What Is Method Acting? Our Guide to Becoming Your Characters

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Photo Source: “There Will Be Blood” Courtesy Paramount Vantage

We associate Method acting with Hollywood stars like Joaquin Phoenix and Daniel Day-Lewis; the technique often hits the headlines alongside stories of extreme preparation for film roles. But the Method, as it’s also known, isn’t just for movie stars, nor is it always about living in character (like Day-Lewis as Brown, the disabled protagonist of My Left Foot) or losing huge amounts of weight (like Phoenix dropping 23 kg to film Joker). 

The Method is simply a technique for preparing for roles, and one available to all actors, whether performing on stage or screen, playing leading roles, or acting in supporting parts. Read on to find out if it might be right for you.


What is Method acting?


“Joker” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Method acting is a technique that actors use to get into character. Central to Method acting, also called methodical acting, is using one’s imagination, senses, and emotions to identify with and more fully embody a character. By doing so, the actor is able to build a performance that rings true to life. 

Method acting has its origins in the work of the Russian actor and theatre director Konstantin Stanislavski. Stanislavski, who co-founded the highly influential Moscow Art Theatre (MAT) in 1898, was the first person to describe an overarching system of actor training, which included the importance of “living” a part before you play it. 

MAT visited New York City in 1923, impressing a young actor named Lee Strasberg. When he and two colleagues founded their own company, the Group Theatre, in 1931, Stanislavski’s acting method was a key influence. 

It was at the Group Theatre that Strasberg began to make a name for himself as the American proponent of Method acting, which involves sensory and relaxation exercises, script analysis, and improvisation to take what appears on the page and create a unique, fully formed character. The approach involves having actors draw on their own real-life experiences to bring out emotions in a scene.

In 1948, Strasberg joined the Actors Studio, becoming director in 1951 and teaching a generation of some of America’s greatest film stars, among them Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, and Sidney Poitier. The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, which Strasberg founded in 1969, is the home of the Method to this day, with campuses in New York and Los Angeles. The institute also hosts international workshops all over the world and runs online classes for actors new to the Method.

Why study Method acting?

Method actor

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The Method can be a helpful approach to acting because it’s a way of harnessing your own experiences and imagination to find parallels between your life and that of the character you’re creating. The idea is that by engaging with your own emotional and physical responses to a particular situation, you’re then able to re-create that response in the context of the script you’re performing. 

When done skillfully, this technique enables actors to lose themselves in a character, creating nuanced performances that work particularly well on screen. 

There are circumstances, however, when Method acting might not be the most suitable technique. For example, it could clash with the approaches of your director or fellow actors. Method acting can also be emotionally draining because it demands a level of introspection that might be challenging for some. Charlize Theron told the Los Angeles Times that the technique wasn’t for her: “I can’t do the Method thing. I did it once, for Devil’s Advocate, and I was just exhausted. It was really hard to go to those deep, dark places because I was so tired. It was good for me to figure this out, and I am much better now at understanding and living and breathing in the moment with the character.” 

The most extreme form of the Method, when an actor chooses to adopt the lifestyle of a character in order to get to grips with how they experience the world, won’t be available to all for logistical and safety reasons. It might be difficult, for example, to persuade an oil company to let you live on a rig for months on end, even if you told them that your film about the life of an oil rig worker was going to be the greatest movie ever made. A further limitation can be the script: Method acting hinges on a role being well-written enough that the actor has the scope to explore a character’s emotional depth.

Method acting exercises

American Psycho

“American Psycho” Courtesy Lionsgate

Strasberg's system has three main categories of exercises: relaxation, sensory, and emotional. Strasberg devoted the first two hours of his four-hour classes to relaxation and sensory exercises and the latter segment to emotional ones. 

Relaxation: During relaxation exercises, seated actors relax their bodies fully by moving every body part in turn. The idea is that by clenching the hands, circling the wrists and ankles, and scrunching up the muscles of the face, you release the tension the body is holding. By removing tension in this way, the actor makes themselves a blank slate with which to embody a character’s life. 

Sensory: Once the actors are fully relaxed, they home in on the five senses by focusing on one sensation at a time. For example, think about holding a cup of tea. Which senses does that stimulate? The actor can then explore these sensations as so-called sense memories, meaning they create physical feelings without actual stimuli. 

Emotional: Actors are then asked to identify sense memories from their own lives that correspond to the emotions felt by a character. Known as substitution, this process enables the actor to act with true emotional responses while in character. 

Other acting exercises associated with the Method include:

  • The animal exercise, in which actors move and behave like animals, helping them to tap into physicality and instinct.
  • The gibberish exercise, in which a monologue is spoken in gibberish with an aim to convey meaning through tone and physicality alone.
  • A private moment, whereby actors perform an action that they would typically do only in private, thereby stripping away self-consciousness and learning how to fully relax on stage.

Famous Method actors

Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry

“Boys Don't Cry” Courtesy Searchlight Pictures

One of the most famous method acting examples comes from Marlon Brando, who was the first to employ Method acting on film when he starred as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951. The raw physicality of his performance was a revelation to a movie industry accustomed to more mannerly representations. 

Robert De Niro is famous for having obtained a New York cabbie’s licence and driven 12-hour shifts in preparation for the role of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976). 

Hilary Swank lived as a man for a month ahead of filming Boys Don’t Cry (1999), in which she played a character based on the real-life trans man Brandon Teena.

Natalie Portman trained in ballet, swam, and cross-trained for hours a day to prepare for her leading role in 2010’s Black Swan.