When Dustin Hoffman, one of the great method actors, blearily stumbled onto the set of Marathon Man, his co-star Laurence Olivier asked him why he looked so rough. Hoffman was playing a character who had been denied three nights sleep, and - in the spirit of immersive cinema - had stayed up all night in preparation for the scene. Olivier looked into Hoffman’s bloodshot eyes and said: “Have you tried acting dear boy? It's much easier.”
Such stories are bigger than the movies themselves; of actors disappearing, their own personalities forgotten and their bodies stretched to their limits, by the demands and exertions of the part.
“Remember, there are no small parts,” said Constantin Stanislavski, the Russian theatre director who founded ‘the method’ with his complex theories on psychological realism. “Only small actors.”
It’s an idea that governs the movies; that ‘the method’ is the preserve of only the greatest actors, and not for the people who just look good on camera. As Michael Caine said: “The difference between a movie star and a movie actor is this - a movie star will say, 'How can I change the script to suit me?' and a movie actor will say. 'How can I change me to suit the script?'”
Think of Robert De Niro, who spent three months working 12-hour shifts at an inner-NYC taxi rank before the start of Scorsese’s shoot. Martin Sheen in the opening scenes of Apocalypse Now, drunk and hysterical, smashing a mirror with his fist and riving on his bed with blood pouring from his arm. Or method Godfather Marlon Brando, who - back in 1950 - confined himself to a hospital bed in a veteran’s ward for a month to play a traumatised soldier.
The method is alive and well; Christian Bale losing four and a half stone by surviving off a tin of tuna, an apple and forty fags a day to play the guilt-infested man of The Machinist. Charlize Theron, the Dior model who became the murdering prostitute Aileen Wuornos in a performance “so focused and intense,” Roger Ebert wrote, “that it becomes a fact of life.” Choi Min-sik, who ate a live octopus in one take in Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy. Or the late Heath Ledger, who holed himself up in a hotel room for a month, to emerge as The Joker. He remained in character for most of Christopher Nolan’s shoot, with crew members reportedly scared for his health and concerned for his state of mind.
And then there’s Daniel Day-Lewis, the guy from Greenwich who has taken home three Best Performance Oscars, despite making less than a dozen movies since My Left Foot in 1989. Day-Lewis – who famously said: “films don't begin only when the camera starts rolling' – spent eight weeks at a cerebral palsy clinic in Dublin for the part, before remaining in character and in his wheelchair throughout the shoot, with the crew forced to carry him around the set and feed him his lunch. For Last of the Mohicans, he lived in the forest, learnt how to track, kill and skin animals and make canoes with his bare hands. And that’s before the two years each spent on Daniel Plainview and Abraham Lincoln.
Cary Grant once said that, to be a star, an actor had to become “as familiar in people’s lives as their favourite brand of tea or coffee.” But that was in the studio system, long before the internet, when the creation of mystery was central to an actor’s success. Now we know much more, and are thus less interested, in a star’s persona. We expect more commitment and endeavor. If you aren’t unrecognisable on screen as when you tread the red carpet, then forget about that Oscar.
It means the communication of ‘the method’ is now key to a film’s marketing strategy, to creating a public narrative around what is inherently a secretive process. Shia LaBeouf, the star of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, is providing an ongoing masterclass in how to up the ante for a film’s release, ever since he told chat show host Chelsea Handler: "I sent him (von Trier) videotapes of me and my girlfriend having sex, and that's how I got the job."Last week, a teaser trailer featuring Shia LaBeouf was removed from YouTube for its explicit sexual content. A four hour cut of the film, with a disclaimer at the start warning audiences that none of the sex in the film is simulated, is currently in the editing room. It’s one of the most eagerly anticipated films in the world.
But to be a method actor, it seems, is risky. There were unsubstantiated whisperings that Heath Ledger’s tragic death, due to an overdose of sleeping tablets, was at least in part connected to the toll of the depths he plumbed for the sake of his characters. “I've no idea how not to be Hawkeye,” Daniel Day-Lewis told the Last of the Mohicans director Michael Mann after he experienced intense hallucinations and claustrophobia in the weeks following the shoot. Actresses like Natalie Portman and Renée Zellweger, who have seen their weight markedly fluctuate for the parts they plays, face reams of pseudo-concerned headlines like Bridget Jones or Bridget Bones?
Who knows what price method actors’ pay when the lights are off and the cameras still. Writing in his autobiography, Marlon Brando talks of returning to America after shooting Last Tango in Paris, and feeling a deep sense of alienation with his own life. “You can’t fake it,” he writes. “When it was finished, I decided that I wasn't ever again going to destroy myself emotionally to make a movie. I felt I had violated my innermost self and I didn't want to suffer like that anymore."
In two weeks, the Palme d’Or winning Blue is the Warmest Colour will be released in cinemas. Talking to The Daily Beast shortly after the film’s world premiere in Cannes, Léa Seydoux revealed she and her co-star Adèle Exarchopoulos were “made to feel like prostitutes” by a violent and abusive director on a “horrible” set. The film has become infamous for its numerous sex sequences, including one 12-minute continuous sequence that allegedly took ten days to shoot, and was done so without choreography or blocking. The thirst for on set details has been remarkable, as if they were more important than the film itself. If some actors achieve great method acting, others have great method acting thrust upon them. Either way, it seems there will always be a market for the method, whatever the costs.