it was unnecessary (and unhealthy) for performers to recall tragic incidents in their own lives in order to bring forth emotion on stage or in film. Instead, she believed actors should become intimately connected to the script and all feeling and motivation should come from those words and those circumstances. She believed in-depth research was key for perfecting a role and her mantra was “in your choices lies your talent.”

Brando Is Animalistic and Full of Raw Emotion

4. Hillary Swank

When discussing great method actors, it quickly becomes apparent that there aren't many women in the bunch. The approach seems better suited to men in dramatic roles (not comedies) who face an existential crisis that triggers an emotional response. While Meryl Steep is a gifted technical actress who's won numerous awards, she doesn't claim to become her characters as method actors do. Instead, she uses her imagination and pretends to be them.

While not a student of either Strasberg or Adler, Hillary Swank is probably today's most successful female thespian who embraces the Method, having won two Best Actress Academy Awards by the age of 30. In Boys Don't Cry, she played a real-life trans man who gets brutally raped and murdered. To prepare for the role, she lived as a guy for an entire month. During the shoot, she stayed in character on the set. For Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, she gained 19 pounds of muscle and trained for three months so she looked and boxed like a professional.

5. Al Pacino

No list of method actors would be complete without Al Pacino. In his late 70s, the thespian now expresses some regret about his devotion to the Method even though he won a Best Actor Oscar for Scent of a Woman. He describes the process as arduous and lonely as he stayed in character both on and off the set. He says, “ If I were to go back, I would tell myself, 'You don't have to do that all the time, Al. Just be yourself, and only when it's time to act, only then get into the role.”

But, without all the hard work and preparation that method acting demands, it's doubtful Pacino would have been as successful. It's doubtful he would have a career spanning over five decades. But his words do illustrate how method actors suffer for their art and for truth.

© 2017 McKenna Meyers


McKenna Meyers (author) on December 31, 2017:

You're welcome, Dora. Thanks for the kind words. Since my son is an actor at high school, I'm learning more about his craft!

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on December 31, 2017:

Thank you for the introduction of method acting, plus the explanations and illustrations of the art from the work of these outstanding actors. I appreciate the research and the good presentation.