The origins of method acting can be traced back to the teachings of Konstantin Stanislavsky in the early 20th century. For actors, this method means completely cutting themselves off from the outside world in order to embody their characters. In this way, their performances come off as entirely authentic and natural.
Method acting dropped out of fashion for a while, having its heyday during the 1970s and 1980s. Nowadays, it's more prominent; Adrien Brody and Natalie Portman, for example, went deep into character by losing significant weight, and both won Oscars for their eerie and haunting performances. So it’s not enough for actors to just look the part. Instead, they need to immerse themselves in their character, so much so that they go “insane” or nutty on set, and occasionally frighten the crew while “in character.” For Heath Ledger, for example, the actor chose to mimic the craziness of his character, The Joker, not only on set but also off on the belief that you can only know your character completely by living his life day by day, and at every hour.
Ledger and other actors took it too far, and if you want to read about the most extreme cases, go ahead and check out our listicle of 15 Method Actors Who Went Insane On Set or took method acting in such a serious way that the actors were so completely exhausted at the end of shooting that some even found it hard to get out of the mindset of a character after the film wrapped.
15 Shia LaBeouf Refused To Take Showers During A Months-Long Shoot
Shia LaBeouf is a talented actor who went bonkers for his roles. For his Nymphomaniac premiere, LaBeouf showed up on the red carpet wearing a tuxedo and a paper bag over his head that said, "I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE.” This was either a publicity stunt or a young man playing with the “idea” of him as an actor, and all that entails. LaBeouf started to do method acting, and then he went to a drugstore to steal and get arrested for shoplifting, and all of this was done for what he called “research.” For Charlie Countryman, LaBeouf’s disturbing method acting was to show up on set having done acid and seriously choking his own director. And then there was Fury. LaBeouf noted that his character would have never had the chance to shower, so during the months-long shoot LaBeouf showed up on set dirty and stinky. Yuk!
14 Kate Winslet Needed Two Months After Shooting To Break Free From Her Character
Kate Winslet used method acting to be believable in her role as a former Nazi concentration camp guard for the movie The Reader. To get into character, she adopted a German accent every day, even at home, which affected her children. "They got mightily fed up with me reading bedtime stories with a German accent," Winslet told The Sun, "They said. . . Don't do any funny stuff like voices.” Winslet embodied her role so much that it took two months after shooting for her to fully break free of the part, equating “leaving the character behind to escaping a serious car accident.” The gruelling job did pay off, as Winslet won an Academy Award for Best Actress. She previously earned six Academy Award nominations, but she never won. The Reader broke that losing streak and today Winslet remains an A-list actress.
13 Daniel Day-Lewis Lived In The Woods And Hunted Animals To Eat
Daniel Day-Lewis is known for taking method acting too far. He goes to unfathomable lengths to stay in character during shooting. The actor’s role as a paralyzed artist in My Left Foot led him to stay in a wheelchair, even on set. The crew had to carry him and his heavy chair everywhere on set because he really did refuse to leave the wheelchair. But that’s not that nuts. What’s nuttier is the way Day-Lewis spent six months alone living in the wild and killed animals to eat and stay alive. For Gangs of New York, he refused to wear a warmer jacket on set because he claimed such a jacket would not have existed during the period piece. To stay in character, he ended up with pneumonia and yet, even then, he refused the heavier coat, as well as any modern treatment that would not have existed during Gangs of New York.
12 Heath Ledger Had A Self-Imposed Lockdown For His Role In The Dark Night
Heath Ledger took method acting too far for his role as the Joker in The Dark Night. But the result led to a flawless, near legendary, performance. To prep for the role, Ledger isolated himself in a hotel room for a whole month. Ledger went stir-crazy and his diary that he kept during this time showed how far he had gone, scribbling phrases in nonsensical manners that he thought would bring his portrayal to life. During his self-imposed lockdown, he perfected the voice and laugh of the Joker. Here’s the part where Ledger’s method acting led him to insanity on set. He ignored those on set who didn’t address him as 'The Joker' and scared the cast and crew using the laugh and voice of his character. Ledger’s tragic death months before the movie’s release was the result of an overdose.
11 Anne Hathaway Ate Only Oatmeal Paste
In movies like The Devil Wears Prada and The Intern, Anne Hathaway shows off her comedic side. But because of that kind of track record, she was initially denied the role of Fantine and literally had to beg the director for the part, which landed her the role. Hathaway lived off a miniature diet of oatmeal paste so that she could drop pounds for her role. She lost 25 pounds, and it shows on screen, the way she’s an emaciated prostitute on the brink of death. Hathaway told Vogue, “I had to be obsessive about [my diet] — the idea was to look near death. Looking back on the whole experience — and I don’t judge it in any way — it was definitely a little nuts. It was definitely a break with reality, but I think that’s who Fantine is anyway.” Her dedication paid off as she won an Oscar for her role.
10 Christian Bale Isn't Afraid To Literally Transform His Body For A Role
Christian Bale had two roles back to back in 2005, The Machinist and Batman Begins. When not prepping for a role, Bale, who is 6 feet tall, normally weighs 185 pounds, which is about average for his height. But Bale really sunk his teeth in the role for The Machinist by dropping an incredible 63 pounds. At 120 pounds, Bale looked emaciated and sick, but even so, he was going to lose more if not for the intervention of the producers, who feared for his health. For that role, Bale’s diet consisted of an apple and one can of tuna each day. The most impressive part was that, less than five months later, Bale gained almost 100 pounds of pure muscle for his role in Batman Begins. It takes incredible dedication to physically transform your body by losing and gaining weight in such a small period of time, but Bale is proof that it can be done.
9 Nicolas Cage Had His Own Teeth Pulled Out To Get Into His Role
Nicolas Cage is known for his method acting, which is why his portrayals are so visceral and intense. He’s often cast in outlandish over-the-top action movies like Ghost Rider and Face/Off, but he’s another actor who takes it too far and has admitted that many on set on one of his films were afraid of him because he stayed in character. There are many idiotic stunts Cage did to get into character, but the craziest move he made was when he played a disfigured Vietnam veteran in the 1984 drama Birdy. To authenticate the part, Cage had four of his teeth pulled. Yep! FOUR teeth! But not so fast. Cage also shocked the film crew by wearing his character’s facial bandages for five weeks straight. He also kept them on after the set. You can call him a loon, but you can’t deny that Cage is a gifted actor who just may have taken method acting a tad too far.
8 Robert De Niro Learned How To Box, Drove A Taxi, And...
Long before Robert De Niro played the “dad” in such lighthearted films such as The Focker movies, De Niro starred in serious, Oscar-nominated movies like The Godfather. To stay in character for a part, De Niro immersed himself in each role he took on. For Taxi Driver, De Niro actually got a taxi license and covered 12-hour shifts of driving people to where they wanted to go, despite the fact that Taxi Driver had little to do with taxis. For Raging Bull, De Niro not only learned to box but also gained 60 pounds to fit the role. For The Untouchables, De Niro, as Al Capone, stayed on set wearing a bespoke wardrobe that would have looked as part of the movie’s period, which was the 1920s. For his role as a sociopath in Cape Fear, De Niro gained muscle, placed fake tattoos on his body and, instead of using prosthetic teeth, paid a dentist to grind his teeth down.
7 Adrien Brody Showed Up On Set Emaciated For His Part As A Holocaust Survivor
Adrien Brody took method acting too far for his role in The Pianist, so much so that he wondered if he was going to be able to escape with his sanity intact after shooting ended. Brody’s character had his whole life torn away and so he did what he could do to imitate his character’s life. He became a vagabond, giving up his phone, selling his car and apartment and even breaking up with his girlfriend to move to Europe untethered. Brody, who had never played the piano, spent four hours a day practicing so that when he played on camera, it would look believable. In addition, Brody, who is over 6 feet tall, dropped weight and appeared on set at 130 pounds to play an emaciated Holocaust survivor because he admitted that he couldn’t fake starvation for the role. But it all was worth it, as Brody won an Oscar for Best Actor.
6 Hilary Swank Pretended To Be A Man For Her Gender-Bending Role
Hilary Swank played Brandon Teena, a trans-man, in the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry. At the heart of the story is a hate crime, which ultimately affects Brandon. To prepare for her role, Swank lived as a man for a month before shooting, so much so that her neighbors thought she had a brother visiting. To become a man, Swank bound her breasts, lost weight, and assumed masculine characteristics. As Swank said, “If you don’t fit into a black-or-white definition of boy or girl you slip between the cracks and it’s a lonely place.” Swank’s performance was so intense and harrowing that she won an Academy Award for Best Actress and a Golden Globe for Best Actress. Swank’s method acting definitely paid off and was the beginning of Swank’s soaring career in Hollywood, and today she’s still an A-list actress whose light has not yet been dimmed.
5 Johnny Depp Lived In A Basement To Prep For His Role
Johnny Depp spent years getting into character for his role in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. Depp actually lived in Thompson's basement to get close to him for his role, to study Thompson’s mannerisms and actions, as well as the way he carried himself and spoke. Depp dug through Thompson’s manuscripts and eventually did get close, with the two of them having the same habits each day, like waking and sleeping at the same time. Depp allowed Thompson to shave his head so that the former could look more like the latter. He also admitted to having taken hard drugs like Thompson. To meet with director Terry Gilliam in Las Vegas, Depp drover Thompson’s red convertible fully dressed as Thompson. Actually, Depp’s attire was Thompson’s personal clothes that hadn’t been washed in over 30 years. Yuck!
4 Jared Leto Delivered A Live Rat To A Castmate On Suicide Squad
Jared Leto went full-on crazy for Suicide Squad. The way he stayed in character as the Joker during the entire shoot made the cast and crew fear for their lives. Leto sent Margot Robbie a love letter in a box that contained a live black rat. He sent Will Smith an envelope full of bullets. He also sent everyone on the crew used condoms and anal beads. We’re not quite sure what these things signify for Leto, or how they relate to the movie, but when he sent animal carcasses delivered by “henchmen” to the studio, he must have pretty much gone too far. But there is a method to his madness. Leto told E! "I did a lot of things to create a dynamic, to create an element of surprise, of spontaneity, and to really break down any kind of walls that may be there... [T]he Joker is somebody who doesn't really respect things like personal space or boundaries."
3 Val Kilmer's Singing Was So Similar To Jim Morrison's, The Producers Couldn't Tell It Was Him
Before he even got the part of Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s The Doors, Val Kilmer spent a whole lot of money producing an eight-minute music video with him singing Morrison’s songs. He did so in order to watch himself get into character, moving the way Morrison would move, copying his mannerisms. Once he was given the part, he memorized 50 Doors songs, wore Morrison's clothes and frequented his favorite Hollywood hangouts. Kilmer also interviewed Paul Rothchild, a producer for the iconic rock band and a consultant on the film. At the end of production, Rothchild said in The Washington Post in 1991 that Kilmer "knows Jim Morrison better than Jim ever knew himself. He's nailed—to the extent that The Doors themselves had difficulty telling whether it was Val singing or Jim singing. Early on, I'd bring them into a recording studio and I randomly switched Val and Jim and they guessed wrong 80 percent of the time.''
2 Natalie Portman Couldn't Break Out Of Character Off Set
Black Swan follows a stressed-out ballet dancer named Nina and gives us an inside look at the demanding world of classical ballet. Natalie Portman plays the lead who may or not be psychotic. Getting in character was essential, as a stunt double could not perform during the entire movie if the film wanted to look authentic. So Portman spent months before shooting in dance class. It was a tough job, but Portman just happened to be perfect for the film because she studied ballet for 9 years as a child. So there are essential parts in the movie where Portman was shown dancing for real. Portman also dropped 20 pounds to look the part of a jaundiced ballerina. The actress said she found [the character] hard to shake off even when she was not on set to shoot, and she’s right, the film is relentless and raw, and Portman’s efforts gained a Best Actress Oscar for the role.
1 Leonardo DiCaprio (A Vegetarian) Ate Raw Bison
The frontiersman movie The Revenant was difficult to shoot because it was shot in Argentina, the US and Canada in an effort to find locations that were brutal, frozen and remote. It was hard on the crew and the director, as well as the extras, the stunt doubles and DiCaprio himself. The crew had to deal with the intense cold and the temperatures that kept dropping to -25C (-13F), as well as moving to different locations where there was snow, which raised the budget. Crew members walked out during shooting, and actors had to submerge themselves in freezing water to get good shots. To get into the role, Leonardo DiCaprio, a vegetarian, ate raw bison liver that made it into the finished movie and slept in animal carcasses. DiCaprio told Yahoo that he [endured] “freezing cold and possible hypothermia constantly.” It paid off though because DiCaprio finally won an Academy Award for Best Actor after being previously nominated six times.