When Does Method Acting Cross a Line?
- “Succession” star Jeremy Strong’s method acting has irritated colleagues, per a New Yorker profile.
- Strong’s co-star Brian Cox, who is Scottish, called method acting “an American disease.”
- From sexual harassment to throwing things at crew members, method actors sometimes go too far.
Mention method acting to anyone in the film industry, and you’ll probably be treated to the now-legendary tale of Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman on the set of “Marathon Man.” As the story goes, Hoffman stayed up for three days straight in preparation for a scene in which his character also hadn’t slept for 72 hours. When the classically trained Olivier heard of his co-star’s efforts, he said, “My dear, why don’t you try acting?”
Hoffman is what is colloquially known as a “method actor” — a performer who, in an attempt to best convey the emotions and circumstances of their character, will go to any lengths necessary to immerse themselves in their role. The “method” has its roots in the Stanislavski method, a set of acting techniques that was developed in Russia in the early 20th century.
The technique has received renewed scrutiny after a recent viral New Yorker profile of Jeremy Strong, who’s received acclaim for his portrayal of Kendall Roy in HBO’s “Succession.” According to the article, Strong’s commitment to the method can come at a cost to others on set. There’s the time he reportedly wanted to experience real tear gas — in a crowd of hundreds of extras. Or the time he wouldn’t stop playing the kazoo while other actors were trying to film a scene. As his “Succession” co-star Kieran Culkin confessed, “That might be something that helps him. I can tell you that it doesn’t help me.”
Strong isn’t the only method actor to raise hackles on set. While filming the recent
hit “The Power of the Dog,” Benedict Cumberbatch remained in character as the abusive Phil, which allowed him to “commit to this character whose behavior is at times repugnant, and not feel apologetic or embarrassed or self-conscious about it in any way,” he told Variety. That included calling co-star Jesse Plemons “big boy,” which Plemons said “pissed [him] off.” (Cumberbatch later apologized.)
“It’s tough, because you have actors that care so much about the character and sometimes there are crew members that do feel a little uncomfortable or they don’t understand their process,” said Jesse Kove, an actor who has witnessed performers go too far on set.
In the right hands, industry veterans say, method acting can produce remarkable results. But in the wrong ones, it can cause more problems than it solves.
When method acting goes wrong on set
Devin J. Ricks, the director of the “Love Cycle” series, has had at least one rough encounter with a method actor. His second film, “Beautiful Mistake,” featured a character who was “a charmer with a lot of emotional baggage,” Ricks said.
At first, Ricks thought the actor hired to play the role “was doing a flawless job acting like the character.” But he became so embroiled in his character’s love story, he couldn’t separate reality from fiction.
Ricks said the actor “thought the feelings were real and tried to pursue” his co-star during filming. “So I had to step in to rally things together,” the director said. “I kept telling myself, ‘Just hold on tight, Devin, we’re almost done taping.'”
Dan Mirvish, the director of “Between Us” and “Bernard and Huey,” has also experienced the toll that method acting can take on a film set.
“I worked with one actor, who will stay unnamed, who was playing a challenging character,” he said. “They seemed to stay in it long after we said cut,” which led to a toxic and occasionally dangerous atmosphere on set. “They would take out frustrations on the crew, throwing things, storming out and that sort of thing.”
Mirvish also worked with an Australian actor who was so committed to immersing herself in an American accent that “we actually had to fire the makeup artist, because that makeup artist had an Australian accent,” he recalls. “That’s not a diva move at all, it just made sense. And I think everyone understood that, including the person we had to fire.”
As an actor, Jesse Kove — who’s appeared in the film “On Wings of Eagles” and the Netflix series “Cobra Kai” — has seen fellow performers “push themselves over the edge.”
“There was a guy who was playing a drug dealer, and he was kind of a very eccentric sort of character,” Kove said. “And he was just going way too far with it when the cameras weren’t rolling. He was just pretending like he was this person on and off set.”
Kove recalled that the actor stayed in character all day, even when the cast and crew were trying to discuss technical things about the next shot. “This person’s talking like they’re, you know, straight out of the mafia or something,” Kove said, which made other actors and crew members tense and uncomfortable.
Kove has worked with actors who have lived with homeless people or in prisons in order to experience what their characters were experiencing. “Obviously, that can be dangerous in certain ways, but also could be beautiful at the same time,” he said. “But there’s certain degrees — you get some people who believe they have to go so deep into a character, that it all has to be so real. You have to be able to step out of it for a minute, or go back into it.”
With roots in Russia, the method has become ‘an American disease’
In its early days, the Stanislavski method was “largely based on the idea that humans have an inner life, and that their outward behavior is often a misleading representation of their internal state,” Justin Trefgarne, an actor, director, and acting teacher at the MetFilm School in London, said. Stanislavski encouraged the practice of “emotional recall,” in which an actor recalls the circumstances surrounding an emotion they’ve already experienced.
Of course, this wasn’t Stanislavski’s only acting technique. In fact, as he revised and expanded his method throughout the 20th century, he ultimately rejected the idea of using lived experience to generate emotion. But “the train had already left the station,” Trefgarne said.
By the 1930s and ’40s, some of Stanislavski’s students had set up their own acting schools in New York. One of them was Lee Strasberg, who used emotional recall as the core of his method at The Actor’s Studio, the alma mater of actors like Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, and Marilyn Monroe.
In the UK, on the other hand, “method” acting never took off in the same way. Cumberbatch aside, “it’s rare in the UK to find an actor who is wholly committed to ‘the method,’ as it is known,” Trefgarne said. “It’s still regarded as quite an American approach.”
In the New Yorker profile of Strong, his “Succession” co-star Brian Cox, who is Scottish and trained at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, went so far as to call Strong’s immersive method “a particularly American disease.”
“He does it brilliantly, but it’s also exhausting,” Cox later told Deadline. “Particularly exhausting for him, but it’s also exhausting for the rest of us from time to time.”
How actors can use method techniques responsibly
While the method approach can lead to horror stories, it’s also led to some of the finest screen acting ever seen.
Trefgarne brought up the Hoffman-Olivier story. “People like to trot that out as a way of bashing Dustin Hoffman,” he said. “But actually, Dustin Hoffman, I think, delivered some of the most exceptional screen performances of the ’70s.”
So, how can actors use immersive, method techniques without getting lost in the role?
One acting technique Trefgarne teaches is constructing a biography for the character, imagining key moments from the character’s life in order to have a well of emotion to draw upon that isn’t personal. “When certain situations come up, those memories will inform decisions and reactions,” Trefgarne said.
Another useful technique is known as “sense memory,” in which actors use their own sense memories to quickly create equivalent emotions to those of their characters that are useful for intense scenes. Unlike emotional recall, sense memory doesn’t involve revisiting recent, painful memories — instead, it’s a safer way to access real, felt emotion from distant emotional memories.
“Don’t go out and have yourself put in danger in order to just experience something,” Trefgarne said he tells students. “Go into your imagination and either construct or try to recall events that might give you insight into how this character could feel.”
Ultimately, Trefgarne thinks that we are perhaps too quick to judge or deride method actors who find themselves becoming the target of media derision. After all, film is an unforgiving medium, and perhaps the reason so many actors overcommit to their roles is that we demand it of them.
“When we sit in that darkened room with several hundred other people, we either buy it or we don’t,” he said. “If your face is projected 30 feet high and close up. and we’re looking right into your eyes and we see fakery, or we see ham or we see something that looks inauthentic, we will call it out. And we will condemn that actor.”