How the method transformed cinema – and made acting more human

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

Method acting, Butler says, values ​​”that moment when the actor is so in the imagined reality of the character that, to some degree, they really feel and experience what the character is going through.”

Think Robert De Niro, who gained 60 pounds to play retired boxer Jake LaMotta in the 1980 film angry bullor Daniel Day-Lewis, who remained famous in character – both on and off set – during filming lincoln.

In his new book, The method: how the 20th century learned to act, Butler retraces the history of the Method. It stems from The System, a series of techniques created in the early 1900s by Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski, which were later adapted in the United States by the Group Theater and The Actors Studio.

The method, he says, “instilled in us these ideas that action is at the heart of a dramatic story and it’s characters who want something and do things in order to pursue those things they want. It highlights Al Pacino’s performance in the first Godfather film as perhaps the quintessence of technique.

“It looks like a real person in all its complexity, not a basic type or role or anything like that. And Al Pacino just seems really alive in the moment and really present in that role at all times,” says Butler. “A lot of this role is communicated non-verbally, by watching the character think.”


Interview Highlights

On Stanislavski’s belief that actors were their own material

The system stems from a few very simple fundamental ideas: one of them has to do with the need for the actor to “experience”, the word he uses. Experience is an approximate translation of a Russian word … [that] just means that moment where the actor is so much in the imagined reality of the character that to some degree they really feel and experience what the character is going through.

And some of his other fundamental ideas are that the actor is his own material. They are in a way both the painter and the painting, that a role should be divided into its components, which he called “pieces”. He was very committed to physical relaxation and the actor used the powers of concentration and attention to forget that the audience was there and to try to somehow live again in the imaginary reality of the play and the character. One of the things that also interested him a lot, and which was to become particularly notorious in the United States, was this idea of ​​emotional memory. Affect Memory essentially triggers a strong emotional state that you might need to play the character, using your own memories of when you felt that emotion.

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

It’s a bit difficult to overestimate the importance of their time on Broadway during their tour of the United States. People had really never seen acting like what they had seen from the theater in Moscow. John Barrymore wrote a letter to the producer which was published in The New York Times saying it was the best set of actors he had ever seen. People returned night after night captivated by what they saw. And these plays, it must be said, were performed in Russian, and most of the spectators did not speak Russian. So it’s even crossing that language barrier.

What particularly impressed them was that every actor in the Moscow Art Theater would somehow devote themselves completely to their characters, even if those characters were extras. … Stanislavski is the guy who came up with the phrase “There are no small roles, only small actors”, and he really lived it in his company. And so you would just see this ensemble that was all on the same page working towards the same ends and giving their all and people were completely blown away by it.

On the creation of The Group Theater in 1931, the American interpretation of Stanislavski, and the creation of “The Method”

The Group Theater was an ensemble theater producing new works on Broadway with a fixed theater 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 be inspired by Stanislavski to create the most present, vital, living acting and living as possible.

The Theater begins to play in 1931. We are in the middle of the Great Depression. We are still recovering from the wreckage of World War I, that America was filled with a new people, and out of that wreckage some kind of utopia might be born. And The Group were kind of 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 career of Harold Clurman, eminent critic and director; Lee Strasberg, who became America’s most important and famous acting teacher of the 20th century; Stella Adler, her rival; Sanford Meisner, who is also an incredibly important acting teacher; Clifford Odets, the most important playwright of the 1930s; and, of course, Elia Kazan, who for a time was the most important theater director and the most important film director at the same time. And several of these people then continued after the death of The Group to found The Actor’s Studio, which then became a kind of high temple of the Method.

On the actor who took the method from the stage to Hollywood

Film and television actually become, in many ways, somewhat of the greatest vehicle for the Method throughout the century. In some ways, the most important actor to come out of the group, who I think is actually Method’s first movie star, is a man named John Garfield.

He gives this incredible performance in this kind of anything [1938] movie [Four Daughters], it’s a lighthearted and very silly film, but the performance it gives, as soon as it passes in front of the camera, you can just tell that something is happening, that the game is changing, that the norms around what he’s a character they are will never be the same on some level because he’s so vital and in the moment and he feels a lot more like a real person than everyone else. But it wasn’t easy for him to learn how to do it. He couldn’t just perform on stage in front of the camera. If you’ve ever seen someone perform on stage in front of the camera, that’s too much because the camera picks up so much that an audience in the theater won’t see. He can really see what you’re thinking or what people are talking about by reading your mind. … So he really had to learn to do a lot less and a lot less and a lot less, and to strip down and learn to act with a new kind of ease and spontaneity that the camera would pick up and enjoy.

On the acting style that emerged in the 1950s with Marlon Brando

Colloquial speaking is a big part of this style. It has a lot to do with the emphasis on subtext and the emphasis on what the character isn’t saying, not allowing to be expressed on the restraint of emotion, and then contrasting that genre with d huge emotional displays if necessary. There is this colloquial language of speech which also extends to body and movement which is very much like an ordinary person. This often involves throwing out lines instead of making sure you can clearly understand them all. And often it’s marked by – and it’s particularly because Elia Kazan was really into it – it’s often marked by heavy use of props on set and the use of actors’ hands and objects with which they play to reveal what is going on with the character.

On De Niro’s physical transformation for the 1980 film angry bull changed actor

Part of the problem that actors steeped in the method had on set is how do i turn it on, on command, to the right? Because since they have to adjust the lighting, they have to stand on your mark and then suddenly someone calls the action and you have to really be in character. Well, one way to solve this problem is to never break character, right? One way to solve this problem is to really live the character as much as possible. This is not what Strasberg taught. Strasberg was actually very opposed to this, but especially after angry bull (because De Niro wins the Best Actor Oscar for it) … De Niro is sort of enshrined as our greatest living American movie actor. It just exerts a huge influence not only on actors, but also on public relations and acting awards campaigns. It exerts its own influence. So it becomes a kind of material or industrial reason why the actors do this, because then they can talk about the fact that they did it. And that leads to a kind of self-parody of this version. We’ve all watched the press junkets or someone like ‘Oh yeah, so I didn’t bathe for six months and I got so drunk every night I threw up on myself, and that’s what what I did to get into character.” And it just seems ridiculous that this, to me, is kind of a perversion of what De Niro was trying to do.

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

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