Method acting is a technique that separates good actors from the all-time greats. This training means going beyond portraying the character in an attempt to literally become them. These committed actors sacrifice their mind, body and spirit to transform into the characters we’ll never forget.
The crowned King of modern-day Method acting, the list of life-altering experiments Daniel Day-Lewis has undergone in order to relate to his characters is as long as the list of characters themselves. The now-retired Irish actor caught pneumonia on the set of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York; even between takes, Bill the Butcher wouldn’t have worn an insulated coat in the 19th century.
Other examples of the actor’s adherence to the Method include not bathing for the entirety of The Crucible, spending nights locked in solitary confinement while shooting In the Name of the Father, only eating food he could catch and kill himself in Last of the Mohicans and going around in a wheelchair, demanding to be spoon-fed for My Left Foot.
Historically, Method acting is usually considered a total sausage-fest: think of Brando, Bale and Day-Lewis (all on this list), who not only transform their bodies without fear of public backlash but engage in all manner of dangerous stunts to fully plunge into a role.
But then there’s Kate Winslet.
After portraying a Nazi concentration camp guard for the 2008 film The Reader, Winslet admitted that it took her months to recover from the role. “It’s like I’ve escaped from a serious car accident and need to understand what has just happened,“ she said about the experience. Luckily she had her then-husband, director Sam Mendes, to help her readjust.
Robert De Niro
One of the all-time greats, Robert De Niro studied directly under both Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg, both of whom taught Stanislavski’s Method. For Raging Bull, De Niro sat at the feet of Jake LaMotta, the Italian middleweight boxer he portrayed. De Niro even participated in three fights in the ring himself, in addition to gaining 50 pounds on his then-skinny frame.
In preparation for Taxi Driver, De Niro went out and worked 12-hour shifts as a real New York cabbie. The actor also gets hung up on the smaller details of a character; he paid a dentist to grind down his teeth for his role as a psychopath stalker in Cape Fear.
Another case of playing loose with body mass, Tom Hanks gained and then lost 50 pounds for Cast Away. He also refused to cut his hair or bathe, leading to a nasty staph infection. For his role in The Green Mile, Hanks stayed in character as prison guard Paul Edgecomb, freaking out the book’s author Stephen King.
When Hanks took King on a tour of the prison, Hanks barked at the horror scribe. King had attempted to sit down on a prop electric chair, but the actor explained that as the head guard on the wing, he couldn’t be seen by his subordinates goofing off around such lethal machinery.
There are many legends surrounding Heath Ledger’s doomed turn as The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, considering the Australian actor died directly after filming. But in separating fact from fiction, it’s clear that Ledger did take the role seriously, locking himself away in a London hotel for a month and scribbling out daily diary entries as the Caped Crusader’s arch-nemesis.
Less intense, but equally noteworthy was Ledger’s dedication to his craft in Brokeback Mountain. Not only did the actor manage to keep that sour, scrunched look on his face for the whole two months of shooting, but co-star Anne Hathaway relayed an impromptu moment in the script where Ledger was supposed to turn into an alleyway and cry into a wall. Instead, Ledger wound up and punched the brick with full force, injuring his hand in the process.
It took Leonardo DiCaprio four decades to win his first Academy Award, but when he did win Best Actor for The Revenant, no one could accuse him of slacking off for the role. In fact, DiCaprio, an avowed vegetarian, ate raw bison, slept in an animal carcass and withstood freezing temperatures to portray frigid frontiersman Hugh Glass.
But The Revenant isn’t the first time DiCaprio went all-in on a performance, shocking even his co-stars: while playing plantation owner Calvin Candie in Django Unchained, the actor slammed his fist down so hard on a table he shattered glass and cut his hand. Rather than stop the scene, DiCaprio powered through, even smearing some on a stunned Kerry Washington. Afterward, he received a standing ovation.
Old Scarface himself likes to take notes from his characters’ playbooks. Still in character as the incorruptible NYPD officer Frank Serpico, Al Pacino once pulled over a truck driver and threatened to arrest him for exhaust pollution.
But it was really Pacino’s commitment to his role in Scent of a Woman that takes the cake. Throughout filming, the actor claimed to actually be blind like his character, tripping over bushes he couldn’t “see,” and sending co-star Chris O’Donnell a letter after completion of photography, which read “Although I didn’t see you, I know you were great.”
It’s possible Johnny Depp is an extremist form of the Method school, the dude lives his life as if he’s actually Jack Sparrow these days. But before Pirates of the Caribbean, Depp spent years studying Hunter S. Thompson to play the gonzo author in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Depp ended up living in Thompson’s basement, reading old transcripts and spending as much time with the legendary author as possible. Perhaps the most enlightening thing about both Thompson and Depp’s state of mind at that time, Depp slept and smoked next to barrels of gunpowder in Thompson’s basement.
Before landing her breakout role in Boys Don’t Cry, Hilary Swank spent a month preparing for her audition by living as a man; cutting her hair, binding her breasts and sticking socks down the front of her jeans. She was so convincing, long-time neighbors believed Swank had invited either her brother or cousin to move in for the summer.
But it was Swank’s intense regime leading up to Million Dollar Baby that had even Clint Eastwood worried about little Macushla. Swank spent six days a week in the gym for three months, gaining 19 pounds of pure muscle. She was so in the zone she didn’t even register when a huge blister erupted on her foot. A doctor’s visit confirmed a staph infection, one that was mere hours from reaching her heart.
For his role as a “broken down piece of meat” in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke insisted on performing the majority of his own stunts, leading to several injuries. If that wasn’t enough, the actor took his training one step further when he showed up at WrestleMania XXV, where he knocked out Chris Jericho with one punch.
And Rourke wasn’t content to just rest on his Wrestler success. For his role as the villainous Ivan Vanko (aka Whiplash) in Iron Man 2, Rourke visited Russian prisons and befriended several inmates to understand his character. He also studied Russian for three or four hours every day to fully immerse himself as Vanko.
Let’s see any male Method actor go as far with body modification as Rooney Mara did in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: to play the punk hacker Lisbeth Salander, Mara bleached her eyebrows, chopped off her hair and had her eyebrow, lip, nose, and nipples pierced. That’s in addition to learning martial arts, skateboarding and motorcycle riding.
A lesser known (but equally uncomfortable) feat for Mara was during her recent performance in A Ghost Story, where her recently widowed character sits down on the floor and eats an entire chocolate pie in a single take before running to the bathroom and vomiting it up. Even more bizarre, Mara claims to this day that this was the first–and last–time she’d ever tasted pie.
First of all, my favorite story about Nicolas Cage going “Method” is from the ’80s dark comedy Vampire’s Kiss. The scene called for his character, a rich New York book agent who believes he’s turned into a bloodsucker to devour a cockroach. Note: the director planned on swapping out the live critter for a fake, edible prop, but Cage insisted on eating the real thing…and twice.
And that’s only the beginning! Honestly, Nicolas Cage’s career is littered with strange Method-ology, from the weird, high-pitch voice he affected for his first role in Peggy Sue Got Married to having four of his own teeth pulled for Birdy…without anesthesia. Whatever you want to say about Cage’s wacky performances, you can never doubt the man’s commitment to the craft.
Immersing yourself in a character sounds difficult enough, but when the person you’re portraying is brutal Ugandan President/dictator Idi Amin? Well, that calls for a cut above the usual 30-pound weight gain. To fully embody the larger-than-life Amin for 2006’s Last King of Scotland, Forest Whitaker learned to speak Swahili and play the accordion.
Whitaker also spent three and a half months in Uganda before shooting the movie and spent his time talking to Amin’s immediate family (Amin died in 2003), victims, and high-ranking members of the dictator’s regime. For his turn as an urban warrior in Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai, Whitaker studied hagakure, a practical and spiritual guide for samurai warriors.
You’d be forgiven for assuming “Method” was synonymous with a new type of torturous Crossfit, considering the results it inspires. Consider Adrien Brody–an already svelte actor– who dropped another 30 pounds to play Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist. Brody also taught himself piano specifically for the role.
If that wasn’t enough, Brody put his money where his mouth was, showing up to set with only one bag and a piano after giving up his apartment, selling his car and disconnecting his phone. Needless to say, his girlfriend at the time dumped him shortly after.
It takes work to piss off a consummate professional like Meryl Streep, but Dustin Hoffman is nothing if not committed. To get the performance he thought was necessary for her character in Kramer vs Kramer, Hoffman taunted Meryl (who played his ex-wife during a contentious divorce) about her recently-deceased boyfriend and slapped her in the face right before a scene.
But Hoffman is equally brutal on himself. During shooting for Marathon Man, Hoffman had a scene where his character had been awake for three nights in a row. When his co-star Sir Laurence Olivier asked how he prepared, Hoffman admitted that he himself hadn’t slept for the last 72 hours. “My dear boy,” Olivier retorted, “Why don’t you just try acting?”
There are few more prolific actors working today than Michael Caine, who at 73-year-old has made over 150 films in the last 50 years. Caine also dives into Method acting, noting that he consistently uses a “secret” painful memory to bring up waterworks for a performance. It certainly did the trick in his psychopathic turn in Dressed to Kill.
In his Masterclass series, Caine also boasts that he rehearses by himself and comes to set having practiced lines “a minimum of 1,000 times.” Caine also wrote the book Acting in Film: An Actor’s Take on Movie Making, in which he states that “if a crew member can come up and recognize you’re rehearsing vs. having a real conversation, then you aren’t doing it right.”
To portray the blind musician Ray Charles in Ray–a role for which he won his first Academy Award– former In Living Color comedian Jamie Foxx glued his eyes shut for up to 14 hours a day during filming. Foxx also lost 30 pounds, as to more accurately convey what Charles’ body looked like after his heroin addiction.
Following in De Niro’s footsteps, Foxx also had a cosmetic dentist chip his teeth to resemble that of the musician’s. And that’s just the physical stuff: for his role as a schizophrenic cellist in The Soloist opposite Robert Downey Jr., Foxx almost had to quit the film after spending too much time in his character’s head. His manager was so concerned about his client’s mental health that Foxx was sent to a psychiatrist, which allowed the actor to finish the film without losing his mind.
A total chameleon, Gary Oldman is that rare thespian who can fully disappear inside a role. Sometimes he’s helped by prosthetics (Hannibal, Darkest Hour, the unfortunate Tiptoes), or a strange accent (The Fifth Element, True Romance), but the one thing that remains constant: he never plays the same guy twice.
Oldman is certainly intense in his preparation for roles. One of his secret tricks for tapping into emotionally difficult scenes is a “pain bag,” which includes images of his absent father, photos from his first marriage and son. In preparing for the role of Winston Churchill, Oldman smoked $30,000 worth of cigars and subsequently developed stomach issues.
Dennis Hopper was an actor who approached “Method” a tad differently than the traditional school, opting for a more Hunter S. Thompson type of immersion. For his cameo in Apocalypse Now as a photojournalist caught up in Captain Kurtz’s jungle cult, Hopper maintained a steady diet of speed, weed and LSD.
You could argue that this wasn’t Method acting so much as drug addiction. Hopper couldn’t memorize his lines, leading director Francis Ford Coppola to beg the actor what he could to help. Hopper’s response? “An ounce of cocaine.” And while that didn’t help his memory, Hopper did end up improvising one of the most WTF monologues in cinematic history.
Is there some rule that says it’s not Method unless you gain or lose exactly 30 pounds? We’ve seen that number before, but boy was it ever evident when Charlize Theron underwent a complete physical transformation, packing on weight to play serial killer Aileen Wuornos in 2003’s Monster, for which she won an Academy Award.
Luckily, those weren’t her real teeth in the film. But Theron’s chompers were far from safe: while preparing to play an international spy in the recent action film Atomic Blonde, Theron bruised her ribs, twisted her knee, and yes, clenched her teeth so hard she broke two of them. Maybe going full Method requires extreme weight change and oral trauma?
The outré celebrity Shia LaBeouf dropped acid in Charlie Countryman to understand the effects of the drug on his character. For his role as a WWII soldier behind enemy lines in 2014’s Fury, LaBeouf pulled a number of extreme stunts including pulling out his own tooth and refusing to shower for weeks on end. Brad Pitt confronted the actor about his distracting odor.
That’s just the tip of the LaBeouf-ian iceberg. To play an illegal alcohol purveyor during prohibition for Lawless, LaBeouf kept himself drunk on moonshine throughout the shoot. To land a starring role in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, the former child star submitted not an acting reel…but his own sex tape.
The Godfather of Method, Marlon Brando studied under both Stella Adler and Elia Kazan in New York City. For his Broadway debut in 1946’s Truckline Cafe, the actor would run up and down flights of stairs before a stagehand dumped an icy bucket of water on his head, to better simulate his character emerging from a lake.
Playing an injured World War II lieutenant in The Men, Brando spent a whole month in bed at a veteran’s hospital. My personal favorite anecdote is how Brando wanted to shut down production of The Island of Dr. Moreau for over a month to rewrite the script to reveal that underneath his hat, the good doctor was actually…a dolphin.
Edward Norton may seem like a soft-spoken Wes Anderson character, but he can turn it up to 11 when the role requires. For his turn as jacked-up neo-Nazi Derek Vinyard in American History X, Norton gained 30 pounds and trained in the gym every day for three months. And that’s just a regular day at the job for him.
During an early scene in Fight Club, Norton was only supposed to throw a meek punch at co-star Brad Pitt’s shoulder. Instead, he sucker-punched his co-star directly in the ear to elicit a more authentic reaction. Pitt’s line “You punched me in my ear!” wasn’t scripted, it was just his natural response to…well, getting sucker-punched in the ear.
Following in Natalie Portman’s V for Vendetta footsteps, actress Anne Hathaway shed her locks for the cinematic adaptation of the musical Les Miserables, in which she played Fantine. This was despite director Tom Hooper and the film’s costume designer attempting to talk her out of it. Luckily, the gambit paid off: Hathaway won an Oscar for her turn in the film.
Hathaway also lost 25 pounds for the role, and, along with all the rest of the cast, performed her own songs in the film. How did Hathaway manage to slim down her already Hollywood-sized frame? The answer is as unappealing as you’d think it was: a diet of porridge.
South Korean actor Choi Min-sik may not be a household name here in America, but film buffs will recognize him from his star turn in Park Chan-wook’s psychological horror/action film Oldboy. Min-sik plays a drunken businessman abducted off the streets and held in a windowless hotel room for 15 years. (And that’s only the beginning of the movie.)
Min-sik’s dedication to the film involved going through some of the same brutal tortures as his character. This included using a hot wire to burn his flesh for every year his character was imprisoned, and eating an entire living octopus in one take. (Please check out the YouTube video outtakes for this scene, as they are equal parts disgusting, inspired and hilarious.)
Val Kilmer’s epic portrayal of Jim Morrison in The Doors is the stuff of legends. To begin with, the actor learned how to play 50 of the Lizard King’s songs, and lived for a year as the Morrison, dressing in his clothes and embodying the singer’s sensual and strange movements.
The gambit apparently paid off; after listening to recordings from the movie, members of The Doors were unable to tell the difference between Kilmer’s performance and Morrison’s. After production, Kilmer went into therapy to “get out” of character for the rock god who died at 27.
Another variance on the “Joker Method” was Jared Leto’s portrayal of the Crown Prince of Crime in 2016’s Suicide Squad. While Ledger turned his destruction inward, Leto took to pranking cast members in gruesome ways, including gifting a live rat to his on-screen love interest, Margot Robbie.
Leto also sent a dead hog to castmates and gave Will Smith an envelope full of bullets. (Gee…thanks?) Additionally, the actor refused to speak to his co-stars throughout the entirety of filming. For other performances, Leto gave himself gout (Chapter 27), lived on the streets and gave up sex (Requiem for a Dream), and for his Oscar-winning turn in Dallas Buyer’s Club, dropped thirty pounds and waxed himself head to toe. You can call Leto a lot of things, but lazy’s not one of them.
Though she claims that she “can’t” be considered a Method actress, Portman–who has been on the job since she was 11–definitely has made some drastic changes to her lifestyle for roles. For Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan in 2010, Portman trained up to 16 hours a day and lost 22 pounds.
The actress also suffered more than a few injuries, one severe enough– a dislocated rib–to put her out of production for a short period of time. Let’s not forget that marrying the dance instructor for the film and having two of his children should count as a Lifetime Achievement Award for creative immersion.
Sometimes I wonder if even Christian Bale knows how much Christian Bale is supposed to weigh. It’s almost like the British actor has spent the last decade choosing roles based on the maximum weight gain or loss it will require.
From starving himself down to 121 pounds for The Machinist, Bale bulked up to 190 for his next role in Batman Begins, then down again for The Fighter before going up to 223 pounds in American Hustle. For his latest film Vice, Bale got out of shape to play the heart attack-prone former VP Dick Cheney by eating a lot of cherry pies.
Sean Penn may not be the easiest actor to get along with, but no one can accuse him of becoming a diva once he hit stardom. No, from his very first role in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, writer Cameron Crowe found out quickly that the actor he hired to play the laid-back stoner would only respond to his character’s name, Jeff, even between takes.
Later in his career, he managed to freak out no less of a theatrical weirdo than John Leguizamo, who co-starred with the actor in Casualties of War. The scene itself was brutal–Penn’s character had kidnapped a young girl for his squad’s pleasure–and when Leguizamo’s character refuses, Penn didn’t just pretend to beat the actor into submission…he actually assaulted him on-camera.