Thursday, June 02, 2011

Method Acting

As a director, I marvel at the skill, discipline, and dedication it takes to be a good actor. I couldn’t do it. To be real, to be convincing, to hit marks, get laughs when required, and make it seem effortless while memorizing pages of precise dialogue is truly a gift bestowed upon very few.

Each actor has his own approach. There are more acting techniques than snowflakes in a blizzard. Some actors need to process a script for days. Some are more instinctual and can do it in ten minutes. Some are visceral, others are cerebral, a few just channel messages from outer space (but it works for them). My job as director is to get the best performance from every actor whatever his process and have them all peak when the cameras are rolling. It’s a juggling act to be sure but the rewards are worth it.

So I try to be accepting of any technique an actor may bring. Half the time I don’t even understand them. One time an actor came to me and asked if he could “activate his choices”. I said sure. I had (and still have) no fucking clue what the hell that means. But the next day his performance was better so activate to your heart's content?

However, the one technique I really don’t get in “Method”. In short, “Method” is a process where actors try to create in themselves the thoughts and emotions of their characters in an effort to develop lifelike performances. In other words, they try to “be” the character, total immersion. This technique was very in vogue in the ‘40s and ‘50s and produced some great actors like Brando and James Dean.

And there is certainly something to be said for totally committing to a character, but sometimes it can be taken too far. And where do you draw the line between art and reality? If you play a killer do you need to go out and actually kill someone to portray your character honestly? What if you’re single and you get a great role but the character is married? Do you become Larry King and propose to the first woman you see at Nate N’ Al's?

I’m sure every director has a few stories dealing with method actors. Here are three of mine:

I once wrote a one-act play with David Isaacs about a Malibu condo that was leaking during a rainstorm. The play was a farce – characters frantically running in and out with buckets, that sort of thing. At one point a character goes off stage to mop up a leak. The actor wanted to know where the leak was. I said, “Off stage. Wherever.” That wasn’t good enough. He needed to know exactly where. So I shrugged, walked backstage with him, pointed to a spot on the floor and said, “right there...no, wait.  There!”. He thanked me and throughout the run of the show he went to that spot, got on his hands and knees, and went to work mopping up. Meanwhile, other actors are tripping all over him coming on and off the stage. The real farce was unseen by the audience.

On the MARY show David and I did (Mary Tyler Moore comeback vehicle 3 of 7) set in a tabloid newspaper in Chicago, the great John Astin played a theater critic. During the filming of the shows (with a studio audience present) John would sit at his desk and actually write reviews. And here’s the thing – the reviews were HILARIOUS. Far funnier than the scripts.

But the best method example I’ve saved for last. I was directing a sitcom episode where the star opens a door to find a woman supposedly in a certain uncompromising position with a man. The camera of course would be on the actor’s face recording his shocked reaction to this scene.

So it’s time for the runthrough, we get to that scene, the actor opens the door and there is this guest-starring actress on her knees, head buried in her scene partner’s lap, simulating a very convincing blowjob. The look on the happy recipient's face was, “Wow! This is the greatest job EVER!”

This actress pops up a lot in TV guest-star roles. And all I have to do is see the back of her head and I pop up as well. It was really embarrassing the time she was on some hospital show playing a terminal patient and I had to put a throw pillow on my lap.

To me the real danger in method acting is how do you discard one character and move on to the next? I know I can’t. Even in her death scene I was drooling like Pepe LePew.

43 comments:

DrBear said...

The actress simulating a BJ wasn't Roseanne, was she?

Nathan said...

I'm not naming names since I'd like to remain among the employable, but I worked on one movie where the lead character spent a lot of time drinking (drama, not comedy). So, of course, MR. METHOD ACTOR drank like a fucking fish constantly. There's one scene where the female lead has this heartrending monologue telling him he's got to clean up his act, etc, etc. Day one of filming this scene wrapped early when Mr. Method Actor passed out before his part of the scene was complete. On day 2 (of 1 days), the scene was tweaked so that the actor would be "praying to the porcelain God" during her harangue. The Props Department positioned his passed-out self artistically curled around the toilet and the actress delivered a searing performance.

Mr. Method Actor was extremely convincing too.

Mirror James said...

Heath Ledger kept a book of everything The Joker would find funny.

Number 1 was AIDS.

Sebastian said...

@Mirror James:

Give me an example of a "Book of Aids".

Anyway, @Ken

Jean Smart? Hm? Come ooon tell us :-D

Johnny Walker said...

I just thought of another question for you, Mr Levine. I was present during the filming of the Becker episode "Afterglow" (which you and David wrote, I understand). There was a line that wasn't quite working where the phone worker had to say something when one of the character's husbands phoned in.

There was some talk between the writers (presumably you were one of them) who then fed the actress a new line.

The new line got one of the biggest laughs of the entire evening (it was, "Oh, Louis! Well, that won't take very long.", if you remember). But when it came to broadcast they showed the original (less laughs) version.

I always wondered why.

RCP said...

Whatever works to bring out the performance. But for me it can be disturbing - as when an actor like Christian Bale starves himself into emaciation for a role.

Who's the actress? We won't tell.

Fitz said...

For your Friday questions ...

I'm having knee surgery and will be out of work for about six weeks. Got me to thinking. What happens when one of your prime cogs takes a few weeks (or even summer hiatus) off, has an epiphany/accident/religious conversion/facial tattoo/etc? I know there are contracts but they can only cover so much.


BTW if the system only gives my username my real name is Mark.

Anonymous said...

New film about method acting that dispels many of the myths in this article and its comments.

http://filmguide.lafilmfest.com/tixSYS/2011/xslguide/eventnote.php?EventNumber=4873

Wookieleaks said...

A quick IMDB search, and my bet is a lady from an episode of Dharma & Greg!

Much ado indeed...

TC said...

Maura Tierney

Ken Levine said...

You guys are never going to get it and I don't direct then blog then tell. So please don't spend a lot of time on it. Yeah, I know. That's the kind of asshat I am.

selection7 said...

Aren't you going a bit far lumping all method actors in with the few who refuse to acknowledge reality (and discourteously put this eccentricity upon others) even when acting time is over? Surely all decent actors engage in some level of method acting. Human emotions and mannerisms are too complex and I feel like performers of any sort (actors, musicians, athletes, campaigning politicians, etc.) are only at their best when instinct can kick in, rather than trying to analyze every littlest thing in real time. You seemingly mock it as needless while I think I wouldn't want to direct anyone who completely refused that deeper level of empathy (I'm no director, mind you, ...just my thoughts). Some artists even take drugs to put that much more distance between their own conscious and their imagination. Who could argue with the successes of John Lennon and Charlie Sheen?

But seriously, you also acknowledge great actors who were considered method, so maybe I'm to assume you know all this and are being dramatic to entertain? Crazy method actor stories are pretty funny, I'll admit.

DRH said...

Been enjoying you back on the M's and just now found your blog. Laugh-out-loud goodness in every post. Tell Kevin Cremin to cue up a "bah-dum-bump" sound clip; you needed it for "hoisted on their own Bedard".

jbryant said...

I hope it wasn't Frances Sternhagen.

As for the Method, after seeing everything Robert De Niro put himself through in RAGING BULL, I always thought it was a good thing that he opted out of THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST.

Johnny Walker said...

@jbryant Haha. Very good.

Anonymous said...

River Phoenix got into drugs because he was playing a character in a movie who was a druggie and he had to know what it was like for himself to be able to do it. Cost him his life.

VP81955 said...

Just what was John Astin "reviewing," Ken? Actual plays? Current movies at the time? Fictional stagework that was "opening" in Chicago (where the series was set)? Inquiring minds want to know.

BTW, William Schallert (have you ever worked with him, Ken?) once told me he worked with John Astin (former husband of Patty Duke) and affectionately described him as his "son-in-law."

D. McEwan said...

"Nathan said...
I'm not naming names since I'd like to remain among the employable, but I worked on one movie where the lead character spent a lot of time drinking (drama, not comedy). So, of course, MR. METHOD ACTOR drank like a fucking fish constantly."


Some years ago (1995), I played the role of John Barrymore's ghost in a production of Paul Rudnick's wonderful comedy I Hate Hamlet.

Now when I Hate Hamlet originally played on Broadway, Nicol Williamson was, unfortunately, cast as Barrymore's ghost, and was a disaster. His out-of-control, self-ndulgent, alcoholically-enhanced performances eventually resulted in his wounding his co-star, Evan Handler, in the sword duel which climaxes act one. Handler walked out of the theater, and never returned to the role.

When I met Mr. Rudnick during the first week of rehearsals, he wrote out the following note for me: "John Barrymore was a great, alcoholic actor, however, it is not necessary to hire one to play him."

Matt Patton said...

The "method" came out of Stanislavsky's "system," which was, if I remember correctly, a lot about actors trying to find the characters in themselves. One of the better critiques of it was written by theater critic Robert Brustein called, if I remember, "The Keynes of Times Square," (the title reflects Brustein's belief that The Method was artificial respiration for a corrupt theater culture, just as Keynesian economic theory was artificial respiration for a corrupt economic system). Brustein's point was that The Method, by concentrating so much on the actor digging up the character from inside of themselves, led to type-casting. Brustein, and he was hardly alone in this, felt that acting was as much an exercise of an actor's imagination as sense memories or other such self-centered techniques. Brando, I suspect, like a lot of actors associated with The Actor's Studio, probably used every sort of training and technique at his disposal to get a performance right. Brando's formal training was, in fact, with Stella Adler. The Actor's Studio was meant as a resource for working actors, not precisely as an acting school.

Cathy S. said...

I have always love John Astin. And now I love him even more.

Bruce Lee Bochte said...

John Astin rocks! Is he still rocking? He was definitely the best part of that particular iteration of Mary.

Adam Jones was rocking yesterday, wasn't he? heck of a catch, or as Rick so ably put it, "Holy Smokes!" He may be lucky he didn't break his leg or ankle. Or both. And he really tattooed that tater - did it make the 2nd deck, I couldn't tell on the replay. Tho I do like Eric Bedard, Adam gets to play every darn day. Eric, only about 32 starts/year.

Kirk said...

I used to think good acting was naturalistic acting, that the person on stage or screen had to seem just like someone you might meet in real life, but I've had to adjust that view somewhat. If acting natural is all that is needed, than Brian Keith is the greatest actor who ever lived, since he seems like the guy you might find yourself sitting next to while waiting for your number to be called at the License Bureau. But what about someone like Cary Grant, who isn't remotely like anybody I've ever met in real life? Yet, when I see him in a movie, I'm not aware that he's reciting lines that he earlier memorised. I'm temporarily convinced Grant is thinking up the lines right then and there as he says them, and reacting to events as they occur to and around him. As a member of the audience, that's all I really ask of an actor.

I'd be curious to know what techniques Grant used, and what techniques Keith used. Probably not the same ones, but you never know.

Anonymous said...

Geoffrey Rush on Charile Rose said he doesn't do the method, because he's afraid he'd give his best performance at the craft services table and not on set.

Mike Schryver said...

I was listening to the game yesterday and didn't see Jones' catch, but heard Rick's call.
I just went to check out the video - everyone's right, the catch is Mays + wall. Amazing.
Of course, the walls weren't padded like that in Willie's day.

Friday question, maybe - I'm glad that neither you nor Rick is particularly homer-ish as an announcer, Ken. What are you able to tell us about homer announcers, and how much of their act is their own, or is insisted upon by the team?

BruceB said...

If you read Stanislavski, his "method" was strictly a REHEARSAL technique (Described in his book An Actor Prepares, I believe)and nothing he would ever allow an actor to do during an actual performance. It was either misinterpreted or purposely misrepresented by instructors who saw it as a way to do something radically different that might attract more students (often slavishly) to them.

By the way, John Astin teaches theater and acting at Johns Hopkins University these days. But not method. He probably just enjoyed writing the reviews.

David in Taipei said...

There's also that anecdote about what Lawrence Olivier said to Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man. They were about to film a scene where Hoffman's character had been awake for 24 hours in a frantic mess. So it comes time to film the scene, and Hoffman arrives looking wrecked. Olivier expresses concern, and Hoffman says he got into character by staying awake for 24 hours and running around the city. Olivier says, "Next time, try acting. It's much easier."

Buttermilk Sky said...

Some actors take their work home with them, so to speak. I doubt anyone would call Raymond Massey a method actor, but apparently during the New York run of "Abe Lincoln In Illinois" he became rather Lincolnesque offstage, moving George S. Kaufman to observe, "Massey won't be happy until someone assassinates him."

Pat Reeder said...

I'm surprised nobody has quoted Spencer Tracy's advice on how to be an actor: "Show up on time, know your lines, and don't bump into the furniture."

Larry said...

So John Astin was steppin' out with Ed LaSalle.

Larry said...

By the way, whenever I hear about method actors, I think of Kurt Vonnegut's short story "Who Am I This Time?"

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Who_Am_I_This_Time%3F

Carson said...

Most actors I know today have worked out their own acting technique using what they've learned from various acting coaches throughout their career.

I have met and worked with a few who have taken "method" to the extreme (trying the drugs their character takes, drinking to great excess, even staying in character when not on camera and wanting to be referred to as the character name at all times), but those folks seem to be more and more rare.

I think this extreme form of method is not at all what Stanislavsky had in mind, but something people ended up coming to in their quest to give a great performance.

The kind of acting I love to watch is reactive - someone who is completely present in the scene and gives a natural performance. Spencer Tracy, James Garner and Nathan Fillion come to mind (Captain Hammer not withstanding). Some actors appear to be waiting to hear their cue, while these folks - and others like them - seem to really be in the moment, and I forget I'm watching TV or a movie.

But whatever works for the actor works for the actor, and who am I to judge. They don't tell me how to come up with ideas and I don't tell them how to lift the character off the page.

Matt Patton said...

Thanks Bruce B for the information -- I'm hardly an expert on Stanislavski. I do remember reading that at some point he modified The System for fear of damaging the mental health of his actors, particularly when it came to sense memories. He came to fear that if actors dug around too deeply in painful things from their past it would leave them with problems they didn't need, given the general instability of an actor's life even under the best of circumstances.

As for Olivier and The Method, his antipathy towards it was partly a genuine disagreement on how an actor should develop a character (he favored an outside-in approach) and partly, alas, an extension of his life-long antisemitism. His autobiography, An Actor's Life, is full of veiled insults to any number of Jewish writers, producers, and directors, with particular enmity director towards Lee Strasberg and his wife, Paula, who acted as Marilyn Monroe's acting coach when Olivier directed her in the film The Prince and The Showgirl. He may not have approved of Ms. Strasberg's methods or the rather parasitic relationship the couple had with Monroe, but the fact is, she got Monroe to the set and got one of her best performances out of her, which was particularly useful when the co-star/producer/director (Olivier) had all but declared war on his leading lady.

crackblind said...

Two things:

First and foremost: John Astin is awesome and this story only increases his awesomeness! He's one of those guys you know is hilarious on his own and he brings it to everything (particularly loved him on Night Court, still quote "But I'm getting better")

Second, this reminds me of the bit from Dangerous Game with Madonna when the method actor is supposed to have sex with the actor and she starts whinging that he's too method when they are acting it out (hey, it was on cable, I was a teen and I thought there might be boobs).

chalmers said...

When hearing about method acting, I always flash back to an episode of “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.”

Rob Reiner comes over and tells Garry that he’s got the acting bug again. They decide that he can get back into acting by playing Garry’s handyman/comic foil a la “Schneider.”

His “preparation” for the role ends up being doing a series of menial cleaning/repair tasks at Garry’s behest.

As Reiner asks from the bathroom where to find some kind of cleaning materials, Shandling responds, “Remember, Stanislavsky said the secret to acting is…scouring.”

Mike said...

While making Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Sean Penn slept on the set in his "room" and would only answer to Spicoli.

jbryant said...

Mike: Maybe Penn just wanted a Method excuse to stay stoned 27/7. :)

I wonder what method Phoebe Cates used to be so convincing with that carrot?

jbryant said...

Um, 24/7, obviously. Though I am lobbying for a 27-hour day.

Anonymous said...

Phyllis Newman is an underrated actress who makes some of the principles of the Method work.
I remember her brief tenure on an ABC afternoon soap opera. She portrayed the wife of the central character and I was especially impressed by her ability to add credibility to the show simply by reacting naturally to her stage spouse's monologue the way a person who was actually in a room listening to these words would, not by standing stone still staring at the speaker like a statue for fear of upstaging him.

a bit tasteless said...

"As for the Method, after seeing everything Robert De Niro put himself through in RAGING BULL, I always thought it was a good thing that he opted out of THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST."

Producer: We 're making MOBY DICK.
De Niro: I'm in, but it's gonna take me a while to put on so much wait.
Producer: No, we want you for captain Ahab.
De Niro: Gimme the axe. Which leg was he missing?

a bit tasteless said...

Uh, you guys probably understood that I meant to type "weight" and not "wait", right?

Little Miss Smoke and Mirrors said...

I'm kind of worried that William H. Macy has gone Method in playing his part on Shameless.

tales from the pole said...

yikes. good blog! i dunno. my acting teacher told us a very scary story about meeting and working with a young robert blake. i'm not even kidding. she never endorsed "the method' again.

Anonymous said...

Brando was a devoted Stella Adler student whose approach was the antithesis of Strasberg's at the time. Brando had absolutetly zero to do with method acting, and has said so in a few interviews, but it's still being connected with him to this day. Brando also had the technical chops that actors like Clift, Monroe, and even Dean, did not.
He could do period pieces, theater styles, and genres flawlessly. But even Adler admitted that she really couldn't take credit for teaching Brando anything that significant. He just happened to be spectacularly talented. She said she just pointed him in the right direction and he went forward on his own.
Sorry to rant, but let's try to help Brando get away from Strasberg once and for all, since Brando regarded the man as a clown.