Method of Madness: Why Do Actors Insist on Method Acting?

September 13, 2010

Joaquin Phoenix in I'm Still Here

In 1976, a young Dustin Hoffman was shooting one of the biggest movies of his career - Marathon Man. The role called for Hoffman to play a man at the end of his physical and psychological rope since most of the film involved double crosses and shady killers out to get him. To put himself in the mindset of a man losing control Hoffman didn't sleep for days at a time and let his body become disheveled and unhealthy. Finally, after all this work Hoffman notices his co-star Sir Lawrence Olivier sitting comfortably on a stage chair without a care in the world. Surprised that he is the only one on set who has gone to such rigorous lengths, he asks Olivier how he's able to make his performance look so real. The confused Olivier stops, takes a breath and calmly responds, "Dear boy, it's called acting."

Method acting is nothing new and it's debate among thespians still continues in acting circles today. The latest example of this practice is Joaquin Phoenix and his new film I'm Still Here. According to the film's narrative, we're led to believe that Phoenix has had enough of the Hollywood scene and would rather quit his acting career to become a rapper. Many didn't take him seriously when it was first announced and many don't take him seriously now.

It's not meant to sound cynical by choosing to not believe Phoenix, it's just a lose-lose situation. On one hand let's say he's serious, he wants out of Hollywood and only to be left alone while he concentrates on his rap career. Fine, so then why are you making a movie about the entire process and doing crazy stunts on the David Letterman show (see YouTube)? These things will only enhance your movie profile, not diminish it. Gene Hackman quietly quit acting several years ago and became a novelist, but you didn't see him hold a press conference, right? By the way, I really miss Gene Hackman. Phoenix, while talented, has not earned that level of respect yet.

On top of all this there's the sanity argument. Should we be concerned that Phoenix has lost his mind and is spiraling out of control? His new movie would lead you to think so but the evidence points to the contrary. This points to the opposite end of the coin, what if this is all a hoax? This makes the most sense for several reasons but the most obvious one is this: is he really going to quit a lucrative movie career at the top of his game and start all over as a rapper? Also, his rapping sucks! In the film he's pooling all his resources to get a record deal but conveniently forgets that his lyrics suck ass.

While doing the press rounds for Walk the Line, Phoenix boasted about how he had never picked up a guitar and immediately mastered the instrument for his Oscar nominated performance. So then he's saying he can be self-taught on the guitar, yet has no clue how to put a few decent rhymes together?

Another red flag are things he's said over the years about actors and the acting profession as a whole. After speaking to Phoenix on more than one occasion I can safely say he truly doesn't care what anyone thinks about him. He'll go into an interview and chew out reporters, actors, directors, you name it. One of the biggest things he's stated is his dislike for actors who take themselves too seriously. Not method acting, per se, but just self-important actors who take themselves way too seriously. That's what I believe his grandiose stunt is all about, a commentary on actors who are a little more Dustin Hoffman and less Lawrence Olivier. This makes the most sense and would serve as a big fuck you to the Hollywood community, putting a huge grin on Phoenix's face.

Jim Carrey went ballistic and ordered everyone on the set of Man on the Moon to refer to him only as Andy or Tony while he got into Andy Kaufman's skin. Kate Winslet lost herself for months at a time while shooting The Reader and took several more months to recover. Christian Bale stopped eating and sleeping altogether to lose a ton of weight for The Machinist, something he's done again recently for his new role in The Fighter. And of course Robert Downey Jr. played an insane method actor in Tropic Thunder, which in itself was also a commentary on Hollywood. This is probably the closest to what Phoenix is trying to pull off, except he's doing it for real and it's been well over a year now.

My final word on the Phoenix debacle is this: I think it's a hoax and expect him to come clean soon. He is way too smart and talented for this to all be real. Because if it was real we would've heard about family and friends intervening and trying to get him help. Instead, his own brother-in-law Casey Affleck is directing the movie chronicling his "demise." I think Phoenix is having his fun and laughing at articles like this one that are questioning his methods in the first place. Technically the words "I quit" did come out of his mouth but they were empty promises, like when Paul Newman kept saying he was quitting acting and never did.

Also, Mr. Phoenix, weren't you recently offered the role of The Hulk in The Avengers? (The same role that Mark Ruffalo eventually got.) I know you turned it down but if I was serious about quitting acting I would have my agent completely cut off ties to all film related projects, period. Don't worry, I won't spill the beans on your joke but you better get to the punchline fast, people don't think it's cute anymore and are starting to get angry. To quote Sir Lawrence Olivier, just come out of your shell and ask, "is it safe?"

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    So i actually thought for a second this article was going to be about method acting instead it's just another filler article of more pointless conjecture over joaquin phoenix. Here i thought i'd actually get something interesting to read.
  • WTF?!
    Agreed! Expected something interesting, but it just turned out to be lame bitchin' about Phoenix. Old news buddy. And do you really think he'd even read this article? I think not. It's not even on his radar. Now go write something interesting. Perhaps something about method acting!!
  • Delvis Crasho
    I respect method actors, but they no longer impress me. What does it say about an actor if he/she must immerse themselves in a role to be able to do it justice? Doesn't that say that they aren't really an actor so much as a con-artist? I personally love the work of Daniel Day Lewis, but his slavery towards his trade becomes inseparable to the performance itself and, in effect, the method acting becomes a stunt. He's probably not the best example since he is one of the few method actors that can execute a performance without making you think about it. The connection between acting & performing should be seamless; method actors sometimes (most of the time) show the seam. You throw me Jim Carrey or Christian Bale or Kate Blanchett & I'll throw you back Morgan Freeman or Paul Newman or, the aforementioned, Gene Hackman. I'm sure these actors did their research, but they never "became" the character they were playing. One should also consider successful series actors - preferably on premium channels: Ian McShane, James Gandolifini, Denis Leary, Edie Falco, etc. Television series actors are primarily character actors that, if given more than one season, must stretch & extend their character. Isn't that true acting? I think so. Should all actors quit method acting? Not necessarily. But I think there can be a happy medium. Look at Robert De Niro; he has done so many films and has immersed himself in the characters so many times. But does he have to take months off before doing another film? Does he talk about all that went through for the role? He does not. And what do we get in return? Fantastic, seamless performances by an actor who knows he's acting but also knows he's performing for us. We get Jake La Motta, Jimmy Conway, Travis Bickle, and a young Vito Corleone. Speaking of Vito - Brando, infamously difficult near the end, is a perfect example of an actor who does his research and then makes it his own. I recently watched The Score again and I found it so refreshing to watch Brando and De Niro have a real conversation in a jazz club. Wow. Really started rambling on this one. Great article, Marco. For a more amusing take on method acting, check out the Cracked.com article: http://www.cracked.com/funny-4906-method-actors/
    • josh
      I agree 100% with i'm actually and aspiring actor myself and .The first time i acted i didn't learn anything about it ,it was just raw talent later on .I decided to do my research and i studied on the method acting.I thought that,that was the way to go .Then as i matured i realized how silly it sounded to try to be real and blur the line .THat's wasn't really acting real acting is pretend its make believe its and illusion. Now i have a disdain for method actors i'm not exactly a huge fan of actors taking what they do so seriously .It's true though that acting is a seamless thing .Method actor types do some how like to show the seams i notice film makers follow a same pattern.Well,the indie film makers seem to do that quite a bit .I read that denzel washington works in similar fashion the whole time he stays in character. If his character is a bad guy like in training day he'll stay with that character inbetween takes .Even giving fellow cast mates the cold shoulder i just think it's silly.I agree with acting performances should be seamless Brando was a perfect example of that .His performances were flawless all traces of trade eliminated simply beautiful.Method acting is a poor man's way of going about things.
  • harrison
    gene hackman quit? damn, i thought he just hadnt found a role he liked for the past few years..
  • caro
    Laurence Olivier was an hypocrite! During his movie with Marilyn Monroe,he did cry Monroe before the takes because he thought she enough wasn't touching. About method acting,every actor is more or less method acting
  • ConnachtFan
    In Marathon Man Hoffman used to run before takes, Olivier asked him whaty he was doing,Hoffman replied "getting in Charachter" Oliveier alledgedly replied "Why not just act like you were running my dear boy?"
  • Zaphod
    "people don't think it's cute anymore and are starting to get angry." I don't think "cute" is the term your looking for and who would ever get angry about his silly experiment here? I could totally understand just simply not being interested in the project, but angry? It seems like you've really got a problem with Phoenix but why should that be interesting to us readers? Perhaps this whole article is a satire on the very subject your talking about. Like some method actors, your taking your topic here way too seriously, and like some method actors you think your audience gives a damn.
  • SuicidalOptimist
    I honestly don't care how actors prepare for their roles. For me an actor is great when I watch their movies and don't think they're acting at all; when I absolutely believe that this is how they are in real life. How they got there? Doesn't matter.
  • Martin
    Came to read an article about method acting but it's just more tired whinging on about Joaquin Phoenix. If you're not going to get a grip of yourselves please let the readers know so we aren't fooled into thinking you have something interesting to say again. Can't wait to hear more about Joaquin Phoenix in the coming days (hopefully weeks)!
  • tivdatsun
    William Shatner is a better actor than Joaquin Phoenix.
  • Xerxex
    well it was good until it became all about Phoenix. Method Actors while some go to far are some of the best out there.
  • germs
    It's no surprise that most of my favorite actors are method actors. They take on the difficult roles that most actors simply can't pull off. And as far as actors talking about great lengths for a role, it's usually the press that puts so much focus on it. One of the big problems in the business today is that we all know way too much about what goes on behind the scenes. Just let the performance speak for itself.
  • Al
    I always think of it as whatever works. If Daniel Day Lewis or Brando need to pretend to be other people to pull the performance off, great. If Liam Neeson (using him as an example because he hates method acting) just needs to walk on set, after having his morning coffee, and play Oscar Shindler, well....thats great too. As long as there are results. I do think most method actors are kind of pretentious and the things they do are very unnecessary (Day Lewis refusing pneumonia treatment.)
  • Agree with #1/2. As it is, this is just more fuel for JP's stupid, misdirected marketing fire.
  • josh
    i know right. i wanted an informed article on method acting and its role in hollywood... not an article seesawing over Phoenix's impending film
  • Deved
  • Cody w
    Im just pissed Gene Hackman quit...that sucks.w
  • Randolph Peterson
    cool. it's not about Method Acting. Acting today equals method acting. That is why ANY actor working out there with any measure of acclaim attempts to investigate their character's personal history, interests, accent, difference of appearance, understand where the character is coming from etc in order to bring authenticity and believability to their performance. If you don't think that actors like Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman and Robert De Niro are enough of an argument for why the Method is needed, you have very shallow values in entertainment. Or very little understanding that almost every performance you've watched since 1959 was influenced by the Method. By the way, the Dustin Hoffman story isn't true. watch his inside the actor's studio. it's apocryphal. it's been debunked.
  • Mr T (London, UK)
    I agree with the comments and the article...but we do have 2 remember the flipside. Some of the best performances that I've seen on screen have come from method acting. If we were to believe the majority of reports, Heath Ledger did the same thing (extreme preparation) for the Joker...and look how that turned out. Whatever Phoenix thinks he's doing, he's accomplished two things...a) made himself look like a COMPLETE and UTTER MORON...and b) diminish his reputation (slightly) If his "project" was method acting, then it was really unnecessary lol. But hey, before this...he was on course to becoming one of those "few in a generation" actors.
  • talli
    there's a lot of misconceptions about method acting, and who is a method actor, and there are a lot of myths about stuff from sets....like the things mentioned in your article.. lol@ the htought of Kate Winslet losing herself in a character. There's no method actors today, really....not even guys who came up in that school...Deniro, PAcino, they have long abandoned that way of acting. Christian Bale is no method actor. Neither is Joaquin Phoenix. Neither is Daniel Day Lewis.
  • cinemabandit
    Maybe Hackman has embraced method acting and will soon play a retired person?
    Xerxex...exactly. @Talli, there are different forms of method acting, but it is essentially an actor that takes a character off the set with him, develops him off camera and lives in it during the duration or the majority of the filming. Daniel Day-Lewis actually does do this for every role he gets.
  • BVDR
    as an actor myself, I enjoy articles like this. keep 'em coming :)
  • JimD
    I dont see it as a problem. I mean whats bad about an actor wanting to put the best possible performance into their act. If method acting helps them so be it. In the Machinist do you think Christian Bale would have looked as effective without starving himself like he did.
  • victor
    method acting isn't really just immersing yourself completely the method in it is to relate aspects of yourself to the character and that's what affects so many people, that they find the character within themselves and that can be a scary and dangerous pursuit, but it makes the performance believable and that's why we go to the movies olivier's acting was different to film acting now, and were the same movies released now they wouldnt be as popular because the trend now is american realism and believing what we see no matter how fantastic or ridiculous i have a lot of time for actors who try method and im not sure it should be shot down so quickly when it's often misunderstood. however sometimes it's the actors who misunderstand method. either way you look at it, it shouldnt matter the preparation, it's the performance that should be judged
  • Me
    Louie CK had a great story about meeting Martin Sheen one time while he was in character. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyruz1YyeOk
  • george
    Hey all you haters! this guys new to FS! hes not used to takin all the shit from the readers. so settle down till he settles in! PS i really did like this article.
  • mgazo
    couldn't agree more w/ 9 and 15. as for 27 just because you're new is not justification for a misleading headline thats really just a bitch fest.
  • mgazo
    "also Mr phoenix" wtf.. do you even know how follow MLA Form? sorry to post again
  • talli
    @LINKFX ....while Daniel Day Lewis may "stay" in character during filming, he has often said the stories about the lengths to which he goes to do this are often way too grossly exaggerated. And staying in Character, isnt exactly a staple of "method" acting. Using personal emotions from your own life is a staple of Method acting. This misconception was cemented back when Marlon Brando came around. People thought of him as THEE Method actor at his time, when in fact, he was very against the Method. For one of his roles, he stayed at a hospital for veterans because he had to play a veteran in a wheelchair. Because people thought he was a Method actor, they started attributing that kind of research to the Method. Marlon Brando was actually one of the laziest actors. His approach could best be compared to Olivier than somebody who uses "method." Look at how great Heath Ledger was as the joker. But he didn't stay in character throughout the shooting of the Dark Knight. Nor did he use personal memories to achieve realism in the scenes he shot. He used his imagination, and improvisation.
  • DoomCanoe
    i cant believe no one name dropped Danial Day Luis the best method actor.... of all time. hell he owns 2 houses just because his wife hates living with his characters for 3 months after the movie's finished. like imagine being the wife of Bill The Butcher or Danial Plainsview... you'd go fucking crazy
  • Julie
    Okay, so this article is NOT about method acting, just a lot of words with the author venting his feelings about Joaquin Phoenix and how bad method acting is. 1. Who cares about Joaquin Phoenix? If he wants to pretend that he's not acting for the highlight of his career then good for him, that's his business and I could care less to hear about it. 2. Method acting rocks! Granted, some actors go a little too far on the subject, but at least they're dedicated :)
  • WTF?!
    #27 - George: The writer of this article has had enough experience to be a veteran at this point in time, so "new to FS" - don't think so. I'm not doing any mindless hating here. But with a headliner like that and such an off-the-topic article, dear Marco is gonna get bruised for doing this article. Even the part about Phoenix is mostly subjective bickering that is more or less "troll'ish" rambling. And the poor insight into method acting of this writer is more than evident in his article. All I personally wanted, was an interesting, well researched and insightful article about the very subject matter that the headliner presents. Not this!
  • cheezy c
    yeah, geez, i don't know what every one is so upset about, yeah it could have been more on method acting but talking about Phoenix is a great example of doing method acting and taking it to far, but the ones that usually take it to far are the ones who actually do it really well. for example Heath Leadger!
  • WTF?!
    #34 - cheezy c: Phoenix is not a great example because no one really knows if he's acting at all. Or perhaps you're a good personal friend of his? And also; Why do people, including cheezy c here, say that Heath took it to far? When exactly did he take it to far - show me. I don't understand? Has anyone confirmed that just because he played the Joker - that somewhere down the road, he lost it and off'd himself? Or was there some indication that he did any crazy shit on set or off set during filming? Not that I have ever heard of! I really don't think that it has anything to do with that. It's all speculation and that's the problem right there. To use Phoenix as an example is dumb because we know nothing yet. It's just an article about Marco's thoughts, feelings and speculation about Phoenix and not about what the headline says. The information about method acting isn't even correct at some places - it just seems like some of it was picked up from a tabloid magazine. I mean, if we have to take journalism seriously, those who write these articles have to take their readers seriously. Do the research, as any reporter, journalist or filmblogger should do. We, the readers, want to have some real insight into these issues and not something we could have conjured up ourselves. I'm writing this because I love this site, and I'd hate to see this site sink down to a level of pure sensationalist journalism. It's out of respect that I write all this shit.
  • Joanna
    It's official...it's a hoax. Sad and pathetic that Joaquin has stooped to such a low level to generate publicity for himself.
  • Have to agree with everyone that this article has nothing to do with method acting...what gets me is how misunderstood the concept is, by both the author and many in the comments. Wikipedia actually does a decent and concise job of it...check it out.
  • I see the writing as examples of what the writer views as method acting and other ways of dealing with a part in acting.  Not only Joaquin Phoenix was mentioned as a method actor but so was Jim Carrey,  Christian Bale  and Robert DiNero. The last was revealed to not stay in character as the  fore mentioned thespians.  For contrast was Sir Lawrence Olivier.  Randolph Peterson  wrote the interaction of Hoffman and Olivier during the filming of "Marathon Man" was debunked. This in an interview with Hoffman on "Inside the Actor's Studio" I do think the majority of what was written was on Phoenix. Specifically his vanity project  "I'm not all there"  My opinion is he is fine actor and I look forward to seeing him  James Gray's"Low Life" and  Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" Yes I know these films are now "untiled" re: IMDB.com




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