What Is Method Acting, Anyway?

During the filming of House of Gucci, Lady Gaga simply couldn’t shake her character, Italian killer Patrizia Reggiani. “I lived as her for a year and a half,” she told British Vogue last fall. “And I spoke with an accent for nine months of that.” Even off camera, she meant. The role so consumed her, British Vogue wrote, that she began to “lose touch with reality”; she ultimately enlisted an on-set psychiatric nurse to help find her way back.

Gaga’s process delivered: Her performance was among the most lauded of the year. Still, even her colleagues wondered if she had dived off the deep end. In the same interview, Gaga talked about filming a scene with Salma Hayek. “I was doing sense memory work next to her, and she was making fun of me,” she said. Hayek jokingly painted Gaga with a catchall label familiar to actors of uncommon intensity: “Salma was like, ‘Oh, this f**king method actor is over here.’ ”

The term “Method acting” gets bandied about whenever an actor—Robert De Niro, Daniel Day-Lewis, Christian Bale—really goes there for a role. But what exactly does it mean? And why can’t we, as a culture, decide if the practice is a thrilling sacrifice for the sake of art or a self-aggrandizing extravagance? “The problem is that over the course of the 20th century, the definition of what Method acting is and what a Method actor is keeps changing,” says Isaac Butler, who recently published The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act.

The Method—as originally conceived by Konstantin Stanislavski and adapted by his disciple Lee Strasberg—“is a series of techniques and exercises meant to connect the actor with themselves and their own idiosyncrasies,” Butler says. By employing it, actors “use themselves, their psychology, their life experiences, and their emotions as a way of bridging the gap between actor and character.” There’s a Russian word for this state of fusion, where character and actor become one: perezhivanie. Often translated as “experiencing,” perezhivanie occurs, per Butler’s book, “when an actor is so connected to the truth of a role, and has so thoroughly entered into the imaginary reality of the character, that they feel what the character feels, perhaps even think what the character thinks.”

Perezhivanie is what every actor, Method or not, is after. But living a role day in and day out—completely erasing the line between the performer and character—was never the goal of midcentury acting coaches like Strasberg and his contemporaries Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner, who instructed Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe in the ’50s. “That’s not what those folks ever taught,” says Butler. “They always said that was psychologically unhealthy.”

That probably sounds at odds with the modern idea of what Method acting is. Throughout his storied career, Day-Lewis has consistently made headlines for his commitment to staying in character at all times, from refusing to talk to Leonardo DiCaprio while filming Gangs of New York to spending the entire shoot of My Left Foot in a wheelchair while portraying Christy Brown, the Irish writer and artist with cerebral palsy. As it happens, the three-time Academy Award winner has denied that he’s actually a Method actor. “I don’t follow the Method,” he told The New York Times after playing Brown. “I don’t even have a normal way of working. I tend to be suspicious of all systems of acting.”

Still, Day-Lewis’s approach to acting in the ’90s shifted the public’s perception of what Method acting was, just as De Niro’s did when he took over the Method mantle from Brando. Early in his career, De Niro—who was not a fan of Strasberg or his Actors Studio—developed an approach that was behavior-based rather than psychological and involved an intense preparatory process. He famously gained and lost 60 pounds to play Jake LaMotta through different stages of his life in Raging Bull. In The Method, Butler notes that De Niro insisted on staying in character between takes, making everyone refer to him as “Jake” or “Champ.” His work was so transformative that it won him an Oscar and redefined what it meant for an actor to go all in. Who can forget DiCaprio eating raw bison liver in The Revenant and riding it all the way to his own best actor?

Often, this specific type of “Method work” is coded as hypermasculine, a show of extraordinary strength or commitment. Gaga aside, Butler notes that it’s rare to hear of a woman undergoing a full De Niro–esque transformation on a film set. But prominent female actors have practiced versions of the Method, like Jane Fonda, Estelle Parsons, and Ellen Burstyn, who is currently one of the copresidents of the Actors Studio alongside Al Pacino and Alec Baldwin. Meryl Streep reached perezhivanie (and a best actress Oscar) by losing weight and learning Polish and German for Sophie’s Choice.

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