Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Another F*ing Method Actor

We all know the story:

Dustin Hoffman was doing Marathon Man.  He starved himself and didn't sleep or whatever the hell else for three days, so that he could come in with the goods, right?  And then Larry Olivier, says..."My dear boy, why don't you try acting?"

And throughout the years, I've heard this explanation used ad nauseum to explain why Method Acting is craziness.  Except for one thing...Lee Strasberg (the guy who's credited as the Father of Method Acting) agreed with OlivierIn Lee's own words, "If it's literal, where is the art in Acting?"

First of all, what the Hell is "THE METHOD"?  Well, it is a phrase that was coined by critics of Lee Strasberg's work.  It's a variation on Stanislavski's "System", which is a shortening of the longer phrase, "A system of things for the actor to do when in a difficult spot."

Secondly, "THE METHOD" is a problematic phrase, because it suggests that there is one way to do things.  Even Lee Strasberg, himself, said in a car-ride with my teacher, David Gideon, that of all of the actors he'd worked with over the years, "Never two the same".

Thirdly, most of what is referred to as "METHOD ACTING" in society is complete bunk.  People seem to think that actors study Lee Strasberg's work and learn how to be completely psychotic.  And unfortunately, the highly publicized METHOD moments generally have nothing to do with a craft of acting.  And Lee never felt the need to correct society, because he thought it was great enough that there was a conversation going on at all about how actors do what they do.

So, what is it, then?

The funniest thing about THE METHOD is the fact that all of the misconceptions around it are so wildly off-base.  When it comes down to it, Strasberg taught people how to play make-believe again.  He taught them how to do what we all did when we were five years old; how to stop judging ourselves and our work; how to get out of our own ways and PLAY.

And in fact, Olivier once sat in on a session in The Actors Studio and in commenting on work from Othello, couldn't quite explain what he meant and asked to get up and demonstrate.  Lee, of course, welcomed the demonstration from such a knowledgeable source.  And Olivier proceeded to fall apart in front of The Actors Studio, falling into pitfall after pitfall of self-judgment, until FINALLY, he hocked a big loogie, spat at the floor of Lee's feet, said "Fuck you!  Fuck all of you!", and continued his work to great success.  After he finished and had clearly demonstrated his point, Lee said, "You make fun of our work, and yet you do it!"

Because what is THE METHOD?  It's what we all naturally do on the nights when everything comes alive for us.  It's anything and everything you need to do in order to be able to engage your imagination.  It's being able to do that eight shows a week. 

So, the next time you come across that intense Actor Man in Actor Land, who's in it and really feelin' it, who starves himself down do the bone for a role, and then lives in a tent and stays *in character* for three months...next time that happens, just know that Lee Strasberg would be the first person to stand up and say that what he's doing has nothing to do with a craft of acting.  That's just Another F*ing Method Actor.

Thoughts?  STORIES?  Do tell.  :O)

28 comments:

  1. I heard (warning: hearsay coming) that once Daniel Day Lewis gets into character he doesn't leave it until the shoot is done. They also say that this is why he handpicks the projects so specifically and then only does them once every 1-2 years, because he wants to maintain some type of sanity. I've also heard about actors becoming homeless for weeks so they learned what it was like to be be destitute, which seemed a little over the top to me.

    These are a few of the reasons I had stayed away from Strasberg's teachings as a young person. I've become very grateful to learn more about what his work REALLY entails, through my time in NYC theater and with The Seeing Place.

    PS: Love this article's sass, too... :)

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    1. I've also gotten the sense that Daniel Day Lewis allows people to believe he's insane, because it's good publicity.

      On one interview a while back, he said something along the lines of, "People have no idea what I do. It's not as crazy as you think. And really, if you're going to go through the effort of creating a character and circumstances and living in them, then it makes less sense to jump in and out of it because the director wants to reset the camera."

      And by that, he seemed to be suggesting that he just doesn't jump in an out of his work on set.

      Then again, he also left mid-way through a performance of HAMLET and never came back, because he thought he saw his father.

      His character was also a regular at a restaurant in Dublin, where my friend, Grace Delaney, was a server during filming of MY LEFT FOOT. And she served him for ages without realizing he was an actor. So...who the heck knows.

      But I love his work.

      :O)

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  2. Thanks for the brazen honesty of this post. Informative. Effective and in many ways eye-opening. This really helps to clear up a lot of what seems to be misinformation about Strasberg and his teachings. I appreciate the top notch insight. All my actors want to talk to me about Heath Ledger and other "method" actors who stay in character for long periods of time. I think that can be a dangerous proposition, but as we've talked about before one's personal acting theory is just that: their own. I really like how this blog pulls the cover off a very misrepresented concept. Great stuff as always!

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    1. Thanks so much for your comments, and for stopping by, Ben!

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    2. Thanks so much, Ben. Yeah, the amount of misinformation around what actors do is staggering!

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  3. Yeah I think that the work of a lot of the famous "method" actors in films is a big part of the confusion... for example De Niro is often cited as being a Method actor because of his physical transformations and his thorough study of the physical skills that his characters might have.

    But I think a lot of that is simply due to the fact that when you're making a film, it makes you so much more believable if you really *look* like the character and can move and behave like someone with their job (think Jake LaMotta). So whether it helps the film actor "feel it" or not, it may help the audience believe it.

    The funny thing is, wasn't De Niro also famous for an explanation of how he summoned up the fear needed to portray the Russian roulette sequences in "The Deer Hunter"? Apparently he tried to imagine the moment just before plunging into an ice-cold shower on a freezing winter morning, and the dread that goes with it. Certainly not "Method" (presumably "Method" would involve actually playing Russian Roulette??) but a very clear example of what you were talking about Brandon - engaging your imagination to the fullest!

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    1. I'm in total agreement that the film and TV industry puts a large focus on casting actors who are very close to the roles they play, with wiggle room typically only given to those who have box office clout and/or have money in the film as executive producers. So, seeming like the role is a good way to get cast. It's the same in theater, really - though there is no camera for closeups so from an audience's perspective an actor just needs to seem like the character from the first row onwards. But we who work on stage know that acting has to be real on stage as well, not just for the audience. :)

      I love your example of DeNiro. I think what you're describing is closer to the Strasberg we know from the classroom, and your example of Russian Roulette is closer to the stereotype we have of "The Method." Using something in your common experience to fire up your imagination can be just as powerful as going out and mimicking the action of the script.

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    2. The funniest thing about that "Method" talk around DeNiro is that in Strasberg-land, his transformation in RAGING BULL is not only unnecessary, but destructive as well.

      Thanks for the thoughts! :O)

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  4. You know I have always heard that story about dustin and laurence DURING MARATHON MAN ( ONE OF MY FAVORITE MOVIES) and would laugh until I saw a recent interview with daniel day lewis. Mr lewis basically came unglued and thought that was patronizing and totally disrespectful what mr olivier had said. And that mr strausberg was one of his heroes. This exchange was the begining of my metamorphesis from an actor who had negative thoughts about mr strausberg to one who realized how ignorant and ill informed I had been. Furthermore he went on to say how ones process should be respected and not mocked. But your overiding theme that these stereotypes manifest themselves in our popular culture is absolutely on target and hopefully with your enlightening blog and others ,people will begin to understand that these cases are aberations and not the norm.

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    1. It's amazing - I had not heard of that story until this article was written. Makes me feel like I should be brushing up on my movie/actor biographies! :)

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    2. I just think it boils down to this; if you're crazy, you're crazy. and I never met an actor who doesn'walk that line very carefully. I think an actor needs to know his instrument and since every role is different, know what tools he/she will need for that role. Yes, I think its healthy to be able to distance yourself somewhat from a role, but who am I to decide what another actor may or may not need. We can all learn from each other, if we get our egos out of the way and listen (Of course you know Im right! LOL)

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    3. I agree, Nick. And when I'm in the audience, I could care less HOW someone is working, so long as I believe it and it speaks to me. But as an artist...there are easier, safer, and more enjoyable ways to get there than others.

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  5. My 'method acting' days were over when I was a sophomore in college. While playing a ten year old boy with an imaginary friend, I had to open my closet and be overwhelmed by the smell that was released. One time I opened the door and my director yelled 'What was that? I didn't believe you were smelling anything' and I yelled 'that's because I don't smell anything!'. He said, 'Try Acting.' Oh.

    Thank you for making clear in this post and the previous posts that a method doesn't necessarily give you talent, but helps you become familiar with the talent you have and guide it toward consistency, giving us a little control over the vast land of the imagination!

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    1. One of The Strasberg Institutes old quotes was something along the lines of:

      "We can't give you talent. But we can make you use the talent you have."

      :O)

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  6. I find it interesting - "Method Actor" also seems to be a term use when people think that an actor is taking himself and his craft too seriously. It's as though people don't want to see any effort before the camera rolls or lights go up on stage. If they see an actor preparing, other actors look at each other and chuckle with, "What, is he method?"

    Actors are expected to turn on their craft like a light switch, and we're simply not machines. I've been conditioned by my peers to hide my process off-stage/off-set and it wasn't until working at The Seeing Place that my process was honored as an important part of the work we do.

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    1. Right? There's been so many times when I've gone off to another room to prepare and have been judged. It's too bad, because when you feel like an outsider you start to prepare less and less, and start to feel like 'maybe this isn't doing anything after all!' And really, the other actors are reacting to their own insecurities, and deep down they know they are not doing the best they can.

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  7. Thanks for the post. I especially like the anecdote about Olivier and Hoffman. Obviously, this is one of those major differences between film and stage acting. If you've got eight or five or even three performances each week, that kind of indulgence just isn't possible. Better have some "method" to put to use. It's also good to know that someone as attuned to the craft of acting as Strasberg knew that it is always an individual matter.

    I know that sometimes I and other actors are so worried about being "real" that we forget our imaginations and the childlike ability to play make-believe. I always need to remind myself that while I am creating a character, the character isn't necessarily me and that what is my reality may or may not be "real" for the character. Part of the joy of acting is creating another person; a person who may be just like you or a person wildly different that brings out all of those parts of you that may rarely see the light of day. Have some fun!

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  8. I really don't know what to add to what's already been expressed. All good, intelligent and insightful comments. For me, the task of the actor is to create the character the writer has offered to you. Where to start? Read the script, familiarize yourself with what the writer says about the character. Take a deep breath and read the script again and again and again, all the time, letting your instinct and imagination flow. Is there anything in the character that you can identify with? The more you know about the character as written and what you can or cannot identify with, the less daunting and more exciting the discovery of what you need to do as the actor to get to the heart of the character. If you don't at first "get to the heart" of the character, you may discover the essences of your character and go from there. This is your homework. I heard a well-known actress say that even after 2 years of playing a role on Broadway and on tour, she was still discovering what certain lines meant. But if you saw this actress on stage, you would never know she was still exploring the character because she did her homework. She made choices as to her physical condition, her relationships with the other characters and what her character needed to survive in the reality and circumstances of the play. How she achieved what she achieved? Her character was drug-dependent and neurotic. The actress I'm talking about is neither but she used her trained instrument and imagination to give the audience an alive and fascinating character. Yes, I'm sure she used sense memory to achieve the mental and physical state of being but she also used her body and movement and voice. I doubt very much that this actress would not hesitate to go off in the next room and quietly prepare regardless of what looks or attitudes she had to deal with. That wasn't important. What was important was that she was prepared as she could be. I want to add that this is no shrinking little flower but a powerhouse of vocal opinions and talent. Getting back on track of "the Method" I've heard that an actor should use whatever method works for them to achieve the results they needed to achieve. What kind of training is going to help you achieve your goals? What kind of actor do you want to be? What training method speaks to you? I have had Method and have taken workshops in the Michael Chekhov Method, clowning, Shakespeare and the Living Theater. All are valuable to help me become a better actress and to open my instrument. I’m still learning what my strengths are and to have more compassion for my weaknesses which may or not completely go away but they may come in to be useful in developing a character but they will have a harder time to dominant. Also, remember IMAGINATION -- it's a priceless commodity to nurture and to respect.

    I think the Acting series of blogs are outstanding and recommend that everyone who reads them, to respond and to let their colleagues and friends know about them.
    They are well-researched and intelligently presented so that even people who are not actors, writers or directors would appreciate them. - M. Anisi

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    1. Thank you, Mary, for such a thoughtful response! We truly appreciate it.

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  9. Thank you, I love this conversation! I am a proud student of The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute and the technique really clicked for me from day one. Erin, I completely agree with you about the importance of process and am constantly surprised by actors who find it odd to see their peers preparing. I have been laughed at for doing my relaxation and preparation. I have had the same experience you described, where you feel that you have to hide it. How else are we supposed to behave truthfully and create real characters? If anyone can do this without preparing, hats off to them because I have not figured that one out! Relaxation, especially, is the tool that allows us to let go of tension and be present. Great work can be done when there is no tension. I wish that the conversation about about process and technique was more prominent in our industry. There is too much noise on the topic of celebrity and not enough of a conversation about the actual work. I think that this is why there are such huge misconceptions about the Method. The objective of the work is to make the character's life real to the actor. By scoring the sensory work in the scenes, the actor can repeat this in every performance to respond vividly to the imaginary circumstances. Making it real to yourself is not about being literal. If I am playing a serial killer, I need to make that real to myself in a non-literal way. I will not be going out and murdering people to get into character, that would not be wise. Perhaps, what being a serial killer is to the character, to me is watching a great play. I can use sensory elements of my choice to make that aspect of the character real to me. There is not a single teacher in the institute who would advise living as the character to get into character or to understand the character, that is simply not the technique. In fact, one of the most important lessons is that getting out of character is as important as getting into character. We must make a conscious effort to do that after every rehearsal and every performance. I have seen students make choices that leave them emotionally disturbed and teachers ask them to stop using those choices until they are ready to fully step out of them. We are taught to take care of ourselves physically, emotionally, and mentally in order to do our best work. Meisner's definition of acting as "behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances" has always resonated with me, but I have found that Strasberg's Method gives you the tools to achieve that.

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    1. This is so, so wonderful! Thank you so much for contributing. How did you find out about the blog post? Please pass along the word- we'd love to make sure the industry is reading it! :)

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  10. I saw your tweet about the blog! It's Giselle Vázquez, from Actor-Own :) Thank you for starting the conversation, I'll gladly pass it along!

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    1. Hooray! I had no idea about your training background. Love that we met at the Tweetup! :)

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  11. Hi. I personally find this whole conversation so interesting. What I'm realizing (and perhaps finally comfortable enough to articulate, through the process I'm learning from the Seeing Place) is the importance of what's being placed on how one (we) learn. Our education in the craft. I'm realizing that I tend to tune out when someone asks me, or assumes, how do I work...? From what training method? That's the most foreign question I can think of... Again, somewhere in my past, I decided that I wanted to learn everything I possibly can, without compartmentalizing it, describing or titling it. I just want to be, work in my room and experience it from there. What I'm learning is that to articulate my process currently, frankly, seems wonderfully foreign. Which is why I was so excited to join this company. I realize that that's just one way of thinking and perhaps I'm limiting myself. I've always been under the impression that "change is good."

    Anyway, it's been such an interesting process, learning about this way to work. It's so very honest, to say the least. I love it!

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  12. Thanks, Brandon, for this lucid expression of what Strasberg's work is and isn't. I think sometimes actors get lost in the ideology of various 'schools,' and lose track of the primary goal, which is to find a way to come alive onstage. This will vary from person to person.
    All of the "methods" out there are just tools to get you where you need to go. People need to find what works for them (which will, no doubt, vary from situation to situation and character to character), and not get caught up in what is the "right way" or the "wrong way."

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  13. The story on Olivier is a myth. He did indeed sit in on a class at the studio and he found Strasberg's approach pathetic.

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  14. He was fascinating and a tremendous actor, I have read many articles regarding Daniel Day Lewis and realize that he was such a bad*ss. Daniel Plainview in "There Will be Blood" is the most intense character he has ever played. Talking about "Method Acting", I read this article at https://www.exploretalent.com/articles/bizarre-ways-actors-prepare-roles-acting-auditions/ and see how actors some actors that does the same thing before and during their set. What do you think?

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