We think that movie stars have the best jobs in the world. They report to a set, act out their scenes, blurt out their lines, then leave. They do interviews and do some promotional work. In return, they get paid tons of money, get fawned over by fans, date other hot and equally good-looking people, and maybe even earn some praise and win trophies along the way. But is that all there really is to it? Do they really work only for a few weeks to get all the fortune and fame accorded to them?
Well, there may be actors who do it that way. But the real good ones are actually engaged in a lot of hard work. It takes more than simply memorization of the script and application of make up. They need to prepare for a role for months on end, studying not just what they have to say but also the nuances of the character.
Languages, Accents, Dialects and Inflections
Most actors will try to do the accent that their character calls for. After all, it would have been weird seeing Meryl Streep play Margaret Thatcher in an American accent. It is even harder if the character being portrayed is based on a true-to-life person, as viewers can compare the accent and manner of speaking.
Streep is a master in learning new languages and imitating accents. For her award-winning role in “Sophie’s Choice,” she learned how to speak in German and Polish, as well as talk in English with a Polish accent. She had a Danish accent in “Out of Africa,” a British accent in “The Iron Lady,” “Plenty” and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” an Italian accent in “The Bridges of Madison County,” a Minnesota accent in “A Prairie Home Companion” and an Australian accent in “A Cry in the Dark.”
Leonardo Di Caprio would listen and record the voice of the person whose accent he would want to imitate. He would make them say the same sentence in different ways, energies and tempos. He would then listen to the recordings over and over again. Frances McDormand also developed a Minnesota accent for her award-winning performance in “Fargo.”
Michelle Williams listened to the voice of Marilyn Monroe over and over again while preparing for “My Week with Marilyn.” It allowed her to break down patterns in Monroe’s speech mannerism.
Robert De Niro learned the Sicilian dialect before filming “The Godfather: Part II.” He stayed in Sicily for several months in order to feel what it’s like to be a native of the region. Daniel Day-Lewis developed a Middle American accent to make his portrayal in “Lincoln” as authentic as possible.
Actors also go to great lengths to learn about what their characters are actually feeling and going through. Sometimes, it involves simple study and research. Di Caprio is known to have taken college-level courses about the life of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover for the movie “J. Edgar.” He also hanged out with mercenaries to prepare for his role in “Blood Diamond.” He said there is no substitute for actually interacting with people who knows about the character as books and writings can only provide so much information. Di Caprio also visited a number of psychiatric hospitals while preparing for “Shutter Island.”
The late River Phoenix portrayed a gay street hustler in “My Own Private Idaho.” He actually sought out a gay man to give him oral sex in order to know how it feels like.
Mickey Rourke remained distant to Carre Otis during the filming of “Wild Orchid” in order to create and maintain the sexual tension required of them in the movie. Then again, Rourke remained abusive to Otis even after they got married in real life, but that is another story.
Robert de Niro takes the cake when it comes to preparation. His Sicilian sojourn in “The Godfather: Part II” earned him an Oscar. He studied the mentally ill and worked as a cab driver for a month while preparing for “Taxi Driver.” He mastered the saxophone for “New York New York.” He trained extensively and worked with Jake La Motta to hone up his boxing skills for “Raging Bull.” He then spent time with encephalitis patients to help him in “Awakenings.”
His role in “Cape Fear” was so real because he studied the behavior of sexual predators. He also had his teeth grounded out to accurately reflect the character. After the movie, he had it fixed again, costing him a total of $25,000. He also bulked up and brought his body fat down to three percent.
Heath Ledger locked himself up in a hotel room in London to prepare for his role as Joker in “The Dark Knight.” He wrote in a diary as Joker and experimented with voices and laughs until he developed the perfect inflection for the character. Some people think that playing the mad character may have actually contributed to his death.
Staying in Character
Daniel Day-Lewis is equally meticulous. He had a crude mark tattooed on his hands and trained like a real fighter while doing “The Boxer.” He slept in a jail and ate prison rations while doing “In the Name of the Father.” He stayed in a wheelchair and had to be spoon-fed even when not in front of the camera for “My Left Foot.”
For “The Crucible,” he built his character’s house himself using only the tools available during the 17th century. He stayed in it without running water or electricity during the entire shooting. For “Gangs of New York,” he trained as a butcher and insisted on wearing a thin coat because warmer coats were not yet available at that time. He caught pneumonia as a result. He also stayed in character during filming by picking fights with complete strangers.
Streep, Di Caprio, Williams, De Niro, l Day-Lewis, Phoenix, Rourke and Ledger all have one thing in common. They have all been acclaimed as actors and have received nominations and awards. It just goes to show that actors who prepare long, hard and meticulously for a role will reap their just rewards in the end.