Method acting is a technique originated by Konstantin Stanislavski that encourages actors use to generate an honest connection with their characters. Many people associate Method acting with actors who stay in character off set and go to extreme lengths to connect with their characters. Hollywood has examples throughout the years.
Though these are not explicitly prescribed tactics of the Method, the dramatic tactics some actors employ have created fascinating — and weird — anecdotes throughout the history of cinema.
Shia LaBeouf – Fury
For David Ayer’s 2014 war film Fury, Shia LaBeouf plays Boyd Swan, a deeply religious man that his compatriots nickname Bible. To connect with his soldier role, LaBeouf reportedly refused to shower for weeks on end.
He also pulled out his own tooth and made a habit of cutting his face with a knife in order to build out the physical life of the character. It has been said that Shia LaBeouf even converted from Judaism to Christianity during his exploration of his character’s faith.
LaBeouf’s Method acting caused frequent friction with his co-stars, but the final result is a key performance in the actor’s career and a character beloved by fans of the film.
Adrien Brody – The Pianist
While preparing for his Oscar-winning role in The Pianist, Adrien Brody made intense personal sacrifices in order to connect with a character who loses everything.
To get ready for the harrowing Holocaust drama, Brody broke up with his girlfriend, whittled his possessions down to two bags, and moved to Europe.
His forced exile mustered the loneliness and loss he needed to connect with the material. In addition to the emotional component of his Method acting, Brody also practiced the piano for four hours a day in order to play convincingly in the film.
This practice was at the behest of director Roman Polanksi, who insisted that Brody be able to play Chopin beautifully.
Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight
Heath Ledger’s career remains a showcase of effective Method acting. In his varied and successful catalog of work, no performance comes close to his role as the Joker in The Dark Knight.
To prepare for his part as the iconic villain, Ledger locked himself in a London hotel room for a month. There, he read comics, meditated, and experimented with laughs and voices.
His quest for an iconic portrayal was successful, earning him an Oscar and elevating The Dark Knight to become an instant classic.
Heath Ledger passed away in 2008 after an accidental overdose of sleeping medication. His Method acting preparation has been speculated to be a factor in the actor’s sleeping difficulties, but no direct connection is provable.
Heath Ledger is remembered today as a legend in his field.
Robert De Niro – Taxi Driver
Taxi Driver is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. Robert De Niro stars in the film as a New York City cabbie on a slow descent into madness. To prepare for the film, De Niro actually worked as a cab driver, pulling 12-hour shifts in the weeks leading up to production.
De Niro did not stop his Method acting work there. While filming Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro continued to drive during the film’s breaks. Proof of De Niro’s cab driving exploits surfaced after Taxi Driver hit theaters when the Taxi and Limousine Commission released a copy of De Niro’s expired license.
Robert De Niro continued to develop his Method acting craft over the course of his career, but his time as a taxi driver remains legendary.
Jim Carrey – Man on the Moon
Since the 1980s, Jim Carrey has made a name for himself as one of the most dynamic and explosive actors in Hollywood. His use of Method acting has come through in prominent ways throughout his career, such as his basing Ace Ventura on the movements of a bird.
No Jim Carrey performance displays Method acting as dramatically as his role as Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon. Carrey maintained the problematic character on and off set for the entire duration of the film’s production, causing friction with the cast and crew.
Jim Carrey’s behavior making Man on the Moon was so extreme and transcendental that it inspired the 2017 documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond. The film explores Carrey’s antics and thought processes, offering a fascinating look at Method acting at its most extreme.
Daniel Day-Lewis – Everything He’s Ever Done
Marlon Brando helped bring Method acting into the Hollywood limelight in the 1950s, but Daniel Day-Lewis has become the poster child for the technique. His legendary performances are set against the backdrop of equally legendary anecdotes about his preparation and on-set behavior.
Daniel Day-Lewis reportedly spent several weeks living in the wilderness to prepare for his role as a super manly frontiersman in The Last of the Mohicans.
For My Left Foot, Daniel Day-Lewis remained in his wheelchair between takes in order to connect with the physical reality of his character’s cerebral palsy. This forced crew members to wheel and carry him around on set.
During production for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Day-Lewis famously remained in character as Abraham Lincoln after shooting days ended. He went so far as to disavow electric light, doing his script work by candlelight instead.
Controversial as such tactics may be, Method acting has yielded some of the most powerful performances in film history. The actors who take this practice to the extreme make great sacrifices and impact the lives of those around them, begging the question of what price is worth paying for great art.