Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Austin Butler: Hollywood’s obsession with method acting is madness
Streep was miserable, Gaga distanced herself from family and friends for over a year, Will Smith ended his marriage and Austin Butler ended up in hospital. Is method acting actually a step too far?
Method acting and its merits is a topic that has long been debated amongst the Hollywood elite. Some actors swear by the technique, claiming it’s the only way for them to truly embody a role. Others have abandoned the idea after trying it and realising that the consequences far outweighed the payoff.
Deciding to live your life as someone else, if even for just a short period of time, is a huge commitment and not one to be taken lightly. According to Danish star, Mads Mikkelsen, the whole idea is “bullsh*t”.
Adding his two cents to the conversation, Mikkelsen – who achieved worldwide acclaim as Le Chiffre in the James Bond film Casino Royale – told GQ that he was not in favour of the practice at all. “Preparation, you can take into insanity,” he noted. “What if it’s a sh*t film – what do you think you achieved? Am I impressed that you didn’t drop character? You should have dropped it from the beginning! How do you prepare for a serial killer? You gonna spend two years checking it out?” he questioned, later adding that “it’s just pretentious”.
Mikkelsen thinks the media is to blame. “The media goes, ‘Oh my god, he took it so seriously, therefore he must be fantastic; let’s give him an award.’ Then that’s the talk, and everybody knows about it, and it becomes a thing,” he explained.
We’re the Millers actor, Will Poulter, also weighed in on the debate, commenting that “method acting shouldn’t be used as an excuse for inappropriate behaviour”.
“When it comes to an actor’s process, whatever that is, so long as it doesn’t infringe on other people’s and you’re being considerate, then fine. But if your process creates an inhospitable environment, then to me you’ve lost sight of what’s important. Method acting shouldn’t be used as an excuse for inappropriate behaviour – and it definitely has.”
As noted above, each of the stars most famed for their method ways, have had bad experiences… so why do so many actors continue to favour it then?
While most fans were undeniably excited to see Lady Gaga step up to the plate as the infamous Patrizia Reggiani in Ridley Scott’s recent House of Gucci, some were less so – including the former Mrs Gucci herself who didn’t hold back when it came to how she really felt about the casting. “I am rather annoyed at the fact that Lady Gaga is playing me in the new Ridley Scott film without having had the consideration and sensibility to come and meet me,” she told ANSA, an Italian wire service, back in March last year. “It is not an economic question – I won’t get a cent from the film – it is a question of good sense and respect,” she continued.
Gaga wasn’t interested in forming an opinion based on the bias of others though. “I only felt that I could truly do this story justice if I approached it with the eye of a curious woman who was interested in possessing a journalistic spirit so that I could read between the lines of what was happening in the film’s scenes,” she told British Vogue, later adding, “nobody was going to tell me who Patrizia Gucci was. Not even Patrizia Gucci.”
She didn’t meet or talk with Patrizia Gucci, nor did she read the book that the movie script was based on – The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour and Greed. “I did not want anything that had an opinion that would colour my thinking in any way,” Gaga admitted. So, she didn’t want to be influenced by the opinions of others? Fair enough.
Gaga maintains that her reasoning for not arranging a face-to-face with Patrizia goes beyond that though; it was all about being truthful. She wanted her embodiment of the story to be authentic… which seems sorta-kinda contradictory given that she didn’t meet with the very woman whose story she’s trying to tell. Patrizia is still very much alive, so the two not meeting seems like somewhat of a missed opportunity. One brief encounter would probably have saved the singer quite a lot of research – it’s hard to pick up on mannerisms and how a person carries themselves just by poring over old newspaper clippings (which is how she chose to prepare for the role).
That’s not to say that she didn’t take her involvement in the project seriously, though. Truth be told, some might say she took it a little too seriously. Not one to do things by halves, Mother Monster went full method in the run-up to the movie and actually lived as Patrizia Gucci for almost a year and a half in order to morph into the character. “I will be fully honest and transparent: I lived as [Patrizia] for a year and a half,” she confided in an interview with British Vogue. “And I spoke with an accent for nine months of that,” she said, before clarifying that this was “off-camera” and that she “never broke”. “I stayed with her,” she solemnly confirmed.
Committing to the transformation in every sense of the word, Gaga’s signature blonde locks were the first to go, with her own voice/accent the next out the door. “It was nearly impossible for me to speak in the accent as a blonde. I instantly had to dye my hair, and I started to live in a way whereby anything that I looked at, anything that I touched, I started to take notice of where and when I could see money. I started to take photographs as well. I have no evidence that Patrizia was a photographer, but I thought as an exercise, and finding her interests in life, that I would become a photographer, so I took my point-and-shoot camera everywhere that I went. I noticed that Patrizia loved beautiful things. If something wasn’t beautiful, I deleted it,” she said very matter-of-factly.
Becoming someone else inevitably takes its toll though and if she wasn’t in her Italian hotel room “living and speaking as Reggiani” (Patrizia’s maiden name), she was “on set, living and speaking as her”. “I remember I went out into Italy one day with a hat on to take a walk,” Gaga recalled. “I hadn’t taken a walk in about two months and I panicked.” She could no longer compute the real world, as British Vogue pointed out. “I thought I was on a movie set.”
Salma Hayek described Gaga’s work process as “delicious madness”. The movie itself is glitzy and glamorous, but the work that went into making it that way was not. “Very few times I have seen that level of passion with an actor,” Hayek said of her House of Gucci co-star, clearly impressed. “She really committed.” Was that difficult to work with? Surprisingly, “It was not a nightmare!” she laughed. “It was a fascinating thing. She was magical. A genius.”
A genius, perhaps. But the effects of such dedication to her craft extended beyond just Gaga herself and the process was undeniably tough for her friends and family. “There was some silence and some disconnect for a while,” as the singer-turned-actress put it. She dropped the accent as soon as filming wrapped, but other layers were harder to shed as quickly. “You end up sounding and looking like them, yes, but it’s not an imitation, it’s a becoming. I remember when we started filming, I knew I had become – and I knew that the greater challenge was going to be unbecoming,” she confessed. “That’s my own journey as an artist that I still reckon with… and I ask myself, ‘Is this healthy, the way that you do this?’ I just don’t know any other way.”
Of course, Gaga is by no means the only performer to have relied on method acting techniques and it’s a process that many others have spoken out about before – including Will Smith, who admitted to actually falling in love with former co-star Stockard Channing while shooting Six Degrees of Separation. Saying that he found himself “desperately yearning to see and speak to Stockard” even after filming had wrapped, the actor later noted that his “dangerous” method acting techniques were definitely at fault for the break-up of his first marriage. In the movie, Will plays Paul Poitier, a man who stumbles onto the doorstep of an affluent New York City couple (played by Stockard and Ian McKellen) thereby changing their lives forever.
Opening up about that time in his life in his recent memoir, Will (released last November), Smith said that he decided to stay in character even when off-set, at home with his new wife and son. “Sheree and I were in the first few months of our marriage with a brand-new baby and for Sheree, I can imagine that this experience was unsettling, to say the least,” Will reflected. “She’d married a guy named Will Smith and now she was living with a guy named Paul Poitier. And to make matters worse, during shooting I fell in love with Stockard Channing.”
Previously speaking about that particular role in a 2015 interview with Esquire, Smith said that it was a huge learning curve for him as an actor. “With Six Degrees of Separation, I got a taste early of the dangers of going too far for a character. My character was in love with Stockard Channing’s character. And I actually fell in love with Stockard Channing,” he said at the time. The consequences were too great for him to justify the reward. “That was my last experience with method acting, where you’re reprogramming your mind. You’re actually playing around with your psychology. You teach yourself to like things and dislike things,” he explained. “It is a really dangerous place when you get good at it. But once I had that experience, I was like, ‘No more method acting.’ For Six Degrees, I wanted to perform well so badly that I was spending six and seven and eight days in character before shooting, and you have to be careful with that.”
Actor Austin Butler has admitted that his commitment to morphing into the role of Elvis ultimately landed him in hospital once filming had wrapped. “You can lose touch with you actually are. And I definitely had that when I finished Elvis – not knowing who I was,” he told GQ. Which is kind of understandable when you hear how intense his research methods were. Butler read and watched and listened to everything he could. He learned how to talk and sing and move like the King of rock and roll. He turned his apartment into a detective scene with images of Elvis everywhere. He even studied animals that slightly resemble Presley – incidentally, a tactic Gaga herself also employed in the past.
By the time the project wrapped in March last year, Butler had given himself over to the role so completely that his body “revolted”. “The next day I woke up at four in the morning with excruciating pain, and I was rushed to hospital,” he revealed. He was diagnosed with a virus that simulates appendicitis and was bedridden for a week. “My body just started shutting down the day after I finished Elvis,” he admitted.
Those closest to him also noticed the change. “My family said I didn’t sound like me anymore,” Butler said. When he started filming Masters of Air over in the UK, director Cary Fukunaga said he showed up, but was still “very much Elvis”.
Meryl Streep famously said that she was “miserable” while filming The Devil Wears Prada. Why? Because her choice to stay in character as Miranda Priestly all the way through excluded her from much of the on-set cast fun. Leonardo DiCaprio finally secured his long-awaited Oscar win for The Revenant… but at what cost? Not only did he camp out in the wilderness, but he actually slept inside a dead animal carcass, insisted on eating raw bison, and went for regular swims in frozen rivers. “I can name 30 or 40 sequences that were some of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do,” he said of his experience. Again, his choice to completely embody the character didn’t just affect him though and there were several reports detailing horrific on-set conditions for crew and other cast members while filming. We’re talking freezing conditions, no luxuries, and even one actor being dragged across a blanket of ice, naked (more than once). You could write an entire article on Jim Carrey’s method acting madness for Man on the Moon alone.
Each of the actors’ commitment to their craft is evident. Agreeing to bring work home with you – often for months on end, years in Lady Gaga’s case – is not something to be taken lightly. As The Revenant director Alejandro G Inarritu once said, “it’s about incredible precision” and that, of course, is never easy. The resulting films and series that such dedication helps to create stand as proof that method acting can really work, but how far is too far? And should actors have the final say when so many others are implicated by their process?