Marlon Brando, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Sidney Poitier.
All brethren united in the school of Method acting — the approach to stage and screen performance made famous by its practitioners known for their technique and acting craft.
Are awards contenders this year still as immersed in their roles as the famous students of Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler were half a century ago? Does anyone even still practice the Method — the Stanislavski system for helping actors create ultrarealistic portrayals?
Frank Langella, who received a Film Independent Spirit nomination for “Starting Out in the Evening” and who recently finished an acclaimed run on the legit stage as the disgraced president in “Frost/Nixon,” doubts it. The formal Method, Langella says, is long past its heyday, the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
“When I started, which was in the ’60s, there was lots of talk about the Method versus the technical approach, the British vs. the American techniques,” says the
69-year-old Tony winner. “But I don’t really think that anyone can say anymore that the Method is a viable course of action for this generation of actors. It was something heavily used 30 and 40 years ago.”
It’s not that actors are no longer seeking ways to get inside their characters and seem real, Langella adds: They just don’t need a specific technique to achieve believability.
“If you watch them, the generation of young actors coming up has an extraordinary ability to be honest and truthful in front of a camera,” he says.
Not all younger actors think the Method will fade entirely from use with the retirement of its aging current masters — Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino.
Paul Dano points to his Globe-nominated “There Will Be Blood” co-star Daniel Day-Lewis as one of the best contemporary examples of the Method.
“He’s amazing. It takes an incredible amount of will power and determination and commitment,” says 23-year-old Dano, who also appeared in “The Ballad of Jack and Rose” opposite Day-Lewis, of the actor’s metamorphosis into his characters. “I don’t think most people have the perseverance to do it like him.”
Day-Lewis is well known for delving completely into character — whether it’s the wheelchair-bound Christy Brown in “My Left Foot,” for which he won an Academy Award in 1990, or the murderous Bill “The Butcher” Cutting in “Gangs of New York,” which earned him his third Oscar nomination.
”I’m told that people find it strange that I do the work the way I do it, but then I think, ‘Well, yes, but the work is inherently strange,’ ” Day-Lewis told the New York Times in 2003. ”We’re spending the better part of our lives pretending to be other people. Stranger from my point of view is to have the capacity to jump in and out, which some people undeniably have. I’m kind of in awe of those people.”
Dano says he still doesn’t know exactly how Day-Lewis prepares, but however he does, Dano says that on set, fellow actors saw character Daniel Plainview, not Daniel Day-Lewis.
“With Daniel, if I needed to feel terrified, I didn’t need to do much acting. He was pretty terrifying,” Dano says of their scenes together.
“There’s a slight misunderstanding about the way Daniel works. People think that kind of commitment is abnormal, but when you see it in person and work with him, it makes complete sense. You almost don’t understand how there’s another way to do it,” Dano adds. “I never felt intimidated or turned off by the way he works. It’s thrilling and fun to engage with him.”
Day-Lewis isn’t the only actor working today who incorporates attributes of the Method. Many of the cinema’s theater-trained thesps, such as “The Savages'” Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney, along with Sean Penn and Viggo Mortensen, employ it.
“People talk about Method actors, meaning someone that’s prepared very well, or whatever they mean when they talk about it, but the right method is whatever works for you. And what works for me on any given day is going to be different,” Mortensen has said.
Character actor Shaun Toub, who’s featured in “The Kite Runner” and “Charlie Wilson’s War,” says people are mistaken if they think hours of makeup or losing a lot of weight matters if the internal transformation hasn’t occurred.
“Yes, makeup and wardrobe is important,” Toub explains, “but that alone can never bring the character onto the screen. Your energy, your being has to change.”
As for staying in the same headspace as an actor between takes, Toub says he’s not interested, because his characters are often “too intense. I am more of the school that, once they call action, I bring the character, but once I’m done, I’m done.”
Ultimately, every actor has his or her own journey to the center of a character, Langella says. Whether an actor spends months researching the minutiae of a character’s life or just absorbs the character through the script and a couple of weeks of rehearsal, the result needs to be same.
“It’s all about truth. Will you believe me in this movie, will you believe me next year as Richard Nixon?” Langella says. “That’s my mantra: the truth at all costs.”