Based on the concepts developed by Constantin Stanislavski in 1911, 'Method Acting' refers to an actor's pursuit to connect with his/her character through emotional immersion.
In contemporary cinema, some of our most gifted actors employ this style of acting in order to provide the most authentic portrayal possible. But what happens when actors take their methods to new extremes?
1. Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Most people are aware of Ledger's incredible performance as The Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. However, less know about the lengths he went to to play the role. Prior to his untimely death, Ledger spoke to Empire Magazine about his preparation for the role.
“I sat around in a hotel room in London for about a month, locked myself away, formed a little diary and experimented with voices — it was important to try to find a somewhat iconic voice and laugh.” - Ledger
According to Gerry Grennell, Ledger's vocal coach, the toll from the month locked away included fatigue, chronic exhaustion, and a dependence on sleeping pills. But what was inside that "little diary?" Actual footage of the diary showed images of playing cards, stills from A Clockwork Orange, and of course, photos of the original Joker. On the last page of the diary? Two words.
2. Hillary Swank, Boys Don't Cry
For her Academy Award winning performance as Brandon Teena, a transgendered man who is brutally raped and murdered in a Nebraska hate crime, Swank spent 5 weeks living as a man.
“I walked around trying to pass as a boy for five weeks before filming that movie...seeing what worked and what didn’t work, and losing a bunch of body fat so that my face would be thinner. My neighbors thought that I was my cousin Billy from Iowa.” - Swank
Losing weight isn't all she did to complete her transformation. For the role, Swank cut her hair, bandaged her breasts uncomfortably against her chest, and even stuffed socks down her pants. She would introduce herself to neighbors and friends as 'James,' Hilary's brother.
This isn't Swank's only foray into intense Method Acting. For her role in Million Dollar Baby, she trained so hard that she got a Staph infection, and even refused to tell anyone because she didn't want to slow down production.
3. Marlon Brando, The Men
Mentored by Stanislavski himself, Brando is accredited as being one of the original pioneers of method acting, and for good reason.
Before The Godfather and A Streetcar Named Desire, Marlo's big-screen debut was in The Men, in which he played a World War II lieutenant who's injured in combat and left paralyzed.
An article published by LIFE magazine in 1950 titled 'Preparing for Paraplegia' reported that Brando prepared for the role by actually confining himself to a gurney in a veteran’s hospital to mentally prepare for the role.
Although it might seem relatively tame compared to other entries on this list, Brando was the first actor to do anything of the kind.
4. Choi Min Sik, Oldboy
Often hailed as the "Korean De Niro," Min Sik's commitment to his roles have earned him worldwide notoriety. Before Spike Lee's 2013 remake, Min Sik's role Old Boy was pivotal in the evolution of Korean Cinema. The actor portrayed Oh Dae-su, who is locked in a hotel room for 15 years.
In addition to emaciating himself to physically appear like he had been imprisoned for 15 years, Min-sik also burned his flesh with a hot wire to replicate the character giving himself a tattoo.
But that's not all he did. In a scene where Min Sik's character goes to eat something "live," the actor bites into a live Octopus.
"The eating of the octopus was actually my idea – at first in Oldboy, the traditional way of eating it would be to twist it around your chopsticks. However, to portray the psychological state of the character Oh Dae-su that felt insufficient and inappropriate and after being imprisoned for 15 years becoming a primordial being full of anger it felt more appropriate to simply grab it and eat it" - Min Sik
5. Adrian Brody, The Pianist
Back in 2003, Brody won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Wladyslaw Szpilman in Roman Polanski's The Pianist.
To match Szpilman's musical prowess, Brody practiced piano for 4 hours each day until he could play sections of Chopin. However, in order to truly immerse himself in Szpilman's life, a real life concert pianist who survived the horrors of the Holocaust, Brody gave up everything. And I mean everything.
"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." - Brody
Did I mention he even convinced his then girlfriend to break up with him?
6. Christian Bale, The Machinist
Most know him as Bruce Wayne from Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. That's why, when people see the above image of a virtually skeletal Bale, it's shocking. In a tell-all biography written by Bale's former publicist and assistant Harrison Cheung, Christian Bale: The Inside Story of the Darkest Batman, Cheung describes Bale's unbelievable physical transformation for Bale's role as Trevor Reznik in The Machinist.
Bale's diet, which made him lose 65 pounds, consisted of water, an apple, one cup of coffee per day, "and occasionally, some whiskey."
As expected, the extreme diet had an impact on Bale's social life:
"In the end, I had to stop going out. I realized that wasn't going to work. I'd do a bit of eating hardly anything and losing 51 pounds and then I'd put on 7 pounds bingeing one night because I'd have a couple of drinks. So I decided no more social life, no more friends, no more dinners, no more drinks." - Bale
Sure, Bale's transformation is more of a physical than a psychological one, but his commitment to the part is not up for debate.
7. Charlize Theron, Monster
While Christian Bale's transformation rendered him looking like his own skeleton, Theron's made her look truly unrecognizable. For her Academy Award winning role as Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute executed after being convicted of murdering six men, Theron shaved off her eyebrows, donned prosthetic teeth, and put on 30 pounds before principal photography began.
Besides her physical transformation, in order to embody the character as genuinely as possible, Theron travelled to Michigan to read 12 years worth of letters Wuornos sent to her only friend, Tyria Moore, in order to get a mental grasp of her character.
And obviously it paid off
"What Charlize Theron achieves in Patty Jenkins' 'Monster' isn't a performance but an embodiment... [It] is one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema." - Film Critic Roger Ebert
8. Daniel Day Lewis, Basically Every Film He's Been In
No one personifies Method Acting as prolifically as Sir. Daniel Day Lewis. To say that the most decorated actor in history only has one film in which he underwent a complete mental and physical transformation would be an unjust relegation.
For his role in the film adaptation of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Lewis actually taught himself how to speak Czech for the part (even though the film was in English)
Lewis insisted on only eating meat that he killed himself, learned to track animals, hunt, and even build canoes for his role as Hawkeye/Nathaniel Poe in Michael Mann's Last of the Mohicans.
Lewis' most famous iteration of method acting is perhaps seen in Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot, in which Lewis plays Irish artist Christy Brown who had cerebral palsy. Lewis stayed in character during the entire shoot and insisted on staying in his wheelchair and even being spoon-fed by the crew.
These are just three of examples of Lewis' extensive method acting repertoire. Hopefully, the King of Method will have many more.