7 Actors Who Gave Crazy Realistic Movie Performances
Method acting has received a lot of attention in the last several years, but most people aren’t aware that the roots of the technique go all the way back to the 1930s, when Lee Strasberg pioneered the method style of acting as a member of the Group Theater in New York. Strasberg would later form the Actors Studio in 1947, becoming its artistic director in 1951 and training some of the most recognizable American actors — think Kim Hunter, Marilyn Monroe, Julie Harris, Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, Ellen Burstyn, and Al Pacino.
While physical transformations have become somewhat synonymous with method acting over the years, this is actually a common misconception: method acting is more about the psychological nature of a role. As originally taught by Strasberg, it involves the careful consideration of a character’s motivations, pushing an actor to personally identify with a character, often by using a “substitution” method — the attempt to understand a character’s emotions through personal memories or experiences. While the technique seems fairly obvious by today’s standards and has trickled into nearly all forms of modern acting, it was once as revolutionary as the shift from silent film to sound.
Click through to see our list of seven actors famous for their method acting techniques.
1. Heath Ledger
When Heath Ledger died of an accidental drug overdose in 2008 at the age of 28, there was a collective sense that Hollywood had lost an actor who appeared poised to become one of the greatest of his generation. An intense method actor, Ledger had turned in an impressively nuanced performance in Ang Lee’s 2005 drama Brokeback Mountain before moving to the other extreme in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight as the Joker, a role which won him a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Just before Ledger’s death, he explained to Empire Magazine some of his methods of preparing for the role. “I sat around in a hotel room in London for about a month, locked myself away, formed a little diary and experimented with voices — it was important to try to find a somewhat iconic voice and laugh,” Ledger said to the publication. “He’s just an absolute sociopath, a cold-blooded, mass-murdering clown, and Chris has given me free rein. Which is fun, because there are no real boundaries to what The Joker would say or do.”
But it wasn’t until several years later that the extent of Ledger’s devotion to the role became clear. In early 2013, Kim Ledger — the actor’s father — allowed a team of filmmakers behind the German documentary Too Young To Die intimate access to details surrounding Ledger’s turn as the Joker, and one of the biggest revelations was actual footage of Ledger’s Joker diary: a notebook full of writings, clippings, and drawings that the actor had used to prepare for the role. On the last page, a “bye-bye” in the Joker’s handwriting appears much more ominous, knowing what would later happen to the talented young actor.
2. Marlon Brando
Marlon Brando is widely credited with pioneering a naturalistic style of acting that is still popular today. Moving away from grandiose theatrical gestures and employing a deeply psychological performance rooted in method acting, Brando won two Academy Awards for Best Actor (On the Waterfront, The Godfather) and was nominated for eight Academy Awards overall.
In what is likely to have been one of the first examples of an actor going to extremes to prepare for a role, Brando spent an entire month confined to a bed at the Birmingham Army Hospital in Van Nuys, California, in order to better portray the role of a paraplegic veteran in 1950′s The Men – the actor’s first film role. But it was Brando’s improvisation and adherence to staying in character that would give the actor a reputation for being both difficult on set and stunning on screen. Acting legend Laurence Olivier said of Brando, “[He] acted with an empathy and an instinctual understanding that not even the greatest technical performers could possibly match.”
3. Robert De Niro
Robert De Niro’s devotion to method acting has earned him Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor (The Godfather Part II) and Best Actor (Raging Bull), along with seven Oscar nominations overall.
While De Niro is probably best known for his physical transformations in films like Raging Bull, the actor has also shown intense devotion to preparing for roles. In order to portray a young Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II, De Niro moved to Sicily, where he perfected multiple Sicilian accents that apparently astonished his Italian voice coaches. For Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, De Niro would spend days at a U.S. Army base in Italy to get a feel for how the men would walk and talk, later learning how to shoot a gun and driving cabs in New York upon his return. De Niro also learned how to play the saxophone for his role in Scorsese’s New York, New York.
4. Dustin Hoffman
One of the most well-known method actors, Dustin Hoffman has won two Academy Awards for Best Actor (Kramer vs. Kramer, Rain Man) and has been nominated for Best Actor seven times in his career.
Hoffman is the source of one of the most famous method acting stories in film, revolving around his intense preparation for his role in Marathon Man. The story goes that Hoffman refused to sleep for days at a time to better portray his character’s deteriorating physical and psychological frame of mind, but when he saw his co-star Laurence Olivier sitting comfortably in a chair, he asked how he was able to make his performance so real. After a moment, Olivier told Hoffman, “Dear boy, it’s called acting.”
While the veracity of the story has been questioned over the years, it still remains one of the most humorous examples of the difference between various acting styles. Other examples of Hoffman’s devotion to method acting include dressing in drag off the set of Tootsie and preparing for his role in Rain Man by spending time with Kim Peek and other autistic individuals in order to learn their mannerisms. Over the years, Hoffman has earned a reputation for being extremely difficult on set, which those closest to him say comes from his desire to get things right.
5. Choi Min-sik
Korean actor Choi Min-sik has been one of the country’s most beloved actors for more than a decade and is familiar to American audiences thanks to roles in movies like Luc Besson’s Lucy, which also stars Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman.
Min-sik’s technique to approaching roles has achieved legendary status over the years, and it becomes clear why when discussing the 2003 film Oldboy, the Korean original that inspired Spike Lee’s 2013 remake. On top of gaining and losing the weight necessary to portray the lead character’s 15-year imprisonment, Min-sik also burned his flesh with a hot wire in order for the filmmakers to portray the character giving himself a tattoo.
Of course, even that doesn’t compare to a scene in which the character he portrays decides to eat a live octopus shortly after he is released from prison in an attempt to eat something live. Not only does Min-sik actually take a bite out of a live octopus, causing its tentacles to writhe and grip his face, the actor apparently had to do it seven different times with seven different octopuses.
6. Adrien Brody
In 2002, Adrien Brody won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, becoming the only actor younger than 30 to take the prize — he was 29 at the time. And while the actor hasn’t necessarily kept up his early winning streak, it hasn’t been for lack of trying.
In order to prepare for The Pianist, Brody reportedly withdrew for months, gave up the majority of his belongings in New York City, learned how to play Chopin on the piano, and lost about 29 pounds. For his role in the psychological thriller The Jacket, Brody experimented with extended sessions in isolation chambers and even allowed himself to remain confined to a locked drawer in a straightjacket during camera set-up — a process that could take as long as an hour.
7. Daniel Day-Lewis
When it comes to method acting, there’s Daniel Day-Lewis, and then there’s everyone else. The actor’s process has become the stuff of legend in recent years, and there’s no arguing with the results: three Academy Awards for Best Actor in five tries. And to make things even more impressive, the actor has worked at a far slower rate than most others have over the past two decades.
For Day-Lewis, no role has been safe from borderline insane method acting. He learned to live as a survivalist and refused to eat anything he didn’t kill on the set of The Last of the Mohicans; trained to be a boxer for one-and-a-half years with former heavyweight champion Barry McCuiga for The Boxer; refused to leave a wheelchair to portray Christy Brown in My Left Foot; and most recently forced everyone on the set of Lincoln to refer to him as Mr. President, also not allowing anyone with a British accent to speak to him, for fear of throwing off his American accent.
But really, those four examples are only the very tip of Day-Lewis’ famous — or infamous — method acting tales. Check out this article from The Telegraph to get a more detailed take.