Method Acting vs. Character Acting: Differences, Benefits, and Examples

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Photo Source: “Million Dollar Baby” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures / “The White Lotus” Credit: Fabio Lovino/HBO

Method acting and character acting are two approaches to developing a character. While they differ in technique and process, both require discipline and focus to achieve a successful performance. Here’s a breakdown of the differences between Method acting and character acting, where the two intersect, and famous actors who use each approach.


What is Method acting?

movie method acting

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Method acting, or “the Method,” originated with Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavsky and was further refined by Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner. 

  • Personal connection: According to the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, the Method “trains actors to use their physical, mental, and emotional self in the creation of a character and stresses the way in which personal experience can fire the actors’ imagination.” By focusing on an actor’s personal connection to a character, this allows the actor to draw on real emotions and experiences to inform their performance. This approach requires intense focus and preparation since the actor must be in tune with their emotions and use them to guide their character’s decisions and actions. 
  • Lead roles: Method actors usually play lead roles, spending extensive time on a single project as they fully immerse themselves in their character. This can mean embodying a character even when the camera stops rolling and/or going to extreme lengths to mimic the physical or emotional state of a character.
  • Realistic: Because of Method acting’s source material—an actor’s physical, mental, and emotional self—this approach generally works well with dramatic, realistic characters.

What is character acting?

character acting

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  • Separate persona: Character actors specialize in creating unique characters and must “create a specific plan rather than work from themselves.” They often develop a persona with mannerisms, accents, and quirks that are specific to the character rather than the actor. This approach requires actors to dedicate time to study the role, learn about the character’s history and personality, and then build a foundation for how that character might act.
  • Supporting roles: In general, character acting is meant for supporting roles that bolster the performance of the lead actor(s). With less screen time, supporting roles allow actors to work on more projects. The character actor is there to provide the lead with new perspectives, comic relief, or any number of nuanced roles that further the plot of the film. 
  • Vivid: Character actors often spend more time working offstage with makeup, costume, and other departments to develop their character’s physical persona and how they represent visually.

How are Method acting and character acting similar?

method vs character acting

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Method acting and character acting use different approaches to the craft, but the two techniques can be applied to virtually any character. While Method acting is generally associated with lead roles and character acting is associated with supporting roles, there is no hard and fast rule that says they can’t be used interchangeably. 

  • Character study: Both acting styles require that actors study a character deeply and understand their motivations, backstory, and psychology. Actors using either approach might choose to stay in character for prolonged periods of time on and off the set to help them further develop and connect with the character. 
  • Script analysis: Both methods draw on the text for inspiration and insight into characters and their worlds. 

Some believe that the two approaches are incompatible, since Method acting is more internal and relies on personal connection, while character acting is more external and relies on deliberate acting choices. Actor Martin Freeman, for example, called the demands of Method acting “aggrandizing, selfish, [and] narcissistic.”

Famous Method actors

Method actors

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  • Robert De Niro: De Niro made a name for himself as a Method actor for his role as Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver.” To put himself in character, he obtained a taxi license and studied cab drivers and their interactions.
  • Charlize Theron: Nearly unrecognizable in her role in “Monster,” Theron underwent a physical transformation to capture the essence of the role, including gaining weight and using prosthetics to alter her looks. 
  • Hilary Swank: With two Academy Awards, Swank’s use of the Method has certainly paid off. For her role in “Boys Don’t Cry,” she dedicated herself to portraying Brandon Teena, a trans man, by embracing male characteristics such as speaking in a deeper voice. And for “Million Dollar Baby,” she trained six days a week to learn how to box and physically transform her body. 
  • Daniel Day-Lewis: Famously known for staying in character on and off set, Day-Lewis steeps himself in his roles. For “The Last of the Mohicans,” he chose to live in the woods and learn skills that would deepen his understanding of the role, such as skinning an animal and building a canoe.

Famous character actors

character actors

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  • Jennifer Coolidge: Coolidge has perfected a squinty-eyed, nasal-voiced character that is both nuanced and comical, from Paulette in “Legally Blonde” to Tanya in “The White Lotus.” 
  • Beth Grant: Grant has portrayed characters in a wide variety of films including “Donnie Darko,” “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar,” and “Speed.” Her ability to bring life to potentially flat busybody characters is truly memorable. 
  • Judy Greer: In one of her most iconic roles, Greer portrays the personal assistant on “Arrested Development,” in which she takes a relatively plain supporting role and makes her a devoted if not obsessed assistant with a penchant for flashing
  • Jason Mantzoukas: He plays the consummate weird and disturbing character in a variety of ways, but you know when Mantzoukas shows up in something, it’s bound to be strange.