Method acting — a controversial acting approach that has been highly discussed in Hollywood for decades.
By definition, it’s an acting technique when an actor aspires to complete emotional identification with a role or character for a project. But throughout the years, it has been a divisive topic with industry veterans on either side of the debate.
Director, actor and acting coach Lee Strasberg, dubbed the “father of method acting,” was always open about his approval of the technique. He often theorized that it was important for an actor to have a connection between their own real-life experiences as humans and that of their characters.
On the other side, some actors have expressed aversion to the acting approach. Most recently, Succession star Brian Cox blasted the idea of totally immersing oneself in a performance to the point of obsession. He said at the time, “I don’t hold a lot of the American shit, having to have a religious experience every time you play a part. It’s crap.”
But, no matter where one stands on the debate, actors are always testing out new techniques, even if it’s not going full method. Jennifer Lawrence, for example, has previously said she is quite apprehensive about method, but opened up about her how her techniques as an actress have changed throughout her career after working with fellow stars such as Christian Bale, who has been known to embrace the intense acting method.
Below, The Hollywood Reporter has compiled a list of actors and actresses who have taken on the immersive acting approach at some point during their career.
Throughout his decades-long career, Al Pacino has been notoriously known to really immerse himself in the roles he takes on. Specifically, in 1992’s Scent of a Woman, the actor played a blind man, Lt. Col. Frank Slade. To prepare to take on the character, Pacino reportedly asked for advice from the sight impaired, as well as attended a school for the blind. Before filming began, he also started living his daily life as if he had lost sight, even asking the crew once he was on set to continue to treat him as if he were a blind person.
In 2021, Jeremy Strong, who plays Kendall Roy in Succession, opened up in a profile for The New Yorker about his immersive acting approach for many of the roles he has taken on. Although he doesn’t consider himself a method actor, Strong told the outlet, “I think you have to go through whatever the ordeal is that the character has to go through.” And he has done just that — in The Trial of the Chicago 7, Strong asked the stunt coordinator to rough him up as well as be sprayed with real tear gas for his role as Jerry Rubin. In Armageddon Time, he shadowed a real handyman for research for his role as Irving Graff, and in The Judge, Strong played Dale Palmer, a man who is mentally disabled. For the part, he spent time with a person who is autistic, as well as requesting personalized props that weren’t in the script.
Throughout his career, Jared Leto has never shied away from extreme acting techniques to help get him into character. In 2017’s Suicide Squad, to help channel the Joker, he reportedly pulled some pranks on his co-stars, including gifting Margot Robbie a real rat. In 2022’s Morbius, director Daniel Espinosa said between takes, Leto either used his character’s crutches or a wheelchair to go to the restroom, causing the crew to wait longer before resuming filming. The actor has also been known to lose or gain weight for certain roles he has taken on.
Robert De Niro
Robert De Niro could possibly go down as one of the most famous method actors in the industry. Some of his most memorable projects where he took on the immersive acting approach include 1976’s Taxi Driver, where he reportedly worked for hours as a cab driver to study their behavior and lost 30 pounds in weight. A few years later, in 1980’s Raging Bull, the actor allegedly weight trained extensively to take on the role of toned boxer Jake LaMottal.
Christian Bale has gone to great lengths for roles, including changing his weight drastically. He not only altered his physique for The Fighter and American Hustle and to play Bruce Wayne in the Batman trilogy, but he also reportedly lost nearly 70 pounds for his performance as insomniac Trevor Reznik in 2004’s The Machinist as well as slept only two hours a night. But he pushed himself so hard for the role that he put his health at risk and had to pull back some.
Lady Gaga has been publicly open about the acting technique she used to commit to her character as Patrizia Reggiani in 2021’s House of Gucci. During a previous interview with British Vogue, the actress-singer revealed she spent nine months speaking in an Italian accent, even off-camera, and lived as her character day-to-day for a year and a half. Gaga also admitted that she “had some psychological difficulty at one point towards the end of filming” as she started adjusting back to her normal life.
Austin Butler went all in to channel the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll for Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis. During an interview last year, the actor revealed that he didn’t see his family for three years while filming the 2022 movie, saying he even went months when he didn’t talk to anyone. Butler added that when he did speak with his family and friends, he never left character. “When I did, the only thing I was ever thinking about was Elvis,” he said. “I was speaking in his voice the whole time.”
After taking on the intense acting approach, Butler admitted that it took a toll on him. “You can lose touch with who you actually are,” he said. “And I definitely had that when I finished Elvis — not knowing who I was.”
Hilary Swank also has fully dedicated herself to some of her roles. While now she admits that a transgender man should have played her role in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry, at the time, she bandaged her chest, deepened her voice and lost weight to portray her character in the most authentic way. A few years later, in 2004’s Million Dollar Baby, she altered her body again, gaining nearly 20 pounds of muscle while training like a professional boxer for her role as Maggie Fitzgerald. While training, she reportedly contracted a staph infection from a blister on her foot.
In 2019’s Joker, Joaquin Phoenix was nothing but committed to his role as Gotham’s troubled clown. He told the Associated Press that he lost 52 pounds of weight for the character, which ended up impacting his mental health. “Once you reach the target weight, everything changes,” he said at the time. “Like so much of what’s difficult is waking up every day and being obsessed over like 0.3 pounds. Right? And you really develop like a disorder. I mean, it’s wild.”
He continued, “But I think the interesting thing for me is what I had expected and anticipated with the weight loss was these feelings of dissatisfaction, hunger, a certain kind of vulnerability and a weakness. But what I didn’t anticipate was this feeling of kind of fluidity that I felt physically. I felt like I could move my body in ways that I hadn’t been able to before. And I think that really lent itself to some of the physical movement that started to emerge as an important part of the character.”
Although she had experience with ballet as a child, Natalie Portman went several steps further when preparing for her role in 2010’s Black Swan. Before filming, she reportedly trained several hours a day with a professional dancer as well as swimming and cross-training. She also limited how much she ate, which led to her losing 20 pounds of weight. “I was barely eating, I was working 16 hours a day. I was almost method acting without intending to. I do wonder now how people can do this kind of role when they have a family,” she told the Daily Mail. “It was more difficult than anything I’ve ever experienced before. I like to go home and be myself, but with this one I didn’t get the chance. It didn’t leave me.”
Daniel Day-Lewis has never failed to fully commit to a role, staying in character for months to get the full effect. Most notably, in 1989’s My Left Foot, the actor, who played Christy Brown, a writer and painter who was born with cerebral palsy and could only use his left foot, not only spent time in a cerebral palsy clinic but reportedly had crew members carry him around on set and feed him food. Day-Lewis also remained in a wheelchair throughout filming for the movie.
Jared Leto and Joaquin Phoenix aren’t the only actors to take on the immersive acting approach for their roles as the infamous manic clown. Heath Ledger, who played Joker, Batman’s most notorious villain in 2008’s The Dark Knight, reportedly locked himself away from others for a month and kept a diary during pre-production to fully dive into the character. The Hollywood Reporter also previously reported that Ledger experimented with different vocal tones for the character as well as started to adopt certain mannerisms by the end that were actually a part of the Joker. Christian Bale also has said that Ledger asked him to hit him for real to make the interrogation scene in the film more authentic. Ledger died in January 2008 before The Dark Knight was released.
When taking on the role of Andy Kaufman in the 1999 biopic Man on the Moon, Jim Carrey went to great lengths to portray the legendary comedian accurately. He reportedly stayed in character the entire time while filming the movie, on and off set, even insisting crew members refer to him as Andy or as Tony when he was taking on the persona of Kaufman’s Tony Clifton character.
Charlize Theron isn’t a top name that comes to mind when one thinks of method actors because, in recent years, she has been outspoken about her aversion to the acting technique. But Theron did take on the intense approach for 1997’s The Devil’s Advocate because she said the director was a fan of method acting and encouraged the cast to stay in character throughout filming. But it wasn’t the most positive experience for her, as she has described it as being tiresome and challenging.
“I can’t do the method thing,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2020. “I did it once, for Devil’s Advocate, and I was just exhausted. It was really hard to go to those deep, dark places because I was so tired. It was good for me to figure this out, and I am much better now at understanding and living and breathing in the moment with the character.”
To embody his performance as Ugandan president/dictator Idi Amin for 2006’s The Last King of Scotland, Forest Whitaker reportedly spent months preparing for the role. Not only did he gain more than 30 pounds, but he also immersed himself in the culture by living in Uganda, meeting friends, family members and victims as well as learning how to speak Swahili. Once filming began, Whitaker stayed in character the entire time so he wouldn’t lose Amin’s dialect.
Leonardo DiCaprio has taken on countless roles, but none of them could compare to what he went through for 2015’s The Revenant. To take on the role of Hugh Glass, the actor camped out in the wilderness in freezing temps, slept in animal carcasses and ate raw bison. “I can name 30 or 40 sequences that were some of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do,” he told Yahoo Entertainment that year. “Whether it’s going in and out of frozen rivers, or sleeping in animal carcasses, or what I ate on set. [I was] enduring freezing cold and possible hypothermia constantly.”
Following the film’s debut, The Hollywood Reporter also learned how the shoot became a “living hell,” with some veteran crewmembers saying filming was one of the worst experiences of their careers.
Adrien Brody dedicated himself to the demanding role of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish-Jewish pianist and survivor of the Holocaust, for 2002’s The Pianist. To prepare for the part, the actor reportedly sold several of his belongings, leaving only the fundamental items, and separated himself from public life. Brody also reportedly took on an intense diet and lost 30 pounds to try and comprehend Szpilman’s experience with starvation. And he spent hours a day practicing the piano. After filming was complete, Brody allegedly struggled to return to his daily life and take on other projects.
When Jamie Foxx portrayed blind blues musician Ray Charles in the 2004 biopic Ray, the actor went to great lengths for the role. He told The New York Times that he followed a strict diet and workout regimen and lost 30 pounds to play Charles, who died from liver disease earlier that year. But that wasn’t all: Director Taylor Hackford also asked Foxx to have his eyes glued shut and wear prosthetics of damaged eyelids, modeled from Charles’. Foxx admitted that he suffered panic attacks due to the claustrophobic feeling, but eventually adapted to it. “Imagine having your eyes glued shut for 14 hours a day,” Foxx told the outlet at the time. “That’s your jail sentence.”
Val Kilmer was very serious about his role as musician Jim Morrison in 1991’s The Doors. While filming the biopic, which followed the rock band’s frontman’s journey to fame, the actor reportedly was so committed to his character that he had crew members call him Jim. Kilmer also learned most of the singer-songwriter’s music catalog and put in 100 hours of research. Following the movie’s release, he allegedly went to therapy to help move past the character.
Meryl Streep is known for adapting to many different types of characters over her decades-long career in the industry. But after committing to method acting for her role as Miranda Priestly in 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada, she admitted that she has forgone the acting technique. She remained in character as the evil boss the entire time while filming, but later opened up about how miserable she was on set.
“It was horrible! I was [miserable] in my trailer. I could hear them all rocking and laughing. I was so depressed! I said, ‘Well, it’s the price you pay for being boss!’” Streep told Entertainment Weekly in 2021. “That’s the last time I ever attempted a method thing!”
Andrew Garfield has been publicly outspoken about his support for the controversial acting approach. He himself went method to play a 17th-century Jesuit priest in 2016’s Silence. He has previously revealed that, for six months, he abstained from sex and also fasted to lose weight for the part.
“I had an incredibly spiritual experience. I did a bunch of spiritual practices every day, I created new rituals for myself. I was celibate for six months, and fasting a lot, because me and Adam [Driver] had to lose a bunch of weight anyway,” he said on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast in 2022. “It was very cool, man. I had some pretty wild, trippy experiences from starving myself of sex and food at that time.”