The Madness of Method Acting

Does acting need to be grueling to be good?

illustration of man sitting in chair, back to reader, facing a curtained stage with different parts reflected in multiple mirrors
Daniele Castellano

Which of the stories do I start with here? There was the time when I was 16 and the teacher of my preprofessional acting workshop decided that I needed to be more physically unselfconscious, that my technique wasn’t loose enough. He made me pretend to have a seizure on the floor while the dozen or so other student actors watched, and wouldn’t let me stop convulsing until he said so. I flopped around, my face burning brighter and brighter red while he shouted at me to go harder, to really commit to the seizure, for an endless three minutes.

Or maybe the time when I was 20 and a teacher at one of NYU’s conservatory acting schools had the tallest, strongest boy in my class hold me tight to his chest and not let go. The idea was to get me truly distraught, because my character was upset. “Get away from him,” she told me. “Don’t let her go,” she told him. I tried to escape, shoving, kicking, pulling, heaving, going slack, struggling uselessly and furiously until—surprising myself—I burst into wracking sobs. “Good,” she said. “Now start the scene.” The boy let me go and I stumbled through it, unable to stop crying. The performance was deemed a breakthrough, if a little “uncontrolled” on my part.

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Training to be an actor with any seriousness tends to involve scenarios like these. (I started when I was about 14 and quit abruptly at 22, unable to stomach some of the industry conventions, such as being asked at “cattle calls” to stand in line for a first cut based only on appearance.) Actors do strange and sometimes ridiculous things in pursuit of mastery, a fact that they and most audiences take in stride because it is understood that actors are engaged in a somewhat ridiculous, if also completely magical, task: psychologically and physically inhabiting other, usually imaginary people in sometimes quite extreme imaginary situations, on command, while maintaining enough of a foothold in reality to revert back to normal whenever they’re told to. One can justify all kinds of preparatory exercises in pursuit of a goal this absurd. A teacher once told me and my classmates to squat and imagine that we were breathing in and out of our anuses. I don’t remember what the point of that was supposed to be.

The idea that an actor must authentically experience and feel the lived reality of the character he is playing—and therefore be infinitely present and malleable—now underpins almost everything that Americans deem to be “good” acting. It has given us a century of brilliant performers, acolytes of the so-called Method: Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman, Ellen Burstyn, Jane Fonda, Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Faye Dunaway, Jack Nicholson, Hilary Swank, Leonardo DiCaprio—the list includes most of the great post-1950 actors one can think of.

Add to that those who don’t explicitly claim to be Method actors but subscribe to its philosophy or use Method techniques: Daniel Day-Lewis, who learned Czech for the adaptation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, even though his lines were in English; Frances McDormand, who famously asked someone on set to grab her and not let go, in order to get her panicked for the climax sequence of Blood Simple ; Jeremy Strong, who wanted to be sprayed with real tear gas during the riot scenes of The Trial of the Chicago 7; Benedict Cumberbatch, who studied the banjo, learned to use a lasso, and asked that his costumes never get washed while shooting The Power of the Dog.

The roots of this approach, as the director and theater historian Isaac Butler emphasizes in his new book, The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act, are relatively recent. The notion of perezhivanie, or “living a part,” was popularized by Konstantin Stanislavski, the Russian actor and director who co-founded the Moscow Art Theatre in the 1890s. Along with the older director Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, he pushed to supplant a labored, politically influenced style of acting that had emerged in Russia in response to government censorship. The two men considered it stale and false: Stanislavski took to heart the critic Vissarion Belinsky’s call for art to illuminate the real world “in all its truth and nakedness.” Together Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko set out to remake Russian theater in line with Tolstoy’s conviction that art was “ ‘a means of communion’ whose highest goal was to unify humanity,” Butler writes. Actors would be not simply actors but “artists, and if artists had a spiritual, perhaps even holy, purpose, then acting required intense attention to ethics and discipline.”

Their “system,” as Stanislavski called the theory of training he developed over time, posited that the actor’s own life is crucial material in the construction of a role with specificity and emotional veracity. Full physical and psychological commitment was required. Actors were encouraged to ask what motivated their character in any given scene—and what their overall “supertask” in the play was—and to correlate every line with an action along the road to fulfilling that mission. All of the smaller tasks, unfolding in the chronology of the play, created the “throughline of action.” These ideas are now foundational to script analysis, whether or not it’s undertaken in a Method-acting context.

Each character’s behavior would also be shaped in its particulars by what Stanislavski referred to as the “given circumstances,” such as the scene’s environment and era, the character’s health and relationships, the immediately preceding events, and so on. The actor should make use of “affective memory”: The body, Stanislavski believed, keeps “affective impressions” of sensations, emotions, and visceral experiences, which can be triggered or, with training, intentionally reactivated. (Butler uses the example of a smell or taste reminding you of your parents’ kitchen and evoking nostalgia.) Called upon to generate genuine emotions for a scene, affective memory could help produce what Stanislavski called the “Magic If,” an imaginative state in which, he wrote, “the actor passes from the plane of actual reality into the plane of another life, created and imagined by him.”

Lee Strasberg, a Polish émigré and the earliest adapter of Stanislavski’s techniques in the United States, embraced the simultaneously ominous and romantic undertones of this philosophy as he championed his version of it, which became known in the early 1930s as “the Method”:

The profession of acting, the basic art of acting, is a monstrous thing because it is done with the same flesh-and-blood muscles with which you perform ordinary deeds, real deeds. The body with which you make real love is the same body with which you make fictitious love with someone you don’t like … In no other art do you have this monstrous thing.

He didn’t need to make explicit the other side of the “monstrousness,” the part that made acting not just worthwhile but a “holy pursuit.” If acting asks the actor to be both himself and other, it also asks for transcendence. If acting asks the actor not just to simulate but to conjure, it makes him a kind of occultist, in touch with powers the rest of us can only marvel or quail at.

Butler knows this duality from the inside, and in his introduction, he sketches both a personal and a critical impulse behind his history of Stanislavski’s theories and their evolution into the behemoth that the Method became. As a young man, he was an actor whose attempts at excavating extreme emotion in pursuit of perezhivanie went sideways:

I retreated so deep into the recesses of my own personal darkness that I had trouble emerging … I hated the person I became during rehearsal as the nastiness of the character bled into my own personality, and I was not tough enough to manage the emotions my performance dug into.

Disenchanted and unnerved, he quit acting for directing and writing. More than two decades later, the stature of the Method as a “transformative, revolutionary, modernist art movement, one of the Big Ideas of the twentieth century,” continues to fascinate him. “Like atonality in music ... or abstraction in art,” Butler writes, “ the ‘system’ and the Method brought forth a new way of conceiving of human experience, one that changed how we look at the world, and at ourselves.”

Butler takes a meticulous, immersive approach, offering a blow-by-blow narrative of the trials, tribulations, victories, affairs, and dissolutions of a busy cast of characters and theatrical institutions. Yet the avalanche of detail can be pedantic, and the promise that he will explore the Method’s deep social ramifications mostly disappears as he traces the turmoil in and around the Moscow Art Theatre, and the enthusiastic ferment that pervaded the Group Theatre in New York. Co-founded in 1931 by Strasberg, the director Harold Clurman, and the producer Cheryl Crawford, the Group counted among its earliest members Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner, actors who went on to become famous Method teachers, as well as Elia Kazan, who made his mid-century mark as one of the country’s most powerful film and theater directors. Driven by a shared passion for Stanislavski’s vision—but in conflict about its application—the Group set out to pioneer what it claimed would be the first distinctly American acting technique.

One of the major takeaways of The Method is how ill-defined and bitterly contested the Method was even among its most famous practitioners. Strasberg emphasized the psychological approach, using affective-memory exercises and improvisation to surface genuine emotion in an actor. Adler struggled with Strasberg’s techniques and, after spending a month studying with Stanislavski in Paris, insisted that Strasberg’s methods had little to do with the “system.” She went on to cultivate her own branch of the Method, which focused primarily on getting the actor beyond his own experience and into the “given circumstances.” Adler taught that full immersion in the lives of characters demanded intensive research and imagination, not just emotional identification. Shaping the embodied presence of a character, working on voice and posture, was more important to her than to Strasberg, who believed physicality would naturally flow from emotion. Meisner also became a powerful teacher, ditching affective memory entirely and developing a technique that prized getting the actor “out of his head.” He relied on an actor’s fierce attention to whatever was happening in the moment to produce spontaneity (the Magic If!), naturalism, and emotional veracity.

All were loosely united by an underlying philosophy: that “natural” behavior was better than “indicating” (their word for faking, or performing), that an actor’s greatest achievement would be to truly experience what the character was experiencing. As for why the Method caught on the way it did in the U.S., Butler notes that its advent coincided with the rise of psychotherapy, suggesting a general interest in psychological exploration and affective emotion. He also briefly proposes that its ethos of truthfulness and naturalism met a hunger that marked the mid-century, “a conviction that there was a truth about American life, a protean muck that had previously been buried deep underground. American acting could help excavate America’s soul.” This postwar vision of theater as exhuming, purging, and cleansing—and of actors as the instruments of that ritual—echoed aspirations of decades earlier, when the critic Belinsky inspired Stanislavski by writing that through theater, we can expunge “our egoism … We become better persons, better citizens.”

Do we still wish to think of theater this way? By the late 20th century, Strasberg, Adler, Meisner, and their ilk were dead, but the Method lived on through the eponymous studios they’d founded and through their famous students, who commanded both Broadway and Hollywood. Butler argues that the Method era began to fade in the ’70s, a waning that he blames unconvincingly in his final chapter on a variety of factors, among them the “end of the postwar consensus” (whose consensus?) and political disenchantment (though a few chapters earlier, political disenchantment was framed as a boon to Method naturalism). With little elaboration, he also cites “pluralistic academia, with its emphasis on student choice and individual expression,” and an ever more atomized and capitalistic society: “Before, we were bound in common cause—individuals, yes, but part of a society and dedicated to its advancement; we were now to be consumers in a marketplace.”

The upshot, Butler writes, is that the Method has been diluted by other acting styles that don’t privilege psychological spelunking or total authenticity—think of the Brat Pack, or Bruce Willis. New acting programs, such as the preeminent one at Juilliard, combined Method training with other, primarily classical and British techniques. Now the term Method comes up in popular culture mostly as shorthand for intensity, to signal that an actor personally went through something for a part, or did something truly weird, as when Jared Leto, playing the Joker in Suicide Squad, reportedly sent live rats and dildos to fellow cast members as they filmed.

Butler spends almost no time on the Method’s more expansive legacy—the fascinating question of how it filtered into American culture and where it continues to live with us. In tying an actor’s soul into the work, the Method created a theater that could feel breathlessly real to audiences. For the actor, it turned craft into a spiritual calling, and the self into an instrument to be used, mined, turned inside out in the name of performance—a type of transformation that can be awe-inspiring to behold, but is easily exploited. The century of the Method’s rise saw a theater culture in which directors and instructors became godlike figures, irrefutable prophets with access to the actor’s whole psyche. Both Stanislavski and Strasberg were notoriously rageful and imperious. When an actor resisted their direction, or pushed back after being berated for failing to achieve perezhivanie, they could become explosive and violent, claiming that the artist was insulting the great spiritual work of theater in general.

The Method also spawned the phenomenon of actors who go to dangerous extremes in the name of role preparation, like Christian Bale losing a reported 60 pounds for the thriller The Machinist, and Margot Robbie undertaking ice-skating training so grueling that she herniated a disk in her neck to play Tonya Harding. Actors have used the Method as an excuse to use abusive tactics on others. Dustin Hoffman, playing opposite a young Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer, slapped her before the cameras were rolling, and taunted her about her partner, who had just died of cancer, to get real tears. Butler mentions a possible connection to the systemic abuses uncovered by the #MeToo movement, yet skirts broader questions about the cultural impact of equating vulnerability with artistry, and teaching audiences to excuse or even glorify the damage done to a performer.

I keep thinking about what the Scottish actor Brian Cox, interviewed in a recent New Yorker profile of Jeremy Strong, said of actors trained in the U.S.: “It’s a particularly American disease, I think, this inability to separate yourself off while you’re doing the job.” This is no longer a problem just for professional actors. Anyone with a TikTok or Instagram account now mines the self for an audience. In these markets, too, authenticity (or the convincing semblance of it) is prized, encouraging a blurring of artifice and vulnerability that can be corrosive. In a perversion of the Method ethos, fusing performance with true experience now shows up in American life less as a mode of artistry than as a technique for branding the self to gain visibility, profit, power.

The pleasure of Method-acting training, in my experience, was that it asked you to imagine that you could contain the whole world—that anything that ever happened to anyone might be touchable by you through the careful tuning of your instrument: your body, your mind, your sensibility, and your language. The magnitude of the individual in its possible communion (a favorite word of Stanislavski’s) with the whole is the promise and peril of acting under that theory. Here there are echoes of another artist with a Big Idea for the 20th century: “And what I assume you shall assume / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” There’s something greedy, viral, and even monstrous about this Whitmanian conviction—but transcendent too.

This article appears in the March 2022 print edition with the headline “The Madness of the Method.”