Actors on Acting – And Where They Disagree

Last month, we published a bit of a debunk piece from Eric Hetzler from the University of Huddersfield. He told us what "method acting" really is, and how Hollywood has grossly misinterpreted this theory of performance – with disturbing results.


A quote from that piece jumped out at us, from The Hobbit star Martin Freeman. Commenting on Jim Carey's over-the-top method acting in Man on the Moon, Freeman is reported to have said:

“It was the most self-aggrandising, selfish, narcissistic fucking bollocks I have ever seen... You need to keep grounded in reality, and that’s not to say you don’t lose yourself in the time between ‘action’ and ‘cut’, but I think the rest of it is absolute pretentious nonsense.”

This reminded us of criticism of Freeman's own approach to acting, from his legendary co-star in The Hobbit, Ian McKellen. Responding to Freeman's claim that he acts on instinct, McKellen reportedly labelled his colleague "a rather shallow actor." Famously, McKellen practices expressions in the mirror before he arrives on set.

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So in this rolling spat between Jim, Martin and Ian, who's right? Should you completely lose yourself in a role, find the right expression through the looking glass, or let instinct guide you on set? We're sure there's no answer to that question. In fact, as far as we can see, there seems to be more disagreement than consensus between the world's most accomplished performers on the eternal question of how to act.



Instinct


Just when we all thought Leonardo DiCaprio would forever be overlooked by the Academy, he won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in The Revenant. Among a crazy catalogue of on-location challenges he went through for the film, DiCaprio ate a real raw bison liver, turning his nose up at the gelatin prop alternative.

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The film's final cut includes that stomach-turning scene. "It says it all," DiCaprio later said. "It was an instinctive reaction." For his part, the film's director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, said that without the real liver, DiCaprio “may not have gotten to the truth.”


The logic here is that DiCaprio's instinctive reaction to chowing down on bison innards is probably about the same as how his character would've reacted in 1823. In the absence of inspiration, then, there's a case for jumping in and doing it yourself. But McKellen would probably advise doing that in the mirror, before the camera's rolling.


Radical Self-Exploration


Emerging from radical theatrical types in the 1930s came a school of thought that imagined an infinite library of characters deep within us all. All the accomplished thespian had to do was dredge their inner depths to find the right one.


The Sanford Meisner Method, as it's known, is partially achieved through the endless repetition of a line in dozens of variations, as Christoph Waltz, who trained in the method, demonstrates below.



But like other highfalutin theories of acting like the Brechtian Method or the Stanislavski system, there are plenty of established actors who scoff at radical models of the actor's art. Judi Dench once provided a nice little story, based on her time acting alongside Maggie Smith, to this end.


"I was in New York with Maggie Smith recently, promoting a film, and we were asked about the Sanford Meisner Method school of acting, which is based on ruthless self-exploration," Dench said. "Maggie, in her unique way, said, 'Oh, we have that in England, too. We call it wanking.'"


Character Exploration


For Dench, "acting is about the exploration of character rather than simply a projection of self." The playwright and director David Hare is in agreement, having once said that "acting is a judgment of character."


So far, so sensible. Whenever you read a script, one of the first things you'll do is try to understand your character's motivations. Locating their complex inner life can lend richness to your performance. This approach is called the Stella Adler technique, named after an American actress born in 1901. It remains well respected today.


Loyalty to this method of acting explains why Maggie Smith previously complained that performing in Downton Abbey and Harry Potter "wasn't what you'd call satisfying." While entertainingly shrill, Professor McGonagall is a character without a great deal of depth. But is there no place for personal interpretation, even personal emotion, in performance?


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Self-Seeping


We've gone and given this method our own name. Self-seeping, we'd argue, is a middle-ground between two schools of thought: that which says the role is entirely about the character, and that which instead takes the role to be all about the actor.


Meryl Streep summed up this position nicely when she said "acting is not about being someone different. It’s finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there.” Johnny Depp is in agreement: “with any part you play," he has said, "there is a certain amount of yourself in it. There has to be, otherwise it’s just not acting. It’s lying.”


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Examples of self-seeping are cherished among those of us keen on movie trivia. For instance, a younger DiCaprio famously fumbled his line in Titanic when confronted with a derobed Kate Winslet. The mistake stayed in the film. And he really did cut his hand in that horrifying dinner table scene in Django Unchained, rubbing his own blood on co-star Kerry Washington.


Whether you're seeping blood or natural timidity, a little of yourself can lend a lot to a performance. In Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman even seeped an unscripted fart into the scene in which he and Tom Cruise are crammed in a phonebox. Rather than kicking up a stink, director Barry Levinson used that take, featuring Cruise's on-point reaction, in the final cut.


Escapism


It doesn't take being an industry insider to know that Cruise is an acquired taste. One performer who's been vocal about the pitfalls of working with him is Thandiwe Newton, star of Westworld and, previously, Mission: Impossible II. She's described working with Cruise as a "nightmare". Certain members of the Mission: Impossible film crew, as well as certain chat show hosts, might concur.


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But in an incredibly candid Ted Talk, Newton has spoken about her own experience of acting, which she relates to her "otherness" as a black woman. It might be unfair to describe her propensity for acting as escapism, but she says in her talk that "I honestly believe the key to my success as an actor... has been the very lack of self that made me feel so anxious an insecure."


She continues that: "I can hardly find the words to describe the peace I felt when I was acting." Here, Newton introduces us not only to her personal journey and struggle, but to another way of acting. If you've been made to feel that you don't have a self to draw inspiration from, expressing yourself as a script-sanctioned self can be incredibly rewarding – and beguiling.



Intuition


From one Freeman to another, Morgan Freeman has previously spoken at length about his approach to acting. The former US Air Force radar repairman reckons actors should be able to switch it on when the cameras begin rolling – and switch it off, promptly, the moment you hear "cut".


Like McKellen, Morgan Freeman is a regular on the stage as well as the silver screen. He's advised early-career actors to do the same: to pick roles that develop your acting capabilities, not those that pay the mega-bucks. For Freeman, that stage experience is something actors can carry onto the film – like switching off when you're waiting in the wings.


The man himself has described his approach as “the Morgan Freeman technique - intuition. It’s what I get when I read a script. Life and the craft became my teachers". Intuition, we suppose, is a little different from instinct: it's about knowing your role inside out, knowing the world of your character, and being able to access it on demand. Freeman goes into much more detail below.



Method


As Eric informed us in his article last year, method acting is greatly misunderstood. Too often, it seems an excuse for histrionics and melodrama. Or, as Martin Freeman put it: "self-aggrandising, selfish, narcissistic fucking bollocks."


Stories of this approach nonetheless abound, and tend to quickly assume a position in Hollywood mythology. Daniel Day Lewis, Robert De Niro and – perhaps most infamously – Health Ledger have all practiced so-called method acting, with varying results. You can check out this list to see who's taken method acting to its most alarming extremes.


In any case, given some of the remarkable performances we've mentioned here, it's clear that method acting isn't the only way to find your way to the core of a character.


Actually, if we've learnt anything at all, it's that our art is a wildly varying one – and one that defies simple descriptions or the notion of a universal winning approach.







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