Acting is an incredibly diverse field that requires discipline, talent, and devotion in equal measures. In the pursuit of a comprehensive skill set, you’ll run into the question: What school of acting should you focus on? If you’re thinking about learning the popular Method acting technique, you should also understand the fundamentals of how and why it’s used—including how it’s different from the technical side of acting.
But what is technical acting? Read on to discover the key to this tradition as well as the crux of the Method acting versus technical acting discussion.
“Euphoria” Credit: Eddy Chen/HBO
Technical acting is all about conveying character beats and emotions externally, as something wholly separate from yourself. Technical acting is expressive—you’re not trying to experience or live within any of your character’s emotions. Instead, you’re solely making the audience believe in the authenticity of your character.
How to act technically
Technical acting requires you to do your homework. A technical actor practices careful script analysis, interprets their character’s background and bio, and plans out their performance down to the minute details. They consider how the other characters, objects, and events of the piece affect their character on a scene-to-scene basis.
“Breaking scripts down means you don’t just do what you’re feeling; you do what the character would be doing and feeling,” says actress, producer, and acting coach Joanne Baron (“Halloween Ends,” “Euphoria”). “And if you’re doing what the character would be doing and feeling, it’s like an interpretive dance.”
Consider all the mannerisms that express who your character is—the way they walk, emote, and carry themselves, as well as their speech patterns and facial expressions. When you go through this process of particularization, you’ll develop specificity in your performance and make it more convincing.
“Casino” Courtesy Universal Pictures
As opposed to the tenants of technical acting, Method acting—or internal acting—focuses on working from the inside out. If you’re using a Method acting technique, you’re drawing on your own emotional state and infusing your performance and character with it.
“An external actor is about representing behavior. An internal actor, first and foremost, attempts to actually live through the circumstances and not anticipate what they have seen and know to be,” says actor, writer, and acting coach D.W. Brown (“The Haunting in Connecticut,” “ER”).
Early Method acting
Russian actor Konstantin Stanislavsky developed the roots of Method acting during the early 20th century. His idea was to make performances more realistic and genuine by having an actor draw on their personal memories and emotions to match the internal state of their character. Stanislavsky’s technique gained popularity and was adopted by plenty of actors over the years, most notably Polish-American actor and director Lee Strasberg, who expanded on Stanislavsky’s ideas to create the Method.
Strasberg advised actors to first relax completely by releasing tension and being fully present. By doing so, they can then tap into their own sense memories—and the feelings those memories create—and then filter them through the lens of their character. The end goal is to internally integrate yourself within the character and produce performances that come from a “real” place.
But what if you’re trying to represent a character’s emotional response to something you’ve never personally experienced? If your character is afraid of heights and preparing to go skydiving, but you’ve never been in that situation, how do you prepare?
Brown explains how he would handle the situation: “I would have to do a substitution to get myself connected emotionally, and try to genuinely elicit an emotional response from myself by saying to myself: What would be the equivalent to me? And then finding some way to connect to that substitute event.”
Misconceptions of Method acting
Certain actors, such as Robert De Niro and Jared Leto, are famous for actually going through the day-to-day lives of their characters or subjecting themselves to intense experiences to deepen their understanding of the material. A prominent example of this is when Leonardo DiCaprio swam through ice water and ate raw meat for his Oscar-winning role in “The Revenant.”
However, despite a popular conception of the technique, you don’t have to pretend to be another person at all times or put yourself through unusual circumstances to be a Method actor. Although dramatic examples tend to gain attention, they’re also not strictly necessary or even recommended. Baron insists that Method acting encompasses more than that.
“It’s using your imagination and your emotional life, and that’s a big expanse, much more than just ‘call me by the character’s name,’’ or ‘I’m just going to do a memory of my pain,’ ” she says.
While Method acting allows you to internalize the feelings and thought processes of another person, your job as an actor is to convey the right feelings at the right time. If you’re not expressing those internalized feelings so that they’re clearly readable, then it’s a redundant exercise.
“There’s a problem with thinking that acting is feeling. There are people who just do performances crying,” says Baron. “Crying is not going to hold the attention of the audience because it doesn’t tell a story.”
“The Wolf of Wall Street” Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Now that we’ve gone over technical acting and Method acting, let’s talk about what gives each an edge over the other.
Theater vs. film and TV
Method and internal actors in general are at a disadvantage onstage, where subtleties and micro-expressions are more likely to be lost on audience members.
“Theater will favor external actors because they’ll be clear,” says Brown.
“Whereas an internal actor runs the risk of just feeling the feelings, and then the audience watching it doesn’t know what’s going on.”
You can certainly still have a nuanced performance on the stage, just keep the importance of clarity in mind. By contrast, those small movements are much more discernible on the screen when you can get a close-up.
“The camera is like an MRI: It picks up the truth,” says Brown. “You can’t fake the authenticity.”
If you want your performance to be right on the money, time after time, then you want to focus on your external, technical acting. All your preparation, interpretation, and character work will pay off once you refine your movements down to a science and it can be repeated indefinitely.
While a technical actor has the edge in consistency, there isn’t any surprise factor to it. If you’re Method acting and drawing from your internal influences and engaging yourself in your character’s circumstances, you’ll create opportunities to improvise actions or dialogue. In this way, you can use Method acting to introduce your own creative decisions to a production.
Getting stuck in the role
While the commitment of Method acting has a certain allure to actors looking to fully immerse themselves in a role, becoming intimately attached to your character or drawing too deeply from your personal experiences comes with its own complications that technical actors don’t have to deal with.
Even if you’re dedicated to pulling out an incredible performance, you still have to look out for your own health. Delving repeatedly into traumatic events from your life without any safeguards is dangerous and the resulting distraction may be counterproductive to your work.
Brown offers some advice on this subject: “Some of the greatest actors have said that they find a way to ritualize their acting. So they enter in and fully commit and really act like the character, and then at the end of the day, they can take off the costume or do their incantations and relieve themselves. But it’s not a simple thing by any means.”
“The Palace” Credit: Miya Mizuno/HBO
So, who wins in the Method acting versus technical acting debate? Well, both. Or neither.
Your acting approach should be in service of the role. If you need to immerse yourself in the character and work from the inside out, then go with the Method. If you’re skilled at mimicking movements and expressions and don’t need to get too deep into the part, then technical works, too.
There are also many schools of acting that incorporate different aspects of both technical acting and Strasberg’s Method.
The Chekhov Technique avoids drawing from your own experiences and instead taps into your subconscious and imagination using what Michael Chekov called “the Psychological Gesture,” which physically embodies the objectives and subtext of a character.
The Meisner technique depends on external reactions, which typically come as a result of repetition and improvisation. Actors who study Meisner use their understanding of their character to play off other actors and situations to create performances that are true to the spontaneity of real life.
There are a multitude of techniques you can draw from to create your own unique style. Try different acting approaches and see what works best for you.
“A person who’s expressive physically and has an internal aliveness and an imaginative connectedness, these are the attributes, I think, of the superior actor,” says Baron. “[They] can feel, [they] can plan an interpretation, and [they] can live it like an accident.”