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How the Method transformed film — and made acting more human

Method actor Robert De Niro won the Oscar in 1981 for his performance as a retired boxer in <em>Raging Bull</em>.
Method actor Robert De Niro won the Oscar in 1981 for his performance as a retired boxer in Raging Bull.

Under the studio system, early American movie stars like Cary Grant worked on contract, frequently playing the same character — or the same type of character — across their careers. But author Isaac Butler says all that changed with the introduction of Method acting.

Method acting, Butler says, prizes "that moment where the actor is so into the imagined reality of the character that, to some extent, they're really feeling and experiencing what the character is going through."

Think Robert De Niro, who gained 60 pounds to play retired boxer Jake LaMotta in the 1980 film Raging Bull, or Daniel Day-Lewis, who famously stayed in character — both on set and off — while filming Lincoln.

In his new book, The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act, Butler traces the history of the Method. It springs from "the system," a series of techniques created in the early 1900s by the Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski, which were then adapted in the U.S. by the Group Theatre and The Actors Studio.

The Method, he says, "instilled in us these ideas that at the heart of a dramatic story is action and is characters who want something and are doing things in order to pursue those things that they want. He points to Al Pacino's performance in the first Godfatherfilm as perhaps the epitome of the technique.

"It feels like a real person in all of their complexity, not like a type or a stock role or anything like that. And Al Pacino just seems really alive in the moment and really present in that role at all times," Butler says. "A lot of that role is communicated nonverbally, through you watching the character think."

Interview highlights

<em>The Method,</em> by Isaac Butler
/ Bloomsbury Publishing
Bloomsbury Publishing
The Method, by Isaac Butler

On Stanislavski's belief that actors were their own material

The system flows from a couple of really simple core ideas: One of them has to do with the necessity of the actor "experiencing," the word that they use. Experiencing is a rough translation of a Russian word ... [that] means just that moment where the actor is so into the imagined reality of the character that to some extent, they're really feeling and experiencing what the character is going through.

And some of its other sort of core ideas are that the actor is their own material. They're kind of both the painter and the paint, that a role should be divided up into its component parts, which he called "bits." He was very into physical relaxation and the actor using the powers of concentration and attention to forget the audience was there, and to try to kind of live again within the imagined reality of the play and of the character. One of the things that he was also very interested in, which would become particularly notorious in the United States, was this idea of affective memory. Affective memory is essentially triggering a strong emotional state that you might need to play the character, through using your own memories of when you have experienced that emotion.

On the seismic impact Stanislavski's Moscow Art Theater had in New York in the early 1920s

It's sort of difficult to oversell how important their Broadway run on their U.S. tour was. People had really never seen acting like what they saw from the Moscow Theater. John Barrymore wrote a letter to the producer that was published in The New York Times saying it was the best acting ensemble he'd ever seen. People would come back night after night, rapt with attention to what they were seeing. And these plays, it should be said, were performed in Russian, and most of the audience members did not speak Russian. So it's even coming across this language barrier.

What they were particularly swept away by was that every actor in the Moscow Art Theater would sort of fully dedicate themselves to their characters, even if those characters were supernumeraries. ... Stanislavski is the guy who came up with the phrase "There are no small parts, only small actors," and he really lived it in his company. And so you would just see this ensemble who were all on the same page working towards the same ends and giving it their all and people were completely blown away by it.

On the creation of The Group Theatre in 1931, the American interpretation of Stanislavski, and the creation of "The Method"

The Group Theatre was an ensemble theater producing new works on Broadway with a fixed acting company. It was co-founded by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg. And the idea was to create and discover a uniquely American voice, a uniquely American way of doing theater, and whose acting techniques would draw on Stanislavski to create the most present, vital, living, alive-feeling acting possible.

The Theatre starts performing in 1931. We're in the midst of the Great Depression. We're still recovering from the wreckage of World War I, that America was filled with a new people and that out of this wreckage could grow a kind of utopia. And The Group was in some ways they were utopian dreamers and their theater company was a utopian dream. And, of course, it didn't work out that way. The company lasted 10 years before going bankrupt. But along the way, it launched the careers of Harold Clurman, prominent critic and director; Lee Strasberg, who became the most important and famous acting teacher in America of the 20th century; Stella Adler, his rival; Sanford Meisner, who's also an incredibly important acting teacher; Clifford Odets, the most important playwright of the 1930s; and, of course, Elia Kazan, who for a while was the most important theater director and the most important film director simultaneously. And several of those people then went on after The Group died to found The Actor's Studio, which became the kind of high temple of the Method from then on.

On the actor that brought the Method from the stage to Hollywood

Film and television actually becomes, in many ways, sort of the largest vehicle for the Method throughout the rest of the century. In some ways, the most important actor to come out of the group, who I maintain is actually the first Method film star is a man named John Garfield.

He gives this unbelievable performance in this kind of nothing [1938] movie [Four Daughters], it's a very silly, slight film, but the performance he gives, as soon as he walks on camera, you can just tell that something is happening, that acting is changing, that the norms around what a character is, that they're never going to be the same on some level because he's so vital and in the moment and he feels much more like a real person than everyone else. But it wasn't easy for him to learn how to do that. He couldn't just do a stage performance on camera. If you've ever seen someone just give a stage-size performance on camera, it's really too much because the camera picks up so much that an audience at the theater will not see. It can really see you think or people talk about it reading your mind. ... So he really had to learn how to do much less and much less and much less, and to strip away and to learn how to perform with a new kind of ease and spontaneity that the camera would kind of pick up and enjoy.

On the acting style that emerges in the '50s with Marlon Brando

Speaking colloquially is a big part of that style. A lot of it has to do with an emphasis on subtext and emphasis on what the character is not saying, not allowing to be voiced on the restraint of emotion and then contrasting that kind of with huge emotional displays when necessary. There's that colloquialism of speech also extends to the body and movement that feels very much like an everyday person. It often involves throwing away lines instead of making sure you can clearly understand all of them. And often it is marked by – and this is particularly because Elia Kazan was really into this – it's often marked by an extensive use of props on set and the use of the actors hands and the objects they fiddle with to reveal kind of what's going on with the character.

On how De Niro's physical transformation for the 1980 film Raging Bull changed acting

Part of the problem that actors steeped in the Method were having on set is how do I turn it on, on command, right? Because like they've got to set the lighting, they've got to stand on your mark and then suddenly someone calls action and you have to really be in character. Well, one way to solve that problem is to never break character, right? One way to solve that problem is to really live as the character as much as possible. That is not what Strasberg taught. Strasberg was actually very opposed to that, but particularly after Raging Bull (because De Niro wins the Best Actor Oscar for it) ... De Niro is sort of enshrined as our greatest living American film actor. It just exerts an enormous influence not only on actors, but on the PR and awards campaigns for acting. It exerts its own influence. So there becomes a kind of material or industrial reason why actors are doing this, because then they can talk about the fact that they did it. And that leads to there's a self-parody kind of version of this. We've all watched the press junkets or someone's like, "Oh yes, then I didn't bathe for six months and I got so drunk every night I vomited on myself, and so that's what I did to get into character." And it just seems ridiculous that that, to me, is a kind of perversion of what De Niro was trying to do.

Sam Briger and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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