Method to the Madness

Top Stories

Method acting is an intense technique used to get actors wholly and emotionally in sync with a role, and which can involve dangerous tactics or offensive stunts at times. Dustin Hoffman was most famous in this regard - but are the days of the method actor drawing to a close?

By Vir Sanghvi

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Fri 3 Jun 2016, 12:54 PM

Last updated: Tue 28 Nov 2023, 11:37 AM

There is a legendary story about Dustin Hoffman on the sets of Marathon Man, the 1970s blockbuster made from William Goldman's novel. Goldman himself told the story a few years later in his classic Adventures In The Screen Trade.

According to this story, Hoffman was nervous about starring opposite Laurence Olivier (who played the villain) and so, made his co-star go through a series of moves before a shot was filmed, just so that they could get into the mood. Some of what Olivier was asked to do was physically demanding for a man in his seventies, but this did not deter Hoffman, who prided himself on his athleticism. (This was the phase when Hoffman insisted that directors included at least one sequence where he ran on camera in each movie. Apparently, this alerted viewers to Hoffman's youth, physicality and general air of dynamism.)

Olivier went along with Hoffman up to a point. Finally, he said, "Why don't you just try acting?"

Ever since the Goldman book came out, that story has passed into film legend, because it implies a certain scorn for the Hoffman kind of method actor, who has to live each role to understand his character and then deliver the required performance.

Real actors, Goldman suggests, just act. That is their job, after all. They don't need to resort to 'method acting'.

Now, a new biography of Meryl Streep offers further insights into Hoffman's method. During the filming of Kramer vs Kramer in 1979 - when Hoffman was already a big

star while Streep was as yet unknown - the actress was constantly intimidated by the stunts Hoffman pulled to get her in the mood.

For one scene, he departed from the script and angrily broke a glass (the shreds of broken glass ended up in Streep's hair) on camera, to get her to look shocked. Another time (in the climactic courtroom scene, in case you've seen the movie), he went up to her before a take and kept saying "John Cazale" - the name of her boyfriend, who had just died. He wanted to upset Streep so much that she looked worried and damaged on camera.

Worst of all, he actually slapped her without warning before one scene so that she would look angry and outraged as the cameras rolled! Streep was not the only victim of Hoffman's stunts either. Justin Henry, the child star who played Streep and Hoffman's son in the movie, was required to cry in one scene. To ensure that he genuinely felt like crying, Hoffman pointed to a member of the crew who Henry had become close to and said, "You are never going to see him again." When Henry bawled, the cameras rolled.

It is not that unusual for directors and parents (but rarely co-stars like Hoffman) to mistreat child stars in the hope of getting the right expression out of them. The screenwriter and director Honey Irani (Farhan Akhtar's mother), who was a child actress, once told me in a TV interview about the way her mother got performances out of her. If she had to look in pain, her mother pinched her off-camera. If she had to cry, she was slapped just before the camera rolled.

So, while we can all be horrified by the way child stars are treated all over the world, the conflict is really between people like Olivier who was content to just act, and those, like Dustin Hoffman, who find it necessary to create real-world stimuli to influence the performances.

Sometimes, actors have no choice but to inhabit the character round-the-clock (and not just when the director calls "action!"), because the role is so different from their real-life personas. To play Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, Robert De Niro put on several kilos and spent hours in boxing rings. By the time he got to the set, he was no longer the old De Niro but had turned into a version of LaMotta.

Then, there's the matter of accents. Christian Bale, who played Batman in three movies, is a Brit. But most of the characters he plays are Americans. So it is important for him to maintain the accent throughout a shooting schedule. (British actors who can't master American accents never touch the top tier: Michael Caine and Hugh Grant, for example).

When you speak in an accent that is not your own, you are always tense on the sets and if, like Bale, you have a volatile temperament, things can quickly get out of hand. Some years ago, Hollywood was agog about a video of Bale screaming at a crewmember who had spoilt his shot. That Bale lost his temper was not such a big deal. What all of Hollywood marvelled at was the fact that even when he was incandescent with rage and apparently out of control, he did not drop his accent. The rant was delivered in a perfect American accent!

Hoffman is not a big star these days. So he can't get away with pushing his co-stars around. And the day of the method actor seems to be coming to an end. Meryl Streep, for instance, who is a much better actor than Hoffman ever was, is content to simply act, even when she plays such diverse characters as Margaret Thatcher and Julia Child who are nothing like she is in real life.

And anyway, I have always wondered: did Hoffman push Olivier and Streep around because he was insecure in the presence of such great acting talent? Was there a method to his seemingly mad method acting?

Too good or too much?

Daniel Day-Lewis

Role: Paralysed painter Christy Brown

Film: My Left Foot (1989)

Method: Refused to leave his wheelchair, even off set

Nicolas Cage

Role: Wounded Vietnam vet Al Columbato

Film: Birdy (1984)

Method: Had a few teeth pulled - without anesthesia; spent five weeks with his face wrapped in bandages, which led to skin infections in the end

Anne Hathaway

Role: Starving prostitute Fantine

Film: Les Misérables (2012)

Method: Lost 11kg and chopped off her hair

Heath Ledger

Role: The Joker

Film: The Dark Knight (2008)

Method: Holed himself up in his flat for months on end; slept two hours a day

Adrien Brody

Role: Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman

Film: The Pianist (2002)

Method: Dropped 13kg; learnt to play the piano by practising for four hours every day; gave up his apartment, sold his car, disconnected his phones, packed two bags and moved

to Europe

More news from WKND
Telling stories that 'stick'


Telling stories that 'stick'

Everyone knows that oral and written traditions of storytelling are the most effective ways to pass on values. The modern marketplace is no different