Acting Styles: Lee Strasberg's Method

“Method acting is what all actors have always done whenever they acted well.” ~ Lee Strasberg

Lee Strasberg (1901-1982), actor, director, and teacher, has been called the “Father of method acting in America.” His technique is based upon a system created by Konstantin Stanislavski, where actors strive for a realistic performance by utilizing their “emotional memories.”

Strasberg, through his work at the Actors Studio and the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, taught his method to many A-list actors and actresses, including Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe. And many other top performers who have not studied under Strasberg also use his method style of acting, such as Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson, Sylvester Stallone, and Jack Nicholson.

While method acting is similar to Stanislavski’s system, Strasberg took the idea a step further. Strasberg’s method requires actors to go beyond emotional memory and use a technique called “Substitution” to temporarily become the characters they are portraying.

Method acting focuses on achieving realism, differing from classical acting styles, which have traditionally featured exaggerated emotions much bigger than life. According to the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute website, method actors “…use their imagination, senses and emotions to conceive of characters with unique and original behavior, creating performances grounded in the human truth of the moment.”

Strasberg identified what he saw as limitations to Stanislavski’s system, in that actors’ emotional memories were insufficient to fully connect to the circumstances experienced by the characters they were portraying. How could an actor who grew up in a middle-class family and lived in New York City truly understand what life was like for a character who lived in poverty in a rural southern town?

Method acting dictates that actors should prepare for a role by immersing themselves as much as possible in the circumstances of their characters. This can include living on a farm, working in a factory, or transforming their bodies. Method acting has come under scrutiny because it is believed that some actors go so far to replicate the lives of their characters, that they actually put their health or lives at risk. In addition, many stories have been told of actors who played their roles to extremes, refusing to step outside of their roles, even when the cameras were not rolling.

Some famous examples of actors going to great lengths to understand their characters include:

* Actor Daniel Day-Lewis’s affinity for method acting is legendary. In one film, My Left Foot, Day-Lewis spent eight weeks in a clinic for cerebral palsy patients to prepare for a role as a disabled artist. On the set, he used a wheelchair, was physically carried around between scenes, and he was spoon-fed off-camera to help him better identify with his role.

* To portray a character who was emaciated in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, Adrien Brody shed 30 pounds in six weeks. About his starvation diet, he said: "I couldn't have acted that without knowing it. I've experienced loss, I've experienced sadness in my life, but I didn't know the desperation that comes with hunger."

* To prepare for his role as The Joker in The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger was said to have shut himself in a London hotel room for a month before filming. And during production, he refused to step out of character, ignoring anyone who tried to talk to him outside the role. Ledger died from a drug overdose after the movie was shot.

* Actress Tippi Hedrin, in preparation for her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, endured stagehands throwing live birds at her face, which left her injured and terrified. This was reportedly Hitchcock’s idea, and not Hedrin’s.

* Dustin Hoffman, in order to more accurately portray his sleep-deprived character, Babe Levy, in Marathon Man, reportedly stayed awake for days prior to filming. Allegedly, this prompted his co-star, Lawrence Olivier, to say something along the lines of: “Why not try acting? It’s much easier.”

The list of film stars who use Strasberg’s method acting style has continued to grow over the decades. They claim that this type of preparation helps them deliver exceptional performances. And they have the Oscars to prove it!

To learn more about Lee Strasberg’s Method, read his book, A Dream of Passion: The Development of the Method.