‘Mad’ method wins actor a place among the stars
When Daniel Day-Lewis won his record-breaking third Oscar for Best Actor, a Hollywood legend was born. Is his famously eccentric devotion to ‘method acting’ the secret to his success?
Daniel Day-Lewis is a man of many faces. He has lived life as a working-class punk, a severely disabled writer and painter, a Native American warrior and as the most revered of all US presidents. Now, he must learn to play another role: most celebrated actor in the world.
At Sunday’s Oscars, Day-Lewis was named Best Actor for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, which critics described as ‘towering’, ‘immaculate’ and ‘so charismatic it’s hard to think clearly’. Day-Lewis has now won the most coveted award in acting three times – the first man to do so.
Does this make him the greatest male film actor of all time? The question is being debated in a hundred newspapers and magazines, followed quickly by another: how does he pull it off?
For his admirers, one answer comes instantly to mind. Day-Lewis’ captivating performances, they say, are a product of an obsessive dedication to understanding the characters he plays.
Taking the role of Lincoln involved far more than simply learning some lines of dialogue. Day-Lewis read every historical account he could lay his hands on, tracked down rare audio recordings to recreate the President’s accent, and rigorously studied the manners of the time.
During filming he refused to break character for an instant, walking, talking and even sending text messages in the character of ‘Abe’. Director Steven Spielberg played along, insisting that he be addressed on set as ‘Mr President’.
Day-Lewis takes the same intensive approach to every one of his roles. While playing Christy Brown, who had cerebral palsy, he confined himself to a wheelchair for months. As a hunter and fighter in Last of the Mohicans, he learned to skin animals and build a canoe. Acting Hamlet in 1989, he became so engrossed in the role that he broke down in genuine terror after seeing his own father’s ghost. He left the production and never returned to the stage again.
This extreme immersion in a character is known as ‘method acting’ – a psychological approach founded by followers of a Russian theatre director named Constantin Stanislavski.
Madness in the method?
Followers of Stanislavski believe that great performances occur only when an actor can ‘experience the part’. To act, they say, is to embody another human being completely, from your deepest emotions to the movements of your fingertips. The only way to play a character is to become them.
Nonsense, say others – actors don’t have to be psychologists. Great acting is about physical self-control and skill: imitating a facial expression, adjusting your posture, mastering the tone and volume of your voice. As the celebrated Laurence Olivier supposedly said to a colleague who was torturing himself for the sake of a role: ‘try acting, dear boy’.
- Who do you think gave the best performance in a film this year? Your Oscar can go to a man or a woman.
- Does great acting require great empathy? Or just great pretending?
- In groups, invent a dramatic scene and act it out. The first time you try, concentrate on your physical movements; the second, think about your character’s thoughts, feelings and motivations. Which do you think is more effective?
- ‘All action on stage must have an inner justification, be logical, coherent and real.’ Write a paragraph explaining what Stanislavski means by this statement and the extent to which you agree with it.
Some People Say...
“Acting is fraud.’ Richard Gere”
What do you think?
Q & A
- So if I want to become an actor I have to stop being myself?
- Some would say so – at least while you are filming or rehearsing a part. In his Oscar acceptance speech, Daniel Day-Lewis thanked his wife for her patience in ‘living with some very strange men’. The implication is that while he is playing a role, he renounces his own identity.
- Does this have any relevance if Idon’t want to act?
- It could do. Psychological research suggests that our hidden thoughts and emotions are intimately connected with our physical behaviour in surprising ways. In one study, for instance, subjects were asked to complete a task which subconsciously triggered thoughts of old age. After the experiment, they walked significantly more slowly than colleagues free from such thoughts.
- The Academy Awards, the most prestigious honour in cinema, are voted on by a committee of honorary members selected from among the Hollywood elite. They are said to have been known as the ‘Oscars’ since Bette Davis nicknamed her statuette after her husband, and this year that has become their official name.
- Abraham Lincoln
- Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln focuses on the final weeks of the American Civil War, when 11 states from the Southern USA broke away from the Union because they feared that President Lincoln would attempt to abolish slavery. The film opens after four years of bitter and bloody struggle, with the North on the brink of victory and Lincoln considering a move to free slaves forever.
- First man
- Not the first person, however: the great Katharine Hepburn won a total of four Oscars for Best Actress in a glittering career spanning seven decades.
- Cerebral palsy
- An incurable condition that affects some children’s brains, preventing them from having full control over their movements. In some cases it causes extremely severe physical and learning difficulties. Other sufferers live ordinary lives, needing only a relatively small amount of therapy and physical assistance.
- Constantin Stanislavski
- Stanislavski was a famous actor and director in pre-Revolutionary Russia. He was fascinated by Sigmund Freud’s insights into human psychology, and used them to develop a new acting ‘system’, which he outlined in his 1936 book An Actor Prepares. 'Method acting' was inspired by this approach, but with an even greater focus on personal psychology.