A Crash Course in Method Acting 

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A Crash Course in Method Acting 

In his recent book The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act, cultural critic and historian Isaac Butler puts together a biography of Method acting, the most famous and influential movement in performance technique of the modern era. Now Butler has collaborated with Icarus Films vice president and film curator Livia Bloom Ingram to program a retrospective series for the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) based on the book. The Method on Film presents both well-known and more obscure examples of the Method from throughout the 20th century, as well as movies that demonstrate alternate and/or contrasting styles of acting. To get a crash course in the Method and how this series came together, I sat down with Ingram and Butler over Zoom for a discussion. This interview has been condensed and edited for time and clarity.


Hyperallergic: Could you explain the origin of this series, and how it went from the book to this program?

Isaac Butler: I was watching a whole bunch of movies as part of the research process while I was living at my mother-in-law’s during the early days of COVID and she was helping us out with childcare. I tweeted about how brilliant The Pawnbroker was; I had never seen it and it was a revelation. And Livia responded that it’s one of the best cinematic representations of memory, and we just started geeking out. Even before the book was finished being written, we were talking about a film series.

Livia Bloom Ingram: I loved working with Isaac on this. It gave me a reason to revisit so many films and see them in a new light, especially some performances I hadn’t thought about in these terms — the virtuosity of what these actors were accomplishing and the techniques that led to them. Starting with Pawnbroker is a great example, because the filmmaking is great and it’s easy to get so wrapped up in it that you don’t notice what an extraordinary performance Rod Steiger gives. And as I read Isaac’s book, I learned so much about the ideas and philosophies that were underpinning a lot of these techniques.

From The Pawnbroker (1964), dir. Sidney Lumet

Hyperallergic: For those not familiar with the book, could you summarize the history it covers?

IB: The Method’s origins lie in Russia in the early 20th century with the system, which was codified by the actor, director, and impresario Konstantin Stanislavski. He was trying to figure out a way to train both the inner and outer mechanism of acting, so that actors could be inspired to give great performances on demand. The challenge for actors is that they’re both the artist and the artwork at the same time, the painter and the paint, and they have to do what they do at 8:30 pm every Wednesday or whatever.

Eventually, due to a lot of very bizarre circumstances, including World War I and the Russian Revolution and Civil War, the system made its way to the United States in the ’20s. Its home is a school called the American Laboratory Theater, where Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg, and Stella Adler all studied. Strasberg goes on to be probably the foremost American acting teacher of the 20th century, while Adler was his primary rival. Before all that, Strasberg and Clurman founded the Group Theater in ’31, which a bunch of really important people come out of — Sanford Meisner, Bobby Lewis, Elia Kazan, John Garfield. It’s this hothouse of creative ferment. After the Group Theater breaks up in ’41, all these different institutions are created by its former members. One is the Actors Studio, which Kazan, Lewis, and Cheryl Crawford founded in ’48, and then Strasberg comes aboard and becomes its head in the early 1950s. Out of that, the specific set of techniques that Strasberg pioneered, which gets called “the Method,” with a capital M, is born.

The Method is a way of unlocking the personality and idiosyncrasy of an actor and unblocking their inner mechanisms so that they can bring that to bear in entering the imagined reality of a character. Some of the very famous people who come out of this school of thought include Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Ellen Burstyn, Kim Stanley, Rod Steiger, Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward. There’s a period of time when every serious actor in America tried to study with Strasberg, Meisner, Adler, or some combo of all of them.

LBI: In terms of film history, I’m interested so much not only in the people who identify themselves as Method actors, but also those who define themselves in relation to the Method, whether it’s because they don’t like it or how it really is a benchmark by which performance in film has come to be defined. There’s the un-Method, or the non-Method.

IB: Yeah, it becomes this kind of monolith, and everything exists in relationship to it by the time you get to the New Hollywood era of the ’60s.

From A Raisin in the Sun (1961), dir. Daniel Petrie

H: The part about standing in the opposition to Method dovetails very well into my next question. What isn’t Method, especially in recent film acting?

LBI: Eating vs. not eating for a role: Where do you stand?

IB: Eat what you want; it’s fine. What’s not Method is what our culture has decided the Method is, which is what actors like Daniel Day-Lewis, Jeremy Strong, and Jared Leto do, where you try to live as your character, do this very extreme version of research, and maybe even don’t break character on set. Strong calls it ‘identity diffusion.’ You’re trying to erode the membrane between yourself and your character. There are good ways and bad ways to do that technique, but that’s not the Method. That comes from Robert De Niro, who was an Adler protege, with the incredibly in-depth research he pioneered, particularly through his work in the 1970s.

The Method is a series of exercises, techniques, and approaches that are about unlocking all the things that are particular about you. Strasberg would talk in terms of colors. If you’re both the painter and the paint, how do you get as many different colors on that palette as possible? One of his most famous techniques — and this is the thing the Method gets known for prior to De Niro — is the affective memory exercise, where you use the sensory details of past experience to enter the intense emotional states associated with that experience.

People make fun of Method actors for using the death of pets, but I recently had to put my cat down. If I wanted to use that, I wouldn’t be thinking, Oh, I had to put my cat down. Wasn’t that sad? I would think: What was the texture of the towel I held her in as I brought her into the vet’s office? Or What did the vet’s office smell like? You think about those sensory details until you find the one that triggers the emotion, and then you hold onto that and it becomes this kind of shorthand that gets you into that state. It’s like a key that unlocks a box.

LBI: One thing that’s exciting about working with Isaac on this series is that not only does he bring so much knowledge as a cultural historian and professor, but also his own experience as a director and performer. It’s amazing to have it translated into non-actor speak. The experience of putting down your cat, and I’m really sorry for your loss …

IB: It’s okay. She had a good run. She was 17.

LBI: A lot of times, socially, we try to not think about things like that. It’d be nice to be able to talk about that. We would like to forget about those experiences, ideally. It’s a different way of calling upon your past. It’s really interesting, I think, not only for actors, but as a form of work.

IB: Toward the end of his life, Strasberg started saying that maybe these ideas are even more useful outside the field of acting. How do you unblock and look at the parts of yourself that you might have hidden away in order to live your fullest life or be your most creative? That’s a very common idea now, but this was arising in the ’50s, which is America’s most repressed period of the 20th century. People were like, What the fuck is this? It was really controversial.

From A Place in the Sun (1951), dir. George Stevens

H: How did you wrangle the concept for this down to a one-week series?

LBI: We wound up breaking it into three parts. TCM did a short program over just two days in June, that was the first part. BAM is doing this mid-length one. And then later in the year will come a streaming version on Criterion Channel. So we were able to think about it in terms of different sets, and of course Isaac’s book itself is also an important component.

IB: I felt this was also an opportunity to get to screen some movies I didn’t really have space to talk about in the book. Livia and I are both huge fans of Five Easy Pieces. It’s one of the great American films, but basically unmentioned in my book, because there was just no room for it. These programs all exist in these complementary forms. There’s the book, which talks about certain films, there’s this film series, which fills it out in some ways, and there’s the Criterium one, which fills it out in others.

LBI: It was exciting to think about the non-Method and the proto-Method. Anna Lucasta is a way of showing alternatives and other forms of thinking through these same performance questions and coming to different results. The Method wasn’t the only game in town. We included a Yiddish film and two early Russian films, and those wouldn’t traditionally be considered Method. There are two versions of The Queen of Spades, based on a Pushkin novella, which was adapted into a short film in 1910 and then a feature in 1916. You can see and think about what acting was before, and how it evolves.

IB: One of the actors in the 1916 version of The Queen of Spades is the guy from the Kuleshov experiments [Ivan Mosjoukine].

LBI: It was also important to us that all these films could stand on their own and are terrific to watch in and of themselves. And then also in this context, they’re really interesting objects of study.

IB: One of the fun things was to figure out a narrative. If you arrange the films chronologically, what’s the story you get? I also have to say, I’m excited about the live TV stuff. For years, if someone wasn’t pointing a kinescope or a 16mm camera at a monitor, that work didn’t survive.

LBI: Yeah, we found rare work that we’re premiering here.

IB: The Actors Studio was at the forefront of live TV drama. A lot of people don’t know about this, including former members of the Studio I talked to.

LBI: They won the first Peabody Award for television for their first season.

IB: We think of the golden age of the live TV drama as the early ’50s, but that show ran in the late ’40s. The holy grail is Marlon Brando’s episode, which is lost. Only two episodes that we know of survive, one of which we’re showing. It’s called “Joe McSween’s Atomic Machine,” and it’s basically a satiric proto-Twilight Zone episode. The other one is a Christmas episode, and I don’t know, we’re Jews, I didn’t want to do a Christmas episode, I guess. So instead we’re pairing “Joe McSween” with “A Young Lady of Property,” which stars Kim Stanley, who’s one of the greatest actresses of the 20th century, but made very few movies. Her great legacy is in live TV drama.

LBI: The inclusion of TV also speaks to the Method’s roots in the theater. You can really look at these like theater performances, not cinema.

H: Right. Because the Method follows a trajectory from theater to TV, then from TV to film.

IB: Yes, exactly. I also want to shout out Symbiopsychotaxiplasm. I had seen it a couple times, because it’s a groundbreaking documentary, but what I hadn’t known until I did this research is that the director, William Greaves, was a big mover and shaker at the Actors Studio. He actually moderated sometimes — they call the teachers moderators. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is the Method pushed to its most experimental. Greaves keeps trying to capture real life over and over again in this weird obsessive way. And The Pawnbroker, one of the great performances of the 20th century is in that movie. And Sydney Lumet, who directed it, was also a student of Strasberg’s at the Actors Studio. It wasn’t just actors there, but writers and directors as well.

From A Sreetcar Named Desire (1951), dir. Elia Kazan

H: The book is structured as a biography of the Method itself. First it takes place in Russia with the development of the system, then it travels to America as the system does and becomes the Method. It’s mostly focused on the US. How has the Method affected acting styles in other countries? Obviously, ‘the rest of the world’ is a big subject.

IB: Again, the book could only be so long. I was more interested in a story I could tell in a coherent self-contained way. Stanislavski made this kind of deal with the Devil, with Stalin, towards the end of his life, and the result was that the system became the basis of acting in the Soviet Union. It’s still the basis of acting training in Russia today. There’s also Stanislavski-based acting teaching in the UK. It’s not the dominant mode, but there are schools for it there. There are Method schools in the UK too, actually. But primarily there, and in a lot of continental Europe, you’re looking at kind of classical technique that’s much more externally focused. And it varies country to country. There’s been a big rivalry since the 1950s between British actors and American actors that continues to this day.

The interesting thing, and I think I say this at the end of the book, is that regardless of the approach, the stylistic end result is far more similar to American acting than it is to the likes of John Gielgud, right. UK actors now are much more like American actors. We sort of won the stylistic battle for now, whether we won the technical battle or not. These are big pendulum shifts. I’m sure it’ll eventually shift in another direction. It is interesting that once you have a new idea of how acting works and what it should be, it ends up kind of clarifying all the other concepts it comes into contact with. Once you have a rivalry, opposition tends to clarify things.

The Method on Film runs July 22-29 at Brooklyn Academy of Music (30 Lafayette Ave, Brooklyn). The kickoff screening of A Streetcar Named Desire on July 22 will be accompanied by a book reading and signing by Isaac Butler.

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