Everything You Need to Know About the Stanislavsky Method

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As Meryl Streep once said, “Acting is not about being someone different. It’s finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there.” The three-time Oscar winner’s philosophy is a solid definition of the Stanislavsky method—a practice that, regardless of whether you choose to employ it, is worth knowing about.


What is the Stanislavsky method?

Before Russian theatremaker and actor Konstantin Stanislavsky came along, stage performance was highly stylised and, well, theatrical. Grand gestures and exaggerated facial expressions were commonplace, since actors were trained to focus on a character’s external behaviour rather than their inner life. Stanislavsky, on the other hand, took a psychologically driven approach. In An Actor Prepares, he wrote that “all action in the theatre must have an inner justification, be logical, coherent, and real.” 

Stanislavsky’s approach revolutionised the craft. The exercises he devised are still being taught in drama schools today, and many of Hollywood’s greatest actors—including Streep, Dustin Hoffman, and Bradley Cooper—were influenced by his work. 

The technique isn’t governed by a rigid set of rules; rather, Stanislavsky suggests factors for actors to consider when approaching a role, and outlines a series of exercises that tap into their own experiences in order to connect with a character. By bringing your own emotions to a role, he reasons, you’ll deliver a more authentic, more truthful performance. 

Drama Centre London (which closed its doors in 2022 following an investigation into the death of a student) centred its curriculum on the Stanislavsky method and produced award-winning performers. Alum Michael Fassbender has played a number of despicable characters, including a sadistic plantation owner in Steve McQueen’s Academy Award–winning 12 Years a Slave (2013) and a predatory boyfriend in Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009). In an interview with Collider, the actor stressed the importance of “trying to identify and understand, as opposed to judging,” when approaching a role.

Who was Stanislavsky?

Born in Moscow in 1863, Stanislavsky began developing his technique at the Moscow Art Theatre, which he co-founded in 1898 with playwright and director Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. Stanislavsky’s ideas spread further afield when his company toured Europe and the United States in the 1920s. He later compiled his approach to the craft into a series of still-popular books: My Life in Art, An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role.

Stanislavsky’s influence

Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Ellen Burstyn

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The acting teacher’s work made a huge mark on America’s best-known theatremakers and acting teachers, including Stella Adler, Uta Hagen, and Sanford Meisner—and most famously, Lee Strasberg, who developed Stanislavsky’s technique into what became known as the Method

Strasberg headed up New York’s legendary Actors Studio from 1948 until his death in 1982. His former students—among them Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Ellen Burstyn, Marilyn Monroe, and Jack Nicholson—have gone down in history as some of Hollywood’s greatest performers. 

When he noticed that he wasn’t mentioned in an article about Method actors, Nicholson told Esquire, “I consider it an accomplishment, because there’s probably no one who understands Method acting better, academically, than I do, or actually uses it more in this work. But it’s funny—nobody really sees that. It’s perception versus reality, I suppose.”

Using the Stanislavsky method

Stanislavsky wrote, “On the stage, do not run for the sake of running or suffer for the sake of suffering. Don’t act ‘in general’ for the sake of action; always act with a purpose.”

1. Interrogate the script. Study what’s on the page and consider your character’s approach to the world.

  • Their objective: What do they want?
  • Their obstacle: What’s standing in their way?
  • Their method: How are they planning to achieve their goal? 

2. Dig into the subtext. Stanislavsky’s method is centred on the idea that the real meaning of a scene is hidden behind what a character is outwardly doing or saying. An actor should always be asking themselves: What’s really going on here?

3. Imagine your character’s inner monologue. Whether you’re playing a detective interrogating a suspect or a rom-com protagonist chancing upon a meet-cute, imagine what’s running through your character’s head in each scene and put it into words for yourself. 

Stanislavsky also created exercises designed to help actors emotionally connect with their characters. 

  • The “magic if”: Put yourself in your character’s shoes and ask: What would I do in this situation? For example, how would you react if you were Clarice Starling facing down a cannibalistic killer in The Silence of the Lambs
  • Emotional/affective memory: When your character feels something—be it anger, lust, love, grief, or jealousy—Stanislavsky suggests calling on your own experiences with that particular emotion. Say your character’s spouse dies; you might draw on the memory of losing a parent, friend, or even your beloved pet. 
  • Sense memory: One way to access emotional memory is by triggering your five senses. It’s a technique that Paul Bettany used for his performance in Alan Ball’s Uncle Frank (2020), in which he plays a man struggling with deep feelings of loss. In order to access the sense of grief the role required, Bettany immersed himself in the memory of his younger brother dying when the actor was only 16; he went so far as to bring his brother’s T-shirt to the set.

Later, Stanislavsky moved beyond a purely psychological approach, incorporating the idea that actors could find their way into a role through physical action—discovering their character by improvising a particular task in a scene again and again.

He also introduced the idea of tempo—the speed of an action or emotion—and rhythm—the intensity of what’s happening inside them. The magic happens when the two are a mismatch, as when a character is trying to appear calm though they’re actually in turmoil.

Is the Stanislavsky method a useful addition to an actor’s toolbox?

The simple answer is: Yes, if it works for you. Certainly the accolades of two-time Academy Award winner De Niro, and Burstyn—one of the few stars to earn the Triple Crown of Acting—prove that Stanislavsky’s in-depth, immersive approach is highly effective. 

De Niro, who trained with both Strasberg and Adler, told the Telegraph, “I just can’t fake acting. I know movies are an illusion, and maybe the first rule is to fake it—but not for me. I’m too curious.” 

Burstyn was a few years into her career when she decided to return to New York to train at the Actors Studio, where, as she explained to Criterion, she “got into acting at a deep level.” She added, “You’re not just saying lines and hoping that you cry at the right moment. You’re penetrating your own psyche and screwing things up down there.” 

Still, Stanislavsky isn’t for everybody. In an interview with the Guardian, Russell Crowe, who didn’t attend drama school, said, “Over time, you get more and more efficient at getting to the centre of the character. I don’t even know what the Stanislavsky method may be. I have no fucking idea, and I don’t care to know.” Considering he’s netted three Oscar nominations and a win, he did just fine without studying the teachings of the Russian master. 

Many successful actors rely on multiple techniques—something Stanislavsky would no doubt approve of. In his own words: “Create your own method. Don’t depend slavishly on mine. Make up something that will work for you! But keep breaking traditions, I beg you.”