The Method approach to acting became famous when Marlon Brando and James Dean started to appear on the silver screen, changing the perception of what the acting profession was capable of. Their acting seemed so real you forgot they were acting. Since then, there has been a list of outstanding acting talent that has been enabled by the Method. Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Paul Newman, Daniel Day Lewis, Meryl Streep and this year ‘Best Actor’ Academy Award winner, Forest Whitaker, all use the Method.
But why has it been so successful?
The Method creates a reality beyond the conventional reality. This means that instead of the actor adhering merely to the conventional thought of the character and situation, they are able to stimulate themselves, and indeed the audience, on a much deeper level.
Christopher Walken was asked what he was thinking about when he shot the scene at the end of the film, ‘Deer Hunter’, where he plays Russian roulette and kills himself. He said that when he was younger, he went to summer camp and his parents made him go – he hated going, and the experience filled him with a sense of abandonment, loss and anger. He said that he felt his character was experiencing similar feelings, so he thought about that event during the scene. He understood that events from his own experience could expose the experiences of the character on a much deeper level.
He was using an important tool within the Method called ‘affective memory’. This is when an actor recalls an event from his own life using his senses. The rationale behind this is that we all experience the world through our senses – we see, we hear, we touch, we smell and we taste. If the actor trains and uses these senses in conjunction with their own memories, they can have a powerful effect on the actors’ instrument – the human body.
The Method also allows the actor to create a completely different physicality and psychology from their own, using the animal exercise. Marlon Brando famously used the animal exercise in the ‘Godfather’ when he played a bulldog. He stuffed his cheeks full of tissue paper in his audition to recreate the jowls of the dog; he started to move around slower and heavier with the underlying menace of a bulldog. In ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ he played an ape, scratching his chest and moving objects around with his knuckles and eating like an animal. The animal exercises allowed him to create the life of another human being in a deeper more complete fashion.
Using the Method, actors can go beyond the conventional and effective way to act, and make the work more human, more alive, more exciting, more amused and entertained – not on a light level, but on the utmost level which acting is capable of.
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