ByMark Newton, writer at
Movie Pilot Associate Editor. Email: [email protected]
Mark Newton

Whether it's by using the Stanislavski technique or simply refusing to break character for the entire production, there are several ways actors can deliver impressive moments of method acting. For some it's simply putting themselves into the shoes of the character to draw real emotions, for others it takes over their entire life and for some poor souls it is enforced upon them by ambitious directors.

Here are 10 of the most impressive method acting performances.

Daniel Day-Lewis - Pretty Much Everything

If you decide to cast Daniel Day-Lewis in your film because you want to get to know him personally, well, that's probably a waste of time. Day-Lewis is famed for strictly adhering to the qualities of his characters. In My Left Foot he stayed in his wheelchair the entire time - the constant slumping eventually causing him to break two ribs. On Gangs of New York he refused modern medicine and contracted pneumonia, while in The Last of the Mohicans he spent six months in the wild learning wilderness survival. Most recently, for Lincoln, he kept his high-pitched American accent the entire time, although it seems he was willing to accept modern technology. He texted as Abraham Lincoln while his co-star Jared Harris explained:

Sometimes we'd ride back in the car and he'd stay in character but talk about Mad Men, which of course he couldn't know about because television hadn't been invented then.

Joaquin Phoenix - I'm Still Here

Do you remember those rumors that went round saying Joaquin Phoenix had quit acting, gone a bit mental and started a hip-hop career? Well, that was all part of Casey Affleck's mockumentary, I'm Still Here, which saw Phoenix playing a bizarre, bearded version of himself. He even kept up the strange persona for public appearances, like this now infamous Letterman interview:

Adrien Brody - The Pianist

For The Pianist, Adrien Brody also went to extreme lengths to try and experience just a fraction of the loss and isolation felt by Holocaust survivor and pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman. As well learning piano and giving up his girlfriend, he explained:

I gave up my apartment, I sold my car, I disconnected the phones, and I left. I took two bags and my keyboard and moved to Europe... I did all these things to encourage loneliness and to encourage loss. It taught me to appreciate everything and everyone that’s important to me in my life.

Yeah, I bet his agent really appreciated that.

Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight

Similarly to Brody, Heath Ledger also isolated himself from others to play the deranged and disturbed villain, The Joker. The actor reportedly locked himself in his apartment for a month and estimated to only sleep two hours a night. Apparently he continued to remain in character on set, with one source claiming:

If you tried to communicate with him normally instead of The Joker, he would just ignore you. He would often come to the set to hang out even on his days off, freaking everyone out. Towards the end of filming, he was warned by people that he had gone too far.

Indeed, some claim his strict method acting contributed to his eventual overdose on prescription drugs. Others dispute this, but what is clear is that his method definitely made for a haunting performance.

Robert De Niro - Taxi Driver

How better to play a taxi driver, than by actually becoming one? For Martin Scorsese's 1976 classic, Robert De Niro actually received a taxi license and spent weeks driving around New York in 12-hour shifts. I suppose it must be reassuring to know that if that whole 'acting thing' doesn't work out he can always become a pretty successful - if slightly deranged - cabbie.

Christian Bale - The Machinist

To accurately portray a sleep-deprived drill-press operator in The Machinist, Christian Bale was asked to lose a 'little weight'. It seems Bale took this as a bit of a challenge and instead of losing the required 63 lbs., he shed a shocking 121 lbs. He achieved this by adhering to a strict exercise regime and eating only an apple and a tin of tuna a day. He explained:

I was intrigued by a perverse nature of mine just to see if I can go beyond what I've been told is actually safe and OK, and see if I could push the limits.

Marlon Brando - The Men

Marlon Brando certainly started as he meant to go on. His first major movie role saw him playing a disabled war veteran in the understated 1950 drama, The Men. To prepare for the role, Brando spent an entire month confined to a bed in a real veteran's hospital, while he also refused to leave his wheelchair throughout the shoot. Furthermore, for Apocalypse Now he really did become an insane leader of a tribal cult hidden in the depths of the Cambodian jungle.*

* Not actually true...


Of course, there are actors who voluntarily place themselves into situations to better portray their characters, but there are also directors who enforce method acting onto their hapless players. Here's three of them.

Ridley Scott - Alien

One of the most oft mentioned instances of enforced method acting stems from the famous chest-bursting scene in Ridley Scott's Alien. In this iconic, bowel trembling scene, Scott only gave a brief outline to the watching actors, who did not expect the full goriness (or amount of corn syrup) which was about to be sprayed in their direction. With this in mind, Veronica Cartwright’s cry of "Oh, God!" might have been pretty genuine. Furthermore, the operator who controlled the alien did actually spend a week living inside John Hurt. That's dedication.

Wes Craven - Scream

How did Wes Craven manage to get Drew Barrymore to nail the iconic introductory scene in Scream? She does look pretty distressed, doesn't she? Well, while Ghostface is invading her home, Barrymore was actually thinking about a bag of kittens being thrown off a bridge. Craven continually told Barrymore, a keen animal lover, harrowing tales of animal abuse between takes in order to get her into a frenzied emotional state. He even threatened to kill her dog.

Eduardo Sánchez, Daniel Myrick - The Blair Witch Project

Let's keep it scary for the moment. Throughout the entire Blair Witch Project, the three main actors had no idea what to expect beyond basic scene outlines which were delivered via food drops in the woods. Over time, food and cigarettes were reduced to increase the frustration of the trio, while they were also unexpectedly harassed at night by production staff. This means when they were fleeing through the woods they really were tired, cranky, hungry and really, really afraid.


Which of the above method acting performances impressed you most?


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