Forget the Oscars — what makes a truly great actor?

*Originally published on March 2, 2022.

“Jane would say, ‘This is Phil. Benedict is really nice, but you’re going to meet him at the end of the shoot.'”

Benedict Cumberbatch told Variety that he remained entirely in character during filming of the 2021 Oscar-nominated drama from director Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog.

Living as bullying rancher Phil Burbank behind the cameras helped his performance, says the British actor. He could inhabit someone “whose behaviour is at times repugnant, and not feel apologetic…about it.” 

This story emerged months after a viral profile of intense Succession star Jeremy Strong. It has set off a new round of online debate about “going Method:” pop-culture shorthand for actors who disappear into a role. 

Culture critic and writer Isaac Butler points out that the psychologically-based acting approach has long been a source of speculation and controversy — ever since the Method bloomed out in the New York theatre scene of the 1940s, and went on to become a force in Hollywood movies. 

Marlon Brando, with Jessica Tandy (as Blanche) in the 1947 Broadway version of A Streetcar Named Desire. The instinctual actor, who played a searing Stanley Kowalski on both stage and screen, trained with teacher Stella Adler. (John Springer Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)

 “The Method emerges into the public consciousness, and then the public starts reading a lot about it and learning a lot of mistaken things,” said Butler.

The cultural historian set out to trace its deep roots and broad branches for his book, The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act.

Russian Beginnings

The Method could not have existed without the foundational ideas of Russian actor Konstantin Stanislavski (1863-1938), of the Moscow Art Theatre.

Stanislavski had been frustrated by the artifice of the late 19th-century Russian stage. Theatre was a predictable spectacle, rather than a dynamic exploration of the human condition.

Butler says that Stanislavski “wanted theatre to be a seriously-taken art…performed by professionals who were giving their all to a collective vision of what the plays were, and what the theatre’s ongoing aesthetic goals were. And that would tell the truth.”

Today’s ‘diversity of acting approaches and acting results’ owes much to the dramatic history of the Method, says historian and author Isaac Butler. (Bloomsbury/Adalena Kavanagh)

Along with more naturalistic acting, his theatre created the role of director, and brought in designers, all in the service of greater psychological realism. Plays by Chekhov and Gorky soon electrified Russian audiences.

Stanislavski continued to grapple with creative questions. For instance, “actors have to be inspired and have that inner fire on demand: how do you do that?” said Butler. 

As a result, Stanslavski’s ensemble employed then-new tactics: memory and imagination exercises, improvisation, and script analysis. 

“And out of that grows what is called the system, which is the precursor to the Method in the United States,” said Butler.

The Method in America

Though many went on to teach it, the Method was at first associated with two influential figures from early and mid-20th-century New York theatre. 

They had very different interpretations of Stanislavski’s system.

Stella Adler was an actress turned teacher, who worked with the likes of Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro over her long career. 

Acting teacher Stella Adler thought great acting came from the character’s psychology, not the actor’s own (Marianne Barcellona/Getty Images)

Having met with Stanislavski, she understood him to be urging a deep understanding of story and character motivation. For the Adler-informed actor, Butler said: “It’s about a relationship to the text. It’s about the imagined reality of the character.”

That external view was countered by Lee Strasberg, of The Actor’s Studio.  He took Stanislavski’s acting preparations to a new level of interiority with what he called the Method.

His affective memory exercises had actors use their own life experience. They were made to “recall a memory that has strong emotional ties through the sensory details — to essentially trigger a strong emotion, then use that emotion for the character,” said Butler.

The Method now

In the name of authenticity, Method teachers could be extremely demanding of actors, with techniques unlikely to pass today. Some of the most famous of Lee Strasberg’s mid-century students — James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, for instance  — had truly traumatic pasts to recall.

“There were so many people studying the Method. But it did get that [controversial] reputation over the course of the 20th century,” said Butler.

He says that Strasberg recommended therapy for some troubled actors, while other students were able to stay steady, such as Sydney Poitier and Ellen Burstyn. The latter remains a strong supporter of Strasberg’s legacy.

Lee Strasberg, seen with former student and actor Ellen Burstyn, taught the Method to generations of actors, from Marilyn Monroe to Al Pacino. (Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images )

By the late 1960s, Method-informed acting and directing were ingrained in Hollywood movies like Easy Rider, The Graduate, and Bonnie and Clyde.

As American politics grew murkier, the Method helped capture complexity for filmmakers.

“If we’re going to mine the American character, we’re going to dig as deep as possible. We’re going to try to find what’s underneath. That’s a Method value right there,” said Butler.

Isaac Butler continues to see positive aspects of the Method legacy at work among today’s actors. Take Frances McDormand  — most recently of Nomadland and Macbeth.

Though not a Method actor, her work, Isaac Butler says, embodies the idea “that you should be playing the character as a specific person in all their little micro-details. And she prides herself clearly on versatility.” 

“You know, those are a lot of the values of the kind of post-Stanislavski American movement in acting.” 

*This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey.

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