A lot of people think that actors have cushy jobs — that really, they’re just professional pretenders who get to play dress up and make millions for it. Well, alright, maybe some actors are just fortunate people with interesting personalities that have gotten the opportunity to become famous personalities. But a lot of them do much more work than they’re given credit for! We’re not defending them getting paid multiple millions of dollars for less than a year’s worth of hard work, but we will argue that they work hard.
Good actors do a lot of research and preparation before ever setting foot in front of a camera. Many actors will try to get into shape for a character before ever even auditioning for the role, in hopes that their commitment will clearly be demonstrated to the casting directors and it will earn them the part. Others will spend months researching their parts, whether that means interviewing real-life people who knew people like their characters or investigating historical contexts as they’re relevant to their project. Even more will go out of their way to get into the shape of their character, whether that means gaining thirty pounds in muscle or dropping a severe amount of weight. Sometimes, it’s awesome to see actors that are this committed to their characters — other times, it’s downright unpleasant and painful.
We’re here to talk about the method actors (that is, actors who refine their roles by becoming their roles) who went way too far. Sometimes they were able to come back, but sometimes they tragically weren’t or haven’t been able to yet.
17. Christian Bale – Batman, Terminator Salvation, The Machinist
Christian Bale isn’t exactly a “child actor,” but he’s been a fairly famous actor since he was a child. While many don’t necessarily characterize him as a method actor, he certainly is one that’s willing to do whatever is asked of him for a character and much more. Christian is one of those actors who believe that they’re not playing a character, but that a character is inhabiting them to tell their story. This means that Christian’s body is merely a tool at the character’s disposal — and that’s exactly how Christian behaves. He was under 100 pounds to play the leading role in The Machinist and bulked up immediately after to assume the mantle of Batman. Not only has his body been at stake, but his mental health has been risked as well. When he played John Connor in Terminator: Salvation, his moods were so volatile and hostile that crew members were verbally harassed. He’s utterly devoted to his roles, even at the expense of his health.
16. Robert DeNiro – Taxi Driver
Robert De Niro is an amazing actor; we all know that! And when you pair up such an amazing actor with the directorial style of the sensational Martin Scorsese? Oh man, look out; good things are bound to happen. That’s what happened when the two made the movie Taxi Driver back in the mid-70s. If you haven’t seen the iconic film, you’re truly missing out. De Niro plays a mentally unhinged Vietnam-vet that gets his thirst for violence satiated by taking night shifts as a cab driver and protecting adolescent prostitutes. Weird story, right? What’s weirder: De Niro rarely broke character on set, even when they were filming, De Niro would take the prop car out around the city between takes and give people rides in character, harassing the poor customers! Martin would call him back for the next take and De Niro would resume work, never missing a beat. We’re shocked Robert ever became a softie again!
15. Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight
Here is the most common example of a method actor gone tragic. Heath Ledger was always a method actor, whether that meant experimenting with his sexuality and secrets in preparation for his role in Brokeback Mountain or derailing his psyche for an Earth-shattering performance in The Dark Knight. He would do anything to get into the mind of his character. Unfortunately, this only fared for the worst when playing The Joker in the Batman series. The actor turned to drug use and intense private journaling to get into the twisted mind of The Joker — it made him physically depressed, emotionally isolated, and mentally volatile. He took his own life with a drug overdose (that has never been entirely clearly defined as suicide or accidental) just after finishing shooting The Dark Knight and has become a cautionary tale to artists everywhere: you play your character — don’t let your character play you.
14. Viggo Mortensen – LOTR
You might be over Lord of the Rings, but we totally are not. One of our favorite characters from the trilogy had to be Aragorn, who was played by Viggo Mortensen. The role was one of Viggo’s biggest, and he took it very seriously — VERY seriously. He was the third or fourth pick for the role, and he signed on, saying boldly that he wouldn’t let Peter Jackson down. Before filming began, he spent weeks camping in the New Zealand wilderness to understand the life and vibes of a fantasy ranger. Then, once on set for years with Peter Jackson and his crew, he never broke character. He didn’t do it in an obnoxious way, but one that strengthened his character and turned Aragorn into a living, breathing person. For a short while, Peter Jackson started to refer to Mortensen as Aragorn simply because the director had lost himself in Viggo’s acting!
13. Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant
Leonardo DiCaprio deserved an Oscar long before he finally received one for his work as the lead in the movie The Revenant, which was about a man struggling for basic survival after his fur-trading team left him for dead. Leonardo went more than the extra mile to make the movie worth watching. He insisted on being in character most of the filming, which meant that he spent much of his time on set in hypothermic cold conditions. He broke his vegetarian diet to eat a real bison’s raw liver on screen, which promptly made him vomit after shooting the scene. And his commitment to his natural environment was shocking — he would do anything to ensure he was living the nitty, gritty, painful life of his character Hugh Glass. Kudos to you, Leo, for going above and beyond to earn your Oscar. You deserved it.
12. Nicolas Cage – Birdy
Here’s another actor who isn’t regularly praised for his fine work in front of the camera. Sure, Nicolas Cage has made plenty of awful movies. Even in some movies that had potential, Nicolas played characters with such laziness and apathy that he ruined the movie! But occasionally — every once in awhile — Nicolas really cares about a role and goes all out. That’s exactly what he did for Birdy, the story of Vietnam war veterans returning home in shambles. To prepare for the role in which Nicolas had to wear the head wrap on his face (pictured above) constantly, he wore the gauze in public as his character would have had to. Beyond incurring lots of funny looks and jeers, he got a massive skin infection from being unable to clean his face. Perhaps it was an unnecessary activity to get into character, but we’re sure it did a lot to better his performance.
11. Halle Berry – Jungle Fever
Jungle Fever is a Spike Lee movie all about affairs, drugs, and race relations. Right off the bat, we should all be thinking one thing: maybe no one should be method acting for their roles in this film. Well, Halle Berry did, and it got beyond interesting. In fact, it was straight up dangerous. Halle Berry played Vivian, the coked up friend of the protagonist’s drug dealer brother, Gator. To get into the role of Vivian (which Halle had to beg Spike Lee for, because she didn’t want to be portrayed as a picture-perfect woman), she visited crack houses in New York City and dressed the part for quite some time in public, living the way others who were truly in that reality lived. She claims she never did any of the drugs while visiting the crack houses, but we’re moderately doubtful. It was a lot of commitment for a role that Spike referred to as “just a crack ho,” but that commitment shaped the various roles of Halle’s career.
10. Jennifer Lawrence – Winter’s Bone
Long ago, there was once a time when Jennifer Lawrence wasn’t crazy, stupid famous (yes, this is a true story). Jennifer lived in Louisville when she started acting, and she decided she’d take a chance on a role in an indie film called Winter’s Bone. The actress was given big shoes to fill: a character who can keep together her crumbling family while hunting down her drug-dealer father in the dangerous terrain of the Ozarks. So how did Jennifer prepare for the role? By backpacking alone through the Ozarks for a week. Though it was certainly hard (and undoubtedly dangerous), it prepared her for the ugly and gritty tasks that lay ahead of her, including skinning and gutting a squirrel on camera to cook up for dinner. Her unflinchingly bold performance earned her a leading role in The Hunger Games, which, in turn, led to her wealth and fame today.
9. Jamie Dornan – The Fall
Though Jamie is best known for his work in the Fifty Shades of Grey series, he’s got much better acting work under his belt to speak of, namely, his role in the Netflix series, The Fall. In the show, Jamie plays a father who seems very genuine and good; but deep down, he’s actually a serial killer who’s constantly thinking through his plots, schemes, and plans. To get into the mindset of the character, Jamie perhaps took things too far. When riding the subway in London one day, he decided to follow a woman when she got off at her stop — just to understand the thrill of what his character was doing. Jamie followed her for a couple of hours before changing course but admits to the odd acting exercise and claims it was a scary and exhilarating feeling. If that’s what he did to prepare for this role, we don’t want to know what he did before filming Fifty Shades of Grey…
8. Dustin Hoffman – Kramer Vs Kramer
Dustin Hoffman offers acting classes to newbies just hitting the scene. While Dustin’s a great actor, we kind of want to caution anyone from taking his class. Why? Because he crossed the line a lot in his earlier days of acting, so much so that Meryl Streep will hardly speak to him TO THIS DAY. One of his most notable instances of crossing the line was while filming Kramer vs. Kramer with the soon-to-be-iconic actress. As the two were about to begin filming, Dustin slapped Meryl in the face to get her to appear “more hurt and involved in the conversation,” then proceeded to hurl insults and harangues at her in character as the cameras began to roll. Not. Cool. Meryl called him on it and finished filming the movie from an angry and heated distance (kind of similar to the relationship between their characters). Though the move was absolutely uncalled for, we have to note that Meryl is quite the method actor as well these days…
7. Adrien Brody – The Jacket
If someone asked you to star in a movie where you were sent to a mental institution, you might say yes. If they asked to lock you up in a straight jacket for long periods of time, you might more hesitantly say yes. If they asked to lock you in a straight jacket and put you in the body drawers of a morgue, you’d likely say “HELL TO THE NO,” and book it out of there.
Well, not Adrien Brody. The star of The Jacket not only was game for the odd experiments performed on his character in the movie, but he also asked crew on the set to store him in the drawers of the morgue set until they were ready to begin shooting. He asked for this so that he could build up real and visceral anxiety before the cameras rolled. We’re sorry, but that’s insane — and the movie must not have been that good anyway because none of us have ever heard of it.
6. Billy Bob Thornton – Sling Blade
Not many people talk about Billy Bob Thornton for his fine acting skills or his strong level of commitment to his roles. Honestly, those that do talk about him usually discuss how weird his relationship with Angelina Jolie was (which is absolutely fair). But Billy is worthy of at least a little bit of praise for his commitment to his role in Sling Blade, the story of a man who is released from prison after living out a sentence for killing his mother and lover. His true commitment came into play with the character’s limp; Billy was afraid that the limp wouldn’t look authentic enough, so he put crushed glass in the sole of his shoe to ensure that he wouldn’t be putting any pressure there. Okay… wow, Billy. Maybe you could have taken an acting movement class instead? There must have been simpler and less painful ways to get into character…
5. Jack Nicholson – One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
While we’re singling out Jack Nicholson for his wonderful portrayal of his role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, we’d actually like to acknowledge the entire cast of the movie for their commitment, dedication, understanding, empathy, and openness to experience. Why? Because the entire cast not only studied the original Ken Kesey book, its characters, and their backgrounds, but they also all lived in the mental institution in which the movie was shot — with real mental patients around them constantly. Though none of the actors were insane or even horribly traumatized, they lived side by side with others who legitimately were. They even attended and participated in real group therapy sessions (some of which were even filmed and made it to the final cut). Their openness changed the way the actors made the movie — it turned the conversation involving mental patients from an “us vs. them” theme to a collective “humanity” theme, which is what Ken Kesey would have wanted all along.
4. Shia LaBeouf – Fury
It’s no secret that Shia LaBeouf is an odd sort of guy. The child star got his start on the Disney channel show Even Stevens and has grown up to be quite the nut job, incurring problems with substance abuse, anger management, and lavish spending. He’s been trying to get his act together so that he can be a more professional advocate for his art, but that’s made for some weird moves along the way. When he was cast in Fury, the World War 2 movie that starred Brad Pitt and Logan Lerman, Shia decided to stop showering because “his character wouldn’t have had access to a shower.” (Note: this policy didn’t keep him from using his cell phone.) His tankmates sure weren’t too happy with him for that decision. He also wanted to have more realistic-looking injuries on the battlefield and thusly took a knife to his own face on set in front of Brad Pitt, who shrugged the actor off as a nut case.
3. Jared Leto – Suicide Squad
Jared Leto has always been known to get into his roles a bit too much. Fans and viewers were especially worried about him when he took his leading role in the movie Requiem for a Dream, in which he played a desperate drug addict constantly seeking his next fix. Fans worried yet again when he was cast in the role of The Joker in Suicide Squad — a role that had left an actor dead in its wake. (Don’t worry; we’ll return to this character later in the list). Leto got rather dramatic while playing The Joker. He sent castmates, like Margot Robbie, disturbing gifts, such as bullet casings. He even sent death threats to his castmate Viola Davis, who played the government agent who was after The Joker. What’s worst about Jared’s case is that he went all out for the role — too far out — and then most of his scenes were cut from the theatrical version due to time constraints.
2. Meryl Streep – The Devil Wears Prada
As we briefly mentioned before, Meryl Streep has become more and more of a method actor the further along her career she has gotten. Obviously, it works for her; Meryl is today regarded as a Goddess of the screen who was versatile enough to play Julia Child and then Margaret Thatcher. She’s the kind of method actor that gets into character and then refuses to leave it, insisting her crew call her by her character’s name. She perhaps took it a bit too far when filming The Devil Wears Prada. When Anne Hathaway started the project with her, Meryl was so cold and domineering that Anne thought that was just how she was in reality — she thought Meryl hated her and had no confidence in her acting ability, which both motivated Anne and broke her heart. It would’ve been really interesting to see Meryl backstage while working on Into the Woods…
1. Daniel Day-Lewis – Every Movie
Ending on a slightly cheerier note, we want to talk to you about Daniel Day-Lewis in… well, just about everything he’s ever been in. The actor is notorious for his wild ways of getting into character, and it’s part of what has made him so famous. Want some examples? So glad you asked…
Before shooting The Crucible, Daniel built his own log cabin from scratch and lived in it for weeks before the cameras starting rolling — oh yeah, and he continued living in that cabin (which became John Proctor’s cabin in the movie) during filming — oh, and he didn’t bathe during production at all. He learned to speak Czech for his role in the Unbearable Lightness of Being. He never left his wheelchair when filming My Left Foot and had to be carried around the set when not in his chair. He would only eat food that he had tracked and hunted himself while filming The Last of the Mohicans. And when filming Gangs of New York, he would sneak around the set trying to attack Liam Neeson (not in a funny, pranking way) because “that’s what the character would have done.”