Challenging and unorthodox, method acting is the favored technique of Hollywood heavyweights seeking to perfect their craft. First developed by Constantin Stanislavski of the Moscow Art Theater, and later adapted by Lee Strasberg for American actors, method acting emphasizes the practice of connecting to a character by drawing on personal emotions and memories. Method acting requires that actors fully immerse themselves in the character, often to the extent that they stay “in character” offstage or off-camera for the duration of a project. While variations of method acting are commonplace in Hollywood, these are 10 of the most extreme examples of actors who have taken their craft to the next level.
10. Mickey Rourke: The Wrestler (2008)
According to critics, Mickey Rourke’s Oscar-nominated turn in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler was a perfect example of art imitating life. In the film, Rourke plays a run-down wrestler past his prime looking for one more shot at the big time.
Mickey Rourke was a leading man in the 1980s and 1990s, but his career had fallen on hard times. If method actors draw upon real emotion and their own professional highs and lows to fuel a performance, then it’s no stretch to say that Mickey Rourke was really playing himself in The Wrestler.
9. Hilary Swank: Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
Hilary Swank earned an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Brandon Teena in the 1999 biographical indie film Boys Don’t Cry. The critically acclaimed film told the story of Brandon Teena, a female-to-male transsexual who was raped and murdered in Humboltd, Nebraska.
Swank auditioned for the role anonymously, pretending to be a small town girl from Nebraska, and although the ruse didn’t last long, the transformation was enough to convince director Kimberley Pierce, who had auditioned hundreds of actresses, that Swank was the right actress for the role. Prior to filming, Swank reportedly lived as Brandon Teena for a month, going out in public and attempting to blend into society.
8. Christian Bale: The Fighter (2010)
The Fighter, directed by David O. Russell, centers on the life of professional boxer “Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his older half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). While Bale is no stranger to dark and complex roles, the dedication to his craft being exhibited time and time again, he finally had a character in Dicky Eklund in which his method acting technique was rewarded.
According to David O. Russel, “Dicky has a whole rhythm to him, a music. Christian had to figure out how his mind worked.” In order to prepare for the role, Bale took notes on Eklund’s mannerisms and recorded conversations in order to perfect his idiosyncratic Boston accent. Given that Dicky Englund was a struggling crack addict in the period the film covers, Bale had to lose weight -this wasn’t a problem as the actor had infamously dropped 63 lbs. for a role in Brad Anderson’s 2004 film The Machinist. In the end, Bale’s methods paid off. He won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
7. Jim Carrey: Man on the Moon (1999)
Directed by Milos Foreman, Man on the Moon is a biographical comedy drama that traces the life of Andy Kaufman, the eccentric comedian and prankster best known for his appearances on Saturday Night Live, as well as his role as Latka Gravas in the television series Taxi. Jim Carrey played Kaufman in the 1999 film, and during the shoot Carrey was reportedly in character both on and off the set.
Carrey not only channeled Andy Kaufman, but he also channeled Kaufman’s alter ego, Tony Clifton. Carrey’s chameleonic performance won him a Golden Globe, but his method acting antics annoyed his friends, family, and coworkers.
6. Heath Ledger: The Dark Knight (2008)
Heath Ledger described his Joker as a “psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy,” and his chaotic interpretation of the comic book villain earned him a posthumous Oscar (Best Supporting Actor) in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. In order to inhabit the role, Ledger locked himself in a hotel room for a month and experimented with the character’s voice, posture and personality, even going so far as to keep a “Joker” diary in which he recorded the character’s off-the-wall thoughts and feelings. Kim Ledger, Heath’s father, said his son “liked to dive into his characters, but this time he really took it up a notch.”
“Bye-Bye.” Those are the last words scrawled in Heath Ledger’s “Joker” diary, and they are as tragic and haunting as they are coincidental. The 28-year old Australian actor died from a prescription drug overdose at his SoHo apartment on January 22, 2008.
5. Charlize Theron: Monster (2003)
South African beauty Charlize Theron may not have seemed like the ideal actress to play Aileen Wuornos, the serial killer, prostitute, and damaged man-eater who killed seven men in Florida in 1989 and 1990, but film critic Roger Ebert called Theron’s performance in Monster “one of the greatest in the history of cinema.” Charlize Theron gained 30 lbs. for the role. She masked her face with makeup and wore prosthetic teeth during the shoot.
More importantly, Theron’s performance, with its raw emotion and tortured intensity, was transcendent -a classic textbook example of an actress disappearing into a role. “I think I’ve tried most of my career to transform myself into characters. This was just more extreme, ” said Charlize Theron. The transformation into Aileen Wuornos earned Theron the Oscar for Best Actress in 2003.
4. Forest Whitaker: The Last King of Scotland (2006)
Rumor has it Forest Whitaker threw himself so deep into the role of former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in the film The Last King of Scotland that his wife and children refused to talk to him during the entire shoot. According to director Kevin Macdonald, “Forest was at a crisis point in his career and felt like this was a make or break role.
For nearly six months he wanted to be Amin, not just perform him.” Whitaker stayed in character the entire time off set. He ate only mashed bananas and beans. Moreover, Whitaker not only mastered Idi Amin’s unique and trickily nuanced accent, but he also learned how to speak fluent Swahili and Kakwa. Forest Whitaker won the Best Actor Academy Award, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA for his performance in the 2006 film.
3. Robert De Niro: Raging Bull (1980), Cape Fear (1991)
“I began to realize what a fat man goes through,” Robert De Niro said. “You get rashes on your legs. Your legs scrape together.” In 1980, De Niro packed on 60 lbs. to play the washed-up version of boxer Jake La Motta in Martin Scorsese’s biographical sports drama Raging Bull. Today, binging and purging for a coveted role is standard practice in Hollywood, but that wasn’t always the case, and De Niro’s physical transformation for Raging Bull has long been the standard-bearer. Robert De Niro took home the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Jake La Motta.
In 1991, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese teamed up for a remake of the 1962 film Cape Fear. For the role of Max Cady, a man out for revenge on the lawyer who purposely lost the case against him fourteen years before, De Niro once again underwent an extreme physical transformation. However, this time the devoted thespian got menacingly ripped and muscular, decorated his body with jailhouse tattoos, mastered a slow, convincing southern drawl, and in perhaps one of the most extraneous and misguided examples of method acting, even paid a dentist $5,000 to grind down and deform his teeth.
2. Adrian Brody: The Piano (2002)
Adrien Brody won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as Wladyslaw Szpilman in the 2002 Roman Polanski film The Pianist. At 29, Brody was the youngest actor ever to win the award. “The beauty of what I do,” says Brody, “is that it gives you the opportunity to give up who you are and attempt to understand someone else, another time, other struggles, other emotions.”
To prepare for his role as a real-life concert pianist and Holocaust survivor, Brody engaged in one of the most detailed periods of method acting madness. At Polanski’s request, Brody practiced the piano for four hours a day, until he gained the technical proficiency to play specific passages of Chopin. Meanwhile, in order to get into the mind-set of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a man who lost his family and home, but somehow managed to survive the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, Brody gave up his apartment in New York, sold his car, unplugged his phone, and moved to Europe with nothing but a suitcase and a keyboard. Finally, in order to experience the emptiness that goes with starvation -Szpilman had to scavenge for food in bombed-out Warsaw -Brody went on a crash diet and lost 30 lbs. “It took over half a year after the film was done to settle back into things,” said Brody.
1. Daniel Day-Lewis: My Left Foot (1989), The Boxer (1997), and Lincoln (2012)
The method acting preparations that Daniel Day-Lewis has engaged in over his career are the stuff of legend, and his three Best Actor Academy Awards illustrate that these preparations, however disciplined or extreme, paid off. Method acting may have been a technique developed to encourage actors to use personal experiences to identify with their characters, but Daniel Day-Lewis has taken that technique and redefined it, bringing the immersive approach to ever-greater heights.
When preparing for his Oscar-winning performance as Christy Brown, the Irish writer and painter who had cerebral palsy, Daniel Day-Lewis refused to leave his wheelchair even when he wasn’t filming My Left Foot. Supposedly, Day-Lewis suffered two broken ribs from sitting in a hunched position in the wheelchair throughout the length of the shoot. In order not to break character, it’s also reported that Day-Lewis insisted on being spoon fed off set. In preparation for Jim Sheridan’s 1997 film The Boxer, Daniel Day-Lewis trained for 18-months with a world-class boxer. The English actor became so skilled at the sport that the boxing trainer said he could have competed professionally.
In order to prepare for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln biopic, Daniel Day-Lewis reportedly spent a full year researching and reading about the sixteenth U.S. president. By the time shooting started, Day-Lewis was so thoroughly in character that he sent text messages to his coworkers as “The Commander in Chief” or signed them with an “A,” for Abraham. In order to further achieve historical accuracy all discussion of current events was banned on the set. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Lincoln’s son in the film, went so far as to suggest that he hadn’t even met the real Day-Lewis until a man in jeans and a t-shirt greeted him at the wrap party.