Martin Freeman may be most famous for playing mild-mannered hobbit Bilbo Baggins, but he certainly didn’t mince words this week about fellow actor Jim Carrey.
‘Deranged’ was one word and ‘self-aggrandising, selfish and narcissistic’, and ‘pretentious nonsense’ were a few more he used to describe Carrey’s performance in the 1999 biopic Man On The Moon, in which he played the late comic actor Andy Kaufman.
However, the performance he was referring to wasn’t on screen but off it, as Carrey spent four months never breaking character while playing Kaufman — as recorded in a documentary, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, which chronicles how he tackled the role and the extent of his ‘method acting’.
Carrey insisted on always being called Andy and, most disturbingly, pretended to be him even when Kaufman’s family visited the set.
‘You need to keep grounded in reality,’ said Freeman on the podcast Off Menu, ‘because at some point someone’s going to say “Cut” and it’s no good going, “What does cut mean because I’m Napoleon?”’
Brando: Spent a month in hospital. When Marlon Brando played a psychopathic murderer in the Broadway play Truckline Cafe in 1946, at one point he needed to appear as if he had just emerged from an icy lake
He added: ‘You’re not supposed to become the f***ing character’ and said it was ‘highly amateurish’ for Carrey to have gone so far.
Freeman was hardly the first — and certainly won’t be the last — to rail against what thespians call ‘The Method’, the technique originally developed by the Russian actor/director Konstantin Stanislavski that encourages actors to fully inhabit the character they are playing.
And that has come to mean even after the cameras stop rolling. Not for nothing have method actors become the bane of directors, fellow actors and pretty much everybody else working on a film.
It tends to be American actors who embrace it and British actors who mock it. ‘Method actors give you a photo. Real actors give you an oil painting,’ chided Charles Laughton, while Sir Anthony Hopkins has called it ‘a lot of c**p’.
Method fans talk about actors losing themselves in roles to create great art, but critics counter that much of it is self-indulgent posturing aimed principally at impressing judging panels for the Oscars.
Still, it’s provided many of Hollywood’s most entertaining behind-the-scenes stories. From the puerile to the Promethean, Jim Carrey has some stiff competition . . .
Macho Marlon’s ice bucket challenge
When Marlon Brando played a psychopathic murderer in the Broadway play Truckline Cafe in 1946, at one point he needed to appear as if he had just emerged from an icy lake.
Shia LaBeouf turned up drunk each day to play an illegal whisky distiller in Lawless but that was nothing to his preparation to play a Bible-bashing member of a tank crew in the Brad Pitt World War II action film Fury
So every night, before he went on stage for that scene, Brando would run up and down the stairs until he was out of breath and then have a stagehand dump a bucket of icy water on his head.
Cast as a paraplegic war veteran in the 1950 drama The Men, Brando spent a month in bed at an army hospital, so he could learn how men coped with their disabilities.
Brando set the ball rolling for generations of realism-obsessed actors to follow suit.
He always insisted he wasn’t a method actor, but he is regarded as one of its original practitioners (alongside James Dean and Montgomery Clift).
He helped popularise the Stanislavski approach after studying at the Lee Strasberg Actors Studio in New York in the 1940s. Stella Adler, who along with Strasberg was one of method acting’s two greatest apostles, became his mentor.
Raging bull’s fight for academy award
Robert De Niro also studied under Adler and Strasberg, and he did them proud. To prepare for Taxi Driver (1976) he obtained a New York cab drivers’ licence and worked 12-hour shifts on the streets, even picking up passengers in between breaks on set.
For the 1980 boxing drama Raging Bull, in which he played the real-life middleweight champion Jake LaMotta, De Niro learned to box so well he won a couple of real fights. He also put on 70 lb to play LaMotta in later life in the film.
For the 1991 thriller, Cape Fear, De Niro paid a dentist $5,000 to grind down his teeth to make him look more terrifying as the psychopath. It cost him $20,000 afterwards to repair the damage.
Jamie Foxx had prosthetic eyelids glued over his eyes so that he couldn’t see while playing blind jazz singer-songwriter Ray Charles in the 2004 biopic Ray
Leo’s raw talent for eating bison liver
After failing to win an Oscar for years, despite being one of Hollywood’s most feted stars, Leonardo DiCaprio pulled out all the method stops for The Revenant.
The 2015 drama follows a 19th-century frontiersman’s battle to survive in sub-zero temperatures in the wilderness after he is attacked by a bear.
Despite being a vegetarian, Leo ate raw wild bison liver and even slept inside an animal carcass — an infamous scene in the film sees him slice open the belly of a freshly dead horse, pull out its innards and crawl inside to keep warm.
‘I can name 30 or 40 sequences that were some of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do,’ he boasted. It worked — he won his precious Oscar.
Heath’s month-long solo stint in hotel
Heath Ledger almost broke his hand whilst filming Brokeback Mountain (2005) after punching a wall (which wasn’t in the script) and kept his teeth clenched and face scrunched up in character for two months.
To play The Joker in his final film, The Dark Knight (2008), the Australian actor locked himself away in a London hotel room for a month, taking little more than comic books so he could immerse himself in The Joker, experiment with voices and keep a diary about how his character should behave.
During filming he slammed himself around prison cell walls so frenziedly he damaged the tiles but, when he took his make-up off, mercifully, he stopped being The Joker.
Adrien Brody certainly deserved his Oscar playing a Holocaust survivor in the 2002 wartime drama The Pianist, given the effort he put in
Joker Jared’s not so funny cast gifts
There’s obviously something about playing The Joker that particularly inspires the Method Mob. When Jared Leto played him in Suicide Squad (2016), he not only refused to answer to his real name on set but harassed fellow cast members by variously sending them used condoms, bullets, a dead pig and a live rat.
He would ring the actor playing his henchman throughout the night and spent hours watching real footage of brutal violence online. ‘The Joker is incredibly comfortable with acts of violence,’ he explained.
Jamie crossed a line on the tube
U.S. actors don’t have a monopoly on taking method acting to disturbing extremes. The Northern Irish actor Jamie Dornan, star of Fifty Shades Of Grey, admitted that to prepare for his role as a killer in the BBC thriller The Fall, he went so far as to stalk a woman on the London Underground.
‘I followed a woman off the train one day to see what it felt like to pursue someone like that,’ he said. ‘I really kept my distance . . . she got off a few stops earlier than I was planning, so I said: “Right, I have to commit to this.” I followed her around a couple of street corners and then was, like: “What are you doing?” ’ What indeed.
Oscar winner’s time as a ‘refugee’
Adrien Brody certainly deserved his Oscar playing a Holocaust survivor in the 2002 wartime drama The Pianist, given the effort he put in.
He lost 30 lb and learned to play the piano but wanted to experience the dislocation of a refugee. So he gave up his flat in the U.S., sold his car and moved to Europe with just two bags. His girlfriend wasn’t impressed and they split up.
Dustin Hoffman didn’t so much use method acting on himself but on co-star Meryl Streep while they filmed 1979 divorce drama Kramer vs Kramer
Cage’s cockroach snack on camera
Playing a vampire in the 1988 horror film Vampire’s Kiss, Nicolas Cage ate a live cockroach on camera. Reportedly, three takes were needed so he had to do it three times.
Cast as an alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas, (1995) he filmed himself drunk so he could look at how he behaved before he went on set.
In the 1984 film drama Birdy, to better understand the injured Vietnam War veteran he was playing, the notoriously eccentric actor had four teeth pulled out without anaesthetic. He then infected his face by wearing bandages on it for five weeks.
Dustin’s sleep deprivation
Dustin Hoffman didn’t so much use method acting on himself but on co-star Meryl Streep while they filmed 1979 divorce drama Kramer vs Kramer.
Before they shot a particularly dramatic scene, he slapped her across the cheek so hard he left a red mark on her face.
He also goaded her by repeatedly whispering the name of her actor boyfriend John Cazale, who had recently died. Streep went ‘absolutely white’ and told Hoffman that if he wanted to use method techniques like this one — called ‘emotional recall’ — he should use them on himself, not her.
While making the 1976 thriller Marathon Man, Hoffman lost 15 lb running four miles a day to get in shape and would run half a mile before any scene that included heavy breathing.
He once announced he’d gone without sleep for three nights to prepare for a scene in which his character had done the same. To which his co-star Laurence Olivier replied: ‘Why not try acting? It’s a lot easier.’ Hoffman insists this apocryphal story never happened but it’s too wonderful a put-down to be dismissed.
U.S. actors don’t have a monopoly on taking method acting to disturbing extremes. The Northern Irish actor Jamie Dornan, star of Fifty Shades Of Grey, admitted that to prepare for his role as a killer in the BBC thriller The Fall, he went so far as to stalk a woman on the London Underground
Shia’s smelly life on the front line
Shia LaBeouf turned up drunk each day to play an illegal whisky distiller in Lawless but that was nothing to his preparation to play a Bible-bashing member of a tank crew in the Brad Pitt World War II action film Fury.
The director David Ayer asked his cast to ‘give me everything’ and LaBeouf took it to heart. ‘So the day after I got the job, I joined the U.S. National Guard,’ he recalled. ‘I was baptised, accepted Christ in my heart . . . and became a chaplain’s assistant to Captain Yates for the 41st Infantry, I spent a month living on a forward operating base.’
LaBeouf, who curiously even had a tooth extracted for the role, then joined the rest of the crew and started filming. ‘I didn’t bathe for four months,’ he claimed. ‘I met some “tankers” who told me that was just the way it was out there — some guys had the same pair of socks on for three years.’
His drastic hygiene regimen puts to shame Halle Berry’s claim that she didn’t shower during eight weeks of filming while playing a crack addict in 1991’s Jungle Fever.
Foxx’s blind faith in method tactics
Jamie Foxx had prosthetic eyelids glued over his eyes so that he couldn’t see while playing blind jazz singer-songwriter Ray Charles in the 2004 biopic Ray.
Foxx, who had already lost nearly 30 lb to play the performer on a savage diet, agreed to be blind for the 14 hours of filming each day.
Colleagues kept forgetting he couldn’t see, leaving him alone at a table after lunch and forgetting he couldn’t find his way back to the set.
The experience was so traumatic that Foxx suffered panic attacks and claustrophobia, which held up production.
Gary’s finest hour with $30K of cigars
Another Brit who has embraced The Method, Gary Oldman helps himself tap into emotionally difficult scenes by looking into his ‘pain bag’, a collection of photos he would occasionally take on set, which includes images of his father — who left the family home when he was seven — and pictures of his son from his first marriage.
In preparing for his Oscar-winning role as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour (2017), Oldman smoked $30,000 worth of cigars and — perhaps not surprisingly — subsequently developed stomach issues.
… And bound breasts to play trans man
Most famous method actors are men. But for her astonishing, Oscar-winning role as a trans man in the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry, Swank cropped her hair, bound her breasts, stuffed socks down her trousers and lost weight so her cheeks became hollow.
Most famous method actors are men. But for her astonishing, Oscar-winning role as a trans man in the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry, Swank cropped her hair, bound her breasts, stuffed socks down her trousers and lost weight so her cheeks became hollow
During the five weeks she spent living as a man, Swank (above right with co-star Chloe Sevigny) was so convincing that her neighbours didn’t recognise her, assuming that ‘the man’ who kept coming and going was a brother or cousin.
In another Oscar-winning performance, for the 2004 sports drama Million Dollar Baby, she trained so hard — spending six days a week in the gym for three months to gain 19 lb of pure muscle — that she developed a potentially lethal staphylococcal infection but didn’t tell director Clint Eastwood as it wouldn’t have been in keeping with her gutsy character.
Daniel Day-Lewis: Asked to be fed with a spoon
The undisputed king of method actors, you name it, Daniel Day-Lewis has done it in the cause of raw authenticity.
Day-Lewis lived in the wild for six months and only ate food he could catch himself while playing a woodsman in Last Of The Mohicans (1992), spent two nights locked in a cell without sleep before being interrogated by real policemen when playing a prisoner In The Name Of The Father (1993), and built and lived in a wooden house without water or power on the set of 17th-century drama The Crucible (1996).
He caught pneumonia while filming 2002 period drama Gangs Of New York because he refused to wear modern thermal clothing.
Playing Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln in 2012, he asked British crew members not to chat to him, so it didn’t spoil his American accent, and sent text messages to co-star Sally Field in Lincoln’s archaic style. It paid off: he won a Best Actor Oscar.
However, his method acting apogee came back in 1989 with My Left Foot, in which he played a man with cerebral palsy, Christy Brown (above), and nobody was allowed to forget it. He always talked in Brown’s side-of-the-mouth drawl and insisted on going everywhere in a wheelchair, even to the car that drove him to and from the set. When filming was over, he would eat in smart restaurants — but insisted on being fed with a spoon, as Brown had to be.
Co-stars say they never knew him, just his characters. Can there be greater praise for a method actor than that?