The highlight of the comedy Tropic Thunder is Robert Downey Jr. as Kirk Lazarus, an Australian actor so into method that he has his skin dyed black to play a soldier in a movie. He proceeds to talk and act just like a black man and when called on it, says “I don’t break character until the DVD commentary.” It’s an obvious send-up of method actors and it works thanks to how so many of them do take things pretty seriously. Many actors say they don’t want to go full-on. They treat acting as just a job, do the role and move on to the next. Meryl Streep may be the most honored actress in Academy Award history but she insists she doesn’t do method as it’s too much for her. Even many Oscar winners aren’t accused of going full-on for a part. Others however, take things to a pretty extreme degree.
It goes back to the old stage days as John Barrymore and Laurence Oliver were famous for getting deep into characters, often refusing to take off the makeup until hours after a show. While method wasn’t a huge deal in the early days of Hollywood, it took off in the 1950s with Marlon Brando leading the way and continues today. It’s not just an actor researching a part, they go to incredible lengths to get into a character, to the point of utter madness. However, you can’t argue with the success rate as many of these actors have garnered Oscars and acclaim thanks to how deep they get into character. That said, they also take things to a bit more of an extreme than needed that’s added roughness to their reputations. Here are 15 actors who took “method” too far on set for their roles and how you can be a bit too good at acting.
15. A.J. Cook
Criminal Minds has long been a hit with audiences intrigued by its look at the minds of serial killers. Yet, it’s throwing how one of the cast got a bit crazy on her own. For the 200th episode, the writers had Cook’s JJ be captured by a murderer who then subjects her to a brutal waterboarding. As this is literally torture, the showrunners naturally thought they’d film Cook in close-ups and have a stuntwoman handle the water bits. Instead, Cook (a mother of two) insisted on doing the actual waterboarding herself. The actress admitted she was unprepared for the effects, the crying and agony all too real. Yet whenever the director asked her if she wanted to stop, Cook insisted on continuing, despite some water damage to her ears. It led to a stunning sequence and Cook has to be credited with going beyond the call of duty to make this episode a great one.
14. Andy Kaufman
The comedian is still legendary for his remarkable ability to vanish into his craft. He rose up as the nutty Latka on Taxi and continued to act as the wild foreigner in real life as well. He and Jerry Lawler embarked on a feud in Memphis wrestling with Lawler supposedly breaking from the plan to nail Kaufman for real and injure his neck with Kaufman in a brace for weeks. This led to the two having a screaming row on David Letterman with Letterman freaked out by it. The act was so convincing it took a decade for it to get out that the two had planned the entire thing out. More famous was how Kaufman created Tony Clifton, an obnoxious lounge singer/bad comic, going out to clubs in this character to insult the audience as Andy’s “opening act.” The Taxi producers decided to have Clifton come on as a joke but were thrown when Kaufman showed up in this character and acted a complete rude jerk to everyone and was thrown out. The next day, Kaufman came on set to apologize to everyone for “Tony’s” behavior and the cast realizing Andy really wanted them to think they were two separate people. His death in 1984 to cancer has added to his legend with many still claiming he faked his death as the ultimate act. It’s not easy to doubt as Kaufman was a master at playing everyone brilliantly.
13. Jennifer Lawrence
At only 26, Lawrence is already an A-list box office star with four Oscar nominations and one win. That speaks of massive talent, one that many of her older co-stars praise as being amazing. For her breakout role in Winter’s Bone, Lawrence spent a week in the Ozarks learning to hunt and skin animals. This helped her win the role of Katniss in The Hunger Games with Lawrence going all out in archery despite how much of her arrows were CGI. For a scene where she and Liam Hemsworth kiss, Lawrence (without Hemsworth’s knowledge) ate a batch of raw onions and fish to make sure the kiss looked uncomfortable. She also suffered an ear infection while swimming underwater and fought through some injuries. Reports surfaced of Lawrence getting so much into her Joy character that she and director David O. Russell has screaming matches on set. The remarkable thing about Lawrence is how young she still is and makes you marvel at the methods she can go to on set in the future.
12. Adrien Brody
Getting into the mindset of a character is one thing but literally giving up your life for it is something else. Brody was pretty much an unknown in Hollywood when he took on the role of a Jewish musician affected by the Nazis in The Pianist. Reading how the character had his life torn away, Brody decided there was only one way to realize that. He gave up his phone, sold his car and apartment and even broke up with his girlfriend to move to Europe. On the pushing of director Roman Polanski, Brody spent four hours a day playing the piano for real to master the pieces on camera. Also, because the film was shot in reverse order, Brody shed 30 pounds to capture his character in a concentration camp then gained the weight back to play the more healthy man in flashbacks. It did turn out to be worth it as Brody won the Oscar for the film yet still fantastic how far he went to make the role believable.
11. Heath Ledger
It’s sad to think Ledger’s dedication to his acting is what led to his too-early demise. He learned horseback riding for roles in A Knight’s Tale and Brokeback Mountain and some believe his turn as a drug addict in Candy led to real issues. Of course, it’s his turn as The Joker in The Dark Knight that is notable as Ledger cut himself off from the world, living secluded in his apartment to get into the madman’s mindset. His diary shows rambling writings as he tried to capture the essence of a complete anarchist and one can see the troubling weight it had on his mind. While the result was a fantastic performance, it also led Ledger to seek solace in drugs and thus his tragic fatal overdose months before the film’s release. It seems wrong Ledger never lived to see his ultimate triumph as an actor yet also a testament to how his final full performance remains one for the ages.
10. Shia LaBeouf
Few would have guessed the goofy kid from Even Stevens would turn into an actor of bizarre reputation. LaBeouf actually blames his method approach for some of his run-ins with the law, claiming that his arrest for shoplifting at a Chicago drugstore was “research.” While shooting Charlie Countryman, LaBeouf actually showed up on set having done acid and nearly choked his own director. While he denies it, there are many who insist LaBeouf actually got real for his sex scenes in the movie Nymphomaniac. The most notable is the World War II drama Fury as LaBeouf insisted on not showering for the months-long shoot as his character wouldn’t be able to. That was topped by how, instead of going for makeup, LaBeouf took a knife and cut gashes on his own face for “injuries” during an attack, a move that rocked co-star Brad Pitt. Such moments add to the man’s wild reputation as someone who may be a tad too method for his own good.
9. Jared Leto
For a guy who started as a teen idol on My So-Called Life, Leto has transitioned to an incredible method actor. Like many of his co-stars, he went for a real boot camp to play a soldier in The Thin Red Line and took to it harder than the others. His role as a heroin addict in Requiem For a Dream was notable for dressing and acting like a real addict, complete with sleeping at flophouses. He lost weight and dressed in women’s clothing constantly for his Oscar-winning turn in Dallas Buyers Club. However, it’s his role as the Joker in Suicide Squad that’s added to Leto’s notoriety as he truly got into the killer clown, coming up with the punk look himself. He also freaked the hell out of his co-stars by acting that way on set, constantly in character and sending “presents” of dead rats and other personal items. Reportedly, this got him in a row with Viola Davis and Margot Robbie truly thrown by his antics. Leto is respected for his talent yet some feel he takes it a tad too far on set which works against him just as much.
8. Nicolas Cage
The idea of Cage as a method actor may seem laughable to some given his choice of rather nutty roles. But before he went for blockbusters, Cage showed he had more than enough daring for acting. For his performance as a soldier in Birdy, Cage had his front teeth removed, refusing anesthetic as his character wouldn’t have had any. Cage continues to claim he wasn’t actually drunk on the set of his Oscar-winning role in Leaving Las Vegas. However, he does admit to having himself filmed while drunk so he knew how to replicate the speech patterns and mannerisms. Face/Off had Cage carefully studying co-star John Travolta (often without Travolta aware) in order to replicate his speech and mannerisms for the plotline of their characters swapping identities. For Ghost Rider, Cage painted his face like a voodoo priest and carried ancient relics he believed could connect him to the spirit world. He may be seen as a joke at times but when he wants to, Cage can go full-out for a role and show a method to his madness.
7. Robert De Niro
Some say De Niro is a parody of himself today, simply coasting on his past and turning in “paycheck” performances. But in his prime, De Niro’s dedication to his craft was stunning and led to his success. He learned Italian to play the young Don Corleone in The Godfather II, the role that made him a star and won his first Oscar. For Raging Bull (which won his second Oscar), De Niro shifted his weight from the lean and mean boxer Ray LaMotta to the overweight elder man. He also entered several real boxing matches and actually won three of them. Taxi Driver was his most notable as De Niro acted a bit surly on set to get into his troubled character and reading up on psychopaths. He also got an actual New York driver’s license to understand the character more. To play Al Capone in The Untouchables, De Niro once more gained weight and even wore the exact same style of underpants Capone did on set. For Cape Fear, De Niro freaked out his cast mates by getting his teeth unscrewed for his psycho convict and going all out on his behavior on set. He may not be that big today but De Niro is still respected for going so method in his early days.
6. Hilary Swank
When she was fired from 90210, Hilary Swank actually considered quitting acting. As it happened, this freed her up to audition for the role of Teena Brandon, a woman pretending to be a boy in Boys Don’t Cry. Knowing this was her big chance, Swank went all out, dressing as a boy and going out as one as well. The act was so good that neighbors who saw her thought Swank was her own brother visiting. When the producers confronted Swank on lying about her age, she simply shrugged “that’s what Teena would have done.” It paid off as the critics adored Swank’s performance which won her the Oscar. She went further for Million Dollar Baby, training hard for her role as a boxer, cutting down her diet and her body fat. She actually suffered a staph infection but refused to seek treatment for it as her character wouldn’t have. It won her a second Oscar and while she hasn’t gone as extreme in other roles, Swank shows the dedication that made her a star.
5. Christian Bale
Bale is an interesting man as he can come off nice in person, doing charity work and such. At the same time, he’s infamous for his temper and going quite far on set for his roles. For his breakout in The Machinist, he lost 63 pounds, reduced to a near skeletal figure that shocked people with his appearances. He then put all the weight back on with muscles to play Batman then lost it again for his role as a prisoner in Rescue Dawn. Bale is also well known for shifting his voice, refusing to drop an accent until production is over. The best example is his famed tirade on the set of Terminator Salvation, Bale going nuts and screaming obscenities while keeping his American accent the whole time. He gained a huge gut for American Hustle and studied economics and Asperger’s for his role in The Big Short. He’s a great Oscar-winning star but no wonder a few folks are wary of working with a man who can go on a rampage while in character.
4. Lee Pace
The actor is best known for the TV show Pushing Daisies and playing Ronan in Guardians of the Galaxy, not as famous as others on this list. However, Pace did take his craft to a new degree for his second film, The Fall. Playing a paraplegic in this fantasy film, Pace spent the first 12 weeks of shooting lying in bed and going by the name of “Roy.” Only the director and a few others grasped it was a performance as the other actors and even most of the crew were convinced Pace really had lost the use of his legs in a motorcycle accident. This was added onto by the film shot in sequence to make the chemistry of the actors more real and the cast believing Pace really was paralyzed driving them on. Needless to say, they were more than a bit ticked when on the final day of shooting, Pace got right up from his bed and walked, the story more famous than the film itself. He’s not an A-list guy but Pace proved he can go as far as any Oscar winner in being method.
3. Dustin Hoffman
When Sir Laurence Oliver thinks you’re going a bit too far for a role, that says a lot. Hoffman was always noted for his intensity on set and taking his craft seriously. Sometimes, that went too far. A famous story is when he and Meryl Streep prepared for a tough scene for Kramer vs Kramer. Just as the cameras were about to roll, Hoffman slapped Streep in the face and then went into the scene like nothing happened while hurling insults at her to “fire her up.” Both ended up winning Oscars for the film but Streep famously has feuded with Hoffman since. Another notable bit was when Hoffman and Oliver were shooting the thriller Marathon Man, Oliver noticing Hoffman coming onto set haggard and sweaty. Asked why, Hoffman explained that to replicate his character for the scene, he’d stayed awake for 72 hours and just run four miles. This sparked Oliver’s priceless reply “Dear boy, why don’t you just try acting? It’s much easier.” Hoffman also studied up on mentally disabled people for Rain Man and spent days walking and talking like his character. While many say off-screen Hoffman is a really nice guy, when he’s on set, he goes pretty all out.
2. Joaquin Phoenix
The brother of the late River Phoenix impressed early on with his commitment to roles but few knew how far he would go. To play Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, Phoenix didn’t just study the man’s performances on tape. He tracked down anyone who knew him for talks, replicated his walk and insisted on talking just like Cash on set. Of course, the biggest example of Phoenix going too far was in 2009 when Phoenix grew a long black beard and started doing bizarre public appearances. This included a baffling interview with David Letterman, acting up, ranting on quitting acting and more stuff that had close friends worried he was having a breakdown. As it turned out, it was all a huge act for his documentary I’m Still Here. Phoenix did win acclaim with The Master but some concerned he took things too far with his off-screen act. Photos are now surfacing of Phoenix shooting You Were Never Really Here where he’s packed on 50 pounds for the role and proving he still goes all out for his roles.
1. Daniel Day-Lewis
You can divide method actors into two categories: Daniel Day-Lewis and everyone else. The reason the man takes long breaks between movies (sometimes four or five years) is because of how he doesn’t just act a role, he becomes the role. Other actors speak in awe of how far Day-Lewis goes for a part and the tales are legendary.
For his role as a paraplegic in My Left Foot (which won his first Oscar), Day-Lewis insisted on staying in his wheelchair and being fed by others. In Last of the Mohicans, he not only hunted his own game but only ate what he could kill. He spent several nights locked in solitary confinement in a prison for In the Name of the Father. The Crucible had him building a colonial house by hand and living in it while refusing to bathe. He caught pneumonia on the set of Gangs of New York as he didn’t want to wear a heavy coat not in keeping with the period. His role in There Will be Blood (his second Oscar) scared younger actor Kel O’Neill to the point he left the movie and was replaced by Paul Dano. He studied everything he could on Abraham Lincoln for his third Oscar win playing the President and even talked like him constantly on set.
The half-joke in Hollywood is that you don’t send Day-Lewis a script to be a serial killer unless you want him arrested for murder. While no one can deny he’s one of the best living actors ever, the approach he takes to his craft astounds.