“Method Acting — Facts and Myths”
Over the years there has been much debate over the American Method and what it is? It has been hailed and demonized, depending on who you talk to but more than anything, it has been misunderstood by many. I can say this with certainty for I spent ten years of my life studying the Method with various teachers in New York City, before becoming one myself. Whatever you think you may know about actors and acting is nothing compared to what you would learn about them in a Method class. Public perception of the Method has often been based on myths, so I’d like to clear the air on a few of those and offer a few facts along the way.
In a nutshell, the American Method is a technique by which actors learn to behave realistically in an imaginary landscape. This is the polar opposite of pretending, which is, by definition, “false behavior”. The Method trains actors to achieve a level of emotional truth that can be applied to a given situation within a text. This personal truth is the emotional fuel the actor uses to bring the scene to a detailed, realistic life.
A man named Lee Strasberg is generally credited with the seeds of the American Method via his work at the Actor’s Studio. The AM is actually an adaptation of the work of a Russian director named Konstantin Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theater. In 1923, a young Strasberg witnessed a performance by the MAT and later studied with some of the company to learn Stanislavsky’s “System”. After that, he began teaching it to NYC actors himself, adding and refining his version along the way.
Until this point, the universal acting style had been very presentational, in that actors used large, codified gestures to signal emotions to the audience. By modern standards, this style was quite superficial and had nothing in common with natural human behavior. The work of Stanislavsky/Strasberg would change the look and sound of modern acting forever. Now while Strasberg remains the dominant face of the American Method, not everyone agreed with his approach, which was largely psychological. Some disagreed so much, that they broke off from the Actor’s Studio to form their own schools, notably Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner.
When we talk about Method Acting today, we have to understand there’s no single approach to it, but actually three major ones, with some subdivisions beneath those. Strasberg’s was based in the psychology of the character, Adler’s was focused on the character’s sociology and Meisner’s largely on a character’s patterns of behavior. As you’d expect, the training you receive in these schools is considerably different, although there is some common ground as well.
Misunderstandings about the Method spring largely from overblown media coverage of famous actors doing “crazy” things in their prep and performance of roles. The tragic death of Heath Ledger is a good example of this. Ledger died from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs during a bout of insomnia, after completing work on a Batman movie, where he played the sociopathic Joker. An almost immediate rumor went viral that Ledger had become crazy, in order to play a crazy character and subsequently killed himself to escape his own madness. The only crazy thing about this story is just how big it blew up and how the blame got pinned on Method acting, instead of the MD who prescribed way too much medication for the poor guy. Look, I’ve known hundreds of working actors and by and large, they’re as sane a group of people as the next. Some are a bit less sane than others but I would attribute their wackiness more to their family's DNA than I would their actor's training.
Fine, so if Method Acting isn’t going to make you crazy, then maybe it’s not so bad? Well, actors have been getting trained this way for about 75 years, so there must to be some benefit to it. From Marlon Brando to Al Pacino to Charlize Theron, actors have been using the Method in their careers and they’ve all done pretty well. So what’s the secret to this “method”? Honestly, there is no secret, it’s a system of approaching characters, situations and written material with the goal of bringing it to believable life. The training that I received back in the 90’s was a fusion of all three schools, though the emphasis was on Strasberg’s teachings. There’s no way to distill years of study into a few pages but I can give you a few of the key concepts that we work with in class.
There are a number of tools that we use but the primary ones are (1) sensory work (2) substitutions and (3) the affective memory. Sensory work is based on Strasberg’s concept of “sense memory”, which basically means that everything we encounter with our senses (taste, sight, sound, touch & taste) gets recorded in our personal hard drive as memories. Most of these sense memories are buried and not readily accessible to our conscious minds but with training, we can learn how to trick memory. By awakening memory, we can bring these buried emotions to the surface and use them for the purposes of acting. It does take time to learn this technique but the results can be quite startling.
Working with substitutions just means using sense memory “persons” and “places” from your own past and plugging them into your present circumstances. In other words, instead of working with an actor/character who doesn’t make you feel an emotion, you’re working with a sensory person from your past, who actually makes you feel that emotion. Why settle for less than the real thing, right? Memory is kind of a slippery thing but it is accessible, you just have to figure out what triggers it. Sometimes it’s a smell, or an image, or a touching an object from our past — the formula is always different but the approach remains the same. It’s a little like Alice walking through the looking glass — after you do it the first time, it just gets easier.
I do want to point out that while you’re working with these tools, you never stop being anybody but yourself. Certainly, we’ve all heard the stories about actors getting lost in their characters but those are myths, I don’t know any actor that’s ever gotten this kind of character amnesia, it’s just not true. Yes, you will see actors go through physical transformations when preparing for a role, De Niro popularized this kind of thing and Jarod Leto has taken it to a logical extreme in recent years. Now it may look like they’ve become someone else, sure, that’s part of the actors' job isn’t it?
Professional actors have to juggle many things while they’re working — emotions, mental focus, technical attention to a live audience or the camera — all the while remaining physically relaxed so all of those things flow naturally. Great performances by actors are the culmination of training, repetition, hard work and talent. Despite the ongoing media hype about it, the American Method remains a major contribution to the field of modern acting. It may no longer seem revolutionary in 2020 but for young actors looking for real, robust training, it can still be revelatory.