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We can all name an actor who has delivered a role with the utmost conviction; conducting an unforgettable performance that has shaped some of our favourite movies. When stepping into the shoes of a new character an actor will use different approaches. One way of doing this is by using ‘method acting’.
Although a well-known term amongst drama school graduates and theatre buffs, the ‘Method’ technique may not be common knowledge to everyone. Read on as we unpack what method acting is and ultimately how to method act.
Simply put, method acting is a number of different techniques to help actors become the character that they’re playing. This practice helps encourage actors to work from the inside out, drawing from personal experiences and memories in order to harness real emotions and to connect with their characters on a much deeper level.
Although not initially called method acting, the technique was invented by a Russian theatre practitioner, Konstantin Stanislavski, in the early 1900s. It was originally called the ‘Stanislavski system’. This was a systematic approach to training actors that utilised a progression of techniques to retrieve believable emotions from an actor’s performance. There were areas of study the system focused on, these included voice, physical skills, concentration, emotion memory, observation and dramatic analysis. Stanislavski’s approach was revolutionary due to its standing in total contrast to the more traditional, theatrical and classical acting of that time. The work of Stanislavski laid the foundations for what would become Method Acting.
In the 1930s American actor and director, Lee Strasberg, went on to develop the method. Strasberg was striving towards training that would consistently push and drive actors to become as close to the characters as possible. He believed that in order for people to develop a deeper, more emotional understanding of their role, they should tap into their own experiences in order to identify and understand their characters a lot better. His teaching targeted relying on personal experiences in order to bring a part to life and mentally enhance the ‘realness’.
So, how do Methods act? Although this can’t be taught and mastered overnight, there is plenty of food for thought here that you can digest at your leisure.
The main principle of method acting is becoming so part of your character that you don’t need to think about anything else when you’re performing. It’s important to understand that method acting is the process of using emotional memory to bring out emotions for a character. Emotional memory is a process used to bring out your internal memories and allow them to surface as emotion. For example, if the emotion you need to portray is sad, you would think back to a sad memory in your own life and use that to create the emotion of sadness. Emotional memory is something that can be developed and exercised.
A way to start is by trying to think of memories from your past that move you in a certain way and feeling those past emotions in the present. Be true to the emotion you feel and commit to it, it may bring some discomfort but try to let the internal emotion take over the external emotion.
Relaxation exercises can also be of great benefit to accessing your inner emotions. Relaxation is the key principle of method acting, which allows you to fully enter your role and perform to the best of your ability. So spend time relaxing before trying any exercises or acting scenes. This can be in the form of mediation, yoga or T’ai Chi. The more relaxed you are the more you will be able to employ the techniques of method acting.
Another good idea would be to dissect the character in question and put as clear a picture as possible of them back together. This would be the result of researching as much as you can about the character, examining how they speak, walk and dress. You can then begin to mimic some of those mannerisms and layer them into your performance. At first, it would be technical and mental but eventually, it would hopefully become natural. A fun exercise could be trying to be the same character for a few days in a week and see if anyone notices any change in your behaviour.
Although there are plenty of exercises you can employ at home, method acting classes will be able to give you a deeper exploration of the technique and equip you with the necessary tool kit.
There are many classes available that do not require you to be enrolled in an acting school. Taking classes will allow you to get more professional advice and information about method acting and will offer hands-on experiences through class-led performances. There is also online method acting classes and teachers should that be a preferred option.
One of the most famous examples of method acting is Chrisitan Bale. He’s adopted this method through many of his roles but most notably in The Machinist. In order to adopt the role of the paranoid and sleep-deprived machine operator, Bale dropped a colossal 63 pounds, yet this was not at the request or demand of the director.
When landing the role in the 2005 action/ thriller movie The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Rooney Mara had her lip, brow, nose, nipples and ears pierced to get into character. Baring in mind she didn’t have any piercings prior to this, Mara stated, “It would always feel sort of like I was in costume, even if I was naked.”
Another method acting example is Daniel Day-Lewis when playing the role of Abraham Lincoln. Day-Lewis prepared for a whole year before shooting began and stayed in character even when the cameras weren’t rolling. He demanded that everyone on set call him “Mr President” and for fear it may throw him off he would not even let English cast members speak to him in their own accents.
Some of the examples listed above show how far actors will dedicate themselves to their art by the means of method acting. However, questions have been raised about how healthy this method is for the actor’s psyche as when preparing for a role it can be difficult to distance one’s true self from their developed public persona.
Some performers have suffered mental trauma because they have lost their own identities when becoming so ensconced in a role. Like Day-Lewis, many performers act like the character even when they are not on camera, this, in turn, can become difficult to control when to play the character’s role and when to behave naturally, especially when the performer feels exactly like the character. However, a healthy balance can be achieved and it doesn’t have to be taken to extremes in order to utilise the method acting technique.
So there you have it – a low down on Method Acting! We hope you now have a clear insight into what method acting is and can take on board some tips and exercises to get you started. Ready to give it a go?
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