Why do we excuse abuse when it's called 'method acting'?

Actors on film sets have often abused people under the guise of method acting – and are frequently rewarded for it. Roe McDermott looks at the gendered nature of method acting and how it relies on us seeing cruelty as a necessary price to pay for male creative genius


How often do we excuse cruelty and abuse in the name of male genius?

Thanks to the #MeToo movement, this is a question many people have been asking, as men who have been accused or found guilty of sexual abuse have been protected and celebrated for decades (Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen), and men who have more recently been accused of or have admitted to sexual harassment or abuse are already making a comeback (Casey Affleck, Louis C.K., Mel Gibson - excuse me if I don’t say “Welcome back.”)

Abusive men have always been, and continue to be, protected in our society because we prioritise them and their work over the humanity of women. But what happens when cruelty is not just tolerated and enabled, but declared to be an integral part of male creative genius?

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To answer, we need to discuss the deeply gendered nature of method acting, and how it enables abusive men.

Method acting can be traced back to early 20th-century teachings of the Russian theatrical realist Konstantin Stanislavski, and Lee Strasberg, known as the father of method acting in Hollywood. Traditional method techniques encouraged actors to draw on their own experience and emotions to give an authentic performance. However, modern interpretations more commonly focus on actors replicating the external conditions of their character to understand their internal emotional state.

For example, Christian Bale starved himself and went for days without sleep to play an insomniac in The Machinist. Leonardo DiCaprio ate wild bison liver and slept in animal carcasses to play a hardened frontiersman in The Revenant. Anne Hathaway lost 25 pounds and cut off her hair to play a destitute sex worker in Les Miserables. Hillary Swank trained extensively to play a boxer in Million Dollar Baby, sustaining multiple injuries. During the filming of The Crucible, Daniel Day-Lewis built his own 17th century house with tools from the era and lived without running water or electricity.

But then. Then there are actors whose version of method acting goes beyond training, physically transforming or even inflicting discomfort on themselves - and actually harms other people. And, unsurprisingly, this form of method acting is only tolerated and encouraged in men.

Abuse disguised as method acting

On the set of Suicide Squad, Jared Leto decided to embody The Joker’s crazed cruelty 24/7, which included harassing his co-stars. Leto openly bragged in interviews about how he sent Margot Robbie and Viola Davis live rats, used condoms and anal beads. But instead of a being slapped with a sexual harassment lawsuit, he was enabled onset and applauded for his commitment to the characters.

While playing a serial killer in The Fall, Jamie Dornan decided that the best way to understand his character would be to actually stalk random women, proudly recounting in interviews how he selected a woman and followed her home one evening. Because stalking random women is completely justifiable if you’re “in character”, even if the woman can’t tell the difference.

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While filming the divorce drama Kramer Vs. Kramer, Dustin Hoffman not only emotionally abused co-star Meryl Streep on set, whispering the name of her recently deceased boyfriend before scenes to create tension, but he also physically assaulted her. He slapped Streep hard across the face without her consent, and threw a wine glass past her head so that it smashed, leaving shards of glass in her hair. Hoffman was rewarded with the Oscar for Best Actor.

These are just a few examples among countless – actors such as Shia LaBoeuf, Vincent Donofrio, Judd Nelson have also abused and harassed co-stars in the name of method acting. And the amount of “method directors” who have abused their actors to provoke a particular performance is also extensive. Alfred Hitchcock. Lars Von Trier, Gaspar Noe, Stanley Kubrick, David O’Russell, and Quentin Tarantino have all famously emotionally abused or even physically injured their actors – only to receive widespread acclaim.

Though this abuse does not exclusively target women, it frequently does – and can involve sexual harassment or violence. Maria Schneider, the lead actress in Last Tango In Paris, recently revealed how director Bernardo Bertolucci and co-star Marlon Brando conspired to violate her onscreen. An infamous scene where her character is anally raped involved Brando applying butter to her genitals as lubricant – an act that Brando and Bertolucci agreed on without informing Schneider, and which Brando did to her without her consent.  Bertolucci said he “wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress.” Schneider said “I was crying real tears. I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci.”

In their supposed pursuit of “authenticity”, men can not only abuse women and walk away with their reputation intact – or even enhanced – but the long-term impact on the victims involved, personally and professionally, is largely ignored. For so many abusers, the trauma experienced by their victims is justified as a means to a creative end.

The gendered difference in being labelled 'difficult' 

That these abusive method actors and directors are all men is not a coincidence. While many actresses have notably studied method acting, including Marilyn Monroe, Ellyn Burstyn, Sally Fields and Jane Fonda, their approach never called for them to abuse anyone. For a woman in Hollywood, to do so wouldn’t be rewarded, it would be punished – swiftly.

This gender imbalance is supported by the huge chasm between what a man needs to do be declared too difficult or disrespectful to work with (we’re all still waiting to discover that limit), and how little it takes for a woman to be declared so.  Katherine Heigl’s career was essentially demolished for years when she was declared “difficult” for accurately pointing out sexist stereotypes in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, and critiquing the writing of her character on one season of Grey’s Anatomy. Actress and comedian Monique has said she has been “blackballed” and “blacklisted” by several directors for speaking openly about gender pay gaps.

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Actresses who express opinions about their work are declared “difficult” and are punished, but actors who abuse, harass and assault people in the name of their work are declared geniuses, risk-takers, provocateurs, enfant terribles. This is systemic sexism, and needs to stop.

It’s time to look closely at the gendered nature of method acting and how it often enables sexism, cruelty and the exploitation of power. The path to men’s “creative genius” is often built over the victims of their abuse. No more.

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