As respected as it is ridiculed and often misunderstood, method acting—or, simply, the Method—is one of the most well-known performance techniques in the world. Here’s how the immersive approach to character creation stacks up against other styles.
“Elvis” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
Method acting is when a performer attempts to fully immerse themself into the life, mind, and circumstances of the character they’re playing. The origins of the Method can be traced back to legendary Russian theater practitioner Konstantin Stanislavsky, but it was Polish-American acting guru Lee Strasberg who perfected the technique and popularized its concepts. Strasberg believed that by becoming blank slates and then focusing on sense memory that drew from their own personal experiences, actors could generate more authentic and believable performances.
At the 2022 Golden Globe Awards, Austin Butler won best actor in a drama motion picture for his portrayal of Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis.” During Butler’s acceptance speech, spectators noticed Butler still speaks with the voice he used in the film. “I wanted my instincts to become as close to Elvis’ instincts as I could get them,” Butler told us. “That way, there wasn’t a moment on set where, suddenly, Austin’s instincts come out.”
Evidently, Butler’s intense preparation yielded good results—but it came at a cost. “What you saw in that Golden Globes speech, that’s him. It’s genuine, it’s not put on,” Butler’s voice coach Irene Bartlett told ABC Gold Coast shortly after the ceremony. She added that Butler could continue to speak like Elvis “forever.”
With the merits and potential drawbacks of method acting in mind, let’s take a look at how it compares to some other acting styles that new and early-career actors might want to consider.
Natural acting is a nebulous term that is difficult to define. In brief, it involves an actor attempting to portray a character as if the character were a real person and not just a figment of a writer’s imagination. If you’ve ever felt disconnected from a TV show, play, or movie because one of the actors was trying too hard, you’ve likely witnessed the opposite of a natural acting performance. Actors may decide to employ method acting in order to ensure their performance comes across as natural as possible, but it’s certainly not the only (or even the best) way to generate a natural performance.
To say an actor is a “natural” can also mean that they are naturally gifted, with an innate ability to drop into their character, and a devoted deep dive into any technique simply isn’t necessary. Natural acting allows room for improvisation, and a character’s performance doesn’t have to be too far from their real-life persona. These days, natural acting brings to mind subtle performances in slice-of-life indie films. “American Honey” director Andrea Arnold discovered star Sasha Lane on a beach during Spring Break, and the newcomer’s authenticity is key to the film’s ambience.
“Pam & Tommy” Courtesy Hulu
Method acting requires a large amount of emotional investment from an actor and can sometimes take a toll on the actor’s mental state—not to mention on their costars. Sebastian Stan was lauded for his performance as Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee in Hulu’s “Pam & Tommy,” which he was able to pull off without method acting.
“I don't believe in creating chaos for the purposes of [acting],” Stan said of method acting during a 2022 episode of In the Envelope. “And I know actors do that a lot. There's a lot of people that do that...create sort of chaos on set or chaos in the other people they're working with in order to somehow give the scene this tension.”
By comparison, technical actors choose to approach their roles from a foundation of disciplined study and observance of the formal aspects of acting. If they’re serious about their work, there will, of course, still be some emotional investment, but the load is far lighter than that of their method acting counterparts. Technical acting was originally developed for the stage so that even audience members in the very back of an ancient Greek amphitheater could follow the action on stage. Highly formal, technical acting is less subtle and less personal than method acting. It lends itself well to live performance, whereas method acting is better suited to film.
If the method actor’s goal is to convince themself that they are the character they’re portraying, the technical actor’s goal is simply to convince the audience. By attempting to embody their character fully, the method actor is trying to accomplish the same goal as the technical actor, but the technical actor hopes to do so without having to sacrifice too much of their own psyche.
“The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” Courtesy Sony Pictures Releasing
Character acting demands that a performer push themself out of their comfort zone beyond their typical habits and mannerisms. The actor “transforms” into the character they’re playing, a stark contrast from their offscreen persona. Rather than playing around with improvisation or living as themselves in an imaginary world, character actors rely on intense script analysis to craft their interpretations of their characters, making specific choices to portray the roles such as altering their appearance, lowering their voice several octaves, or adopting accents. “The requirements of creating a character will impact every aspect of a performance, from the way an actor walks to the way he speaks to the way he expresses emotions,” writes actor-producer Joanne Baron.
For example, Rupert Grint notes that his years spent playing Ron Weasley in the “Harry Potter” franchise often felt like he was playing shades of himself. But when it came time to play a wider range of roles, he found that adopting specific character traits was key.
“Going on and playing different characters, it’s very different. For me, it’s always about finding the physicality,” the actor told us. “I always give every character I do a weird, specific walk—not that you’d ever notice it. It’s just a slightly different way of holding yourself. I always find that’s a really good way of grounding you in that character.”
“Marathon Man” Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Similar to character acting, classical acting requires the performer to “stick to the script”—it’s all about precision, control, and exactness. An actor who is classically trained will be taught to always memorize all of their lines and never deviate from the script. Most often associated with Shakespearean performance, classical acting has its roots in British theater. Originally developed for the stage, classical acting focuses more on the actions in a script and less on the emotions they might inspire. This is not to say that classical acting is boring or strictly for the stage—we often see classically trained actors (usually British) bringing their thorough training to the screen to great success. If the film is a period piece, for example, a classical acting style evocative of the time and place would make for the best performance.
When it comes to comparing the technique to method acting, there’s an oft-repeated anecdote from the set of the 1976 thriller “Marathon Man.” In the film, famously method actor Dustin Hoffman played the foil to legendary thespian Sir Laurence Olivier, who was nominated for an Oscar for his sinister portrayal of a Nazi war criminal. As Hoffman tells it, he arrived to set one day visibly exhausted and explained to Olivier that he had deprived himself of sleep in order to better portray his frantic character. “My dear boy,” Olivier replied, “why don’t you just try acting?”
“House of Gucci” Courtesy United Artists Releasing
Developed by American acting teacher Sanford Meisner, the Meisner technique is a more altruistic form of training than method acting. While method actors focus on their own performance, Meisner’s technique encourages actors to be more aware of their scene partners. Like Strasberg, Meisner was inspired by Stanislavsky, but Meisner and Strasberg ultimately arrived at different conclusions. The Meisner technique is less theoretical than method acting, as the training involves a series of well-defined exercises that are designed to build trust and chemistry between actors. Meisner’s exercises, such as the famous Repetition Exercise, also encourage improvisation and spontaneity.
Meisner believed that an actor could not give an authentic performance as a character if they had yet to embrace themself as a person. “To be an interesting actor, you must be authentic. For you to ever be authentic, you must embrace who you really are,” he told his students.
For an up-and-coming actor, it’s normal to be focused on your own performances and trust that your scene partners can look after themselves, so there’s no shame in choosing to ignore Meisner’s teachings—but if chemistry is high on the list of things that are important to you, it’s certainly worth a try.
“Suicide Squad” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
By developing concepts that would eventually revolutionize the acting profession, Konstantin Stanislavsky earned his reputation as the father of modern acting. Before him, the vast majority of acting was what we now call classical acting. It was more of a science than an art form. The vast majority of actors would simply learn their lines and deliver them on stage in a theatrical manner.
Stanislavsky developed methods and psychological exercises that were designed to help performers give more convincing performances by fully embodying a character, imagining and adopting the character’s traits and mannerisms in the process. Stanislavsky believed actors should be vessels for their characters, and it’s easy to see why both Meisner and Strasberg were influenced by him. Method acting as we know it would not exist without Stanislavsky’s teachings, but in his later years, he advocated for a balance between external and internal preparation.
Some of the core elements of Stanislavsky’s technique are:
- Given circumstances: These are all the details of the situation your character finds themself in. Essentially, they are the answers to the 5 W questions: Who, when, where, what, and why?
- Objective: This is what your character wants in each scene
- Super-objective: This is your character’s primary motivation; the thing they want more than anything else. The super-objective is the backbone to their actions, decisions, and objectives
- The magic “if”: This concept tasks actors with putting themselves in their character’s shoes and asking themselves what they would do in those given circumstances
Acting is, of course, a subjective art form, and each performer’s mind is wired differently. Some actors may find that the Method is the only way they are able to generate effective performances, whereas others would never dream of resorting to something so mentally draining. Thankfully, none of the aforementioned techniques and methods are mutually exclusive, and budding actors should expect to undertake some trial and error in their mission to find what style suits them best. When in doubt, remember the words of Stanislavsky himself: “Create your own method. Don’t depend slavishly on mine. Make up something that will work for you! But keep breaking traditions, I beg you.”