What is Method Acting?

Garry Crystal

Method acting, or as it is sometimes simply known, the Method, is a technique used by actors. It is thought to have revolutionized acting as we known it today. It is the antithesis of the wooden actor and uses techniques such as sense and memory to achieve realism in acting. Actors who use the Method rely on using their own emotions from their past in order to bring new depth to a part.

Many movie stars spend months trying to get into the mindset of their character before filming.
Many movie stars spend months trying to get into the mindset of their character before filming.

Method acting is thought of as an American form of acting, but it was a Russian theatre director named Konstantin Stanislavski who wrote books on the subject in the 1930s. Around the same time, one of Stanislavski’s students, Richard Boleslawsky, opened an acting school in New York. Boleslawsky began teaching Stanislavski’s basic principles of acting.

A postage stamp with a portrait of Constantin Stanislavski, the creator of the Stanislavski method of acting.
A postage stamp with a portrait of Constantin Stanislavski, the creator of the Stanislavski method of acting.

In the 1940s and 50s, method acting was popularized and taught at the legendary Actors' Studio in New York City by famed acting teacher Lee Strasberg. Another school in New York, called the Actors' Group, also taught the method under the coaching of Stella Adler. Acting students came from far and wide to learn this new technique.

Marilyn Monroe studied method acting under Paula Strasberg.
Marilyn Monroe studied method acting under Paula Strasberg.

Popularity of the Method grew with the work of actors such as Marlon Brando and James Dean. Their style of acting, or non-acting, was considered a breakthrough in the acting world. Compared to old style actors such as Clark Gable, theirs was an acting of previously unseen raw emotion and sensitivity. Other famous actors who have studied the Method are Al Pacino, Paul Newman and Robert DeNiro.

Method acting uses techniques such as sense and memory to achieve realism in acting.
Method acting uses techniques such as sense and memory to achieve realism in acting.

Method acting is thought to one of the most difficult techniques to learn; there are no technical forms or lessons that can be practiced to learn it. There are numerous versions of the Method, taught by different teachers. The initial approach was to recall a past experience and immerse oneself in the emotion of that experience so as to apply it to the scene presently being undertaken.

Method acting requires the use of real emotions.
Method acting requires the use of real emotions.

Stella Adler, who taught method acting to both Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro, studied this technique with Stanislavski. She took a different approach though. She asked students to use their imagination to get into the mind of the character and adopt the emotions that the character would have. By doing this, actors could harness real emotions in portraying their characters.

Workshops can help aspiring actors learn different ways to method act.
Workshops can help aspiring actors learn different ways to method act.

Although method acting is thought to be the most realistic of techniques it can sometimes present a minor irritation to other actors. Dustin Hoffman once went without bathing and sleeping for two days in order to immerse himself in a role. On seeing Hoffman’s condition, Laurence Olivier his co-star in the film, famously asked him, "Why don’t you just act?"

Wigs and costumes may help method actors get into a role.
Wigs and costumes may help method actors get into a role.

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Discussion Comments


What is the hofmann method?


I believe that the great Rohan Alaquawinsa was the sensei of method or method acting to you beginners in the field.


Any acting is a lie - pretending. The story or the theme is all important and actors must be able to pretend to perfection in order to make the story alive, almost real, enjoyable and sometimes a learning experience.


I found everyone's comments to be highly interesting, but if I may, many facts are not grounded in theoretical research. Method acting was never created by Konstantin Stanislavski. He created what was known as the System, which, although it encouraged actors to draw from sense memory - among many other techniques -- it always worked towards the key principle of all acting: action gives rise to emotion (Method acting does the opposite).

The reason why method acting was so good in its day (up until the 1970s) was because of the great impact World Wars I and II (primarily) had on films. Audiences no longer wanted to see the fairy tale happy endings; they wanted truth and raw emotions to surface and that's where Marlon Brando, James Dean and other Method actors surfaced, tackling just that. The Method isn't bad, just harmful to an actor because you must understand that as an actor, you would literally do all those things your character would in order to find the truth. You would take the character home with you instead of properly de-roleing and allow the illusion of becoming the character to manifest (never going to happen because you will always be present in your own performance).

Although much of this seems honourable, imagine seeing a bunch of actors racing after innocent people with guns and knives (lame example, I know) because they are preparing to understand how murderers think and act at all costs. Or worse, drug abuse, self-mutilation; the list is endless. The point is, this is not acting, this is unprofessional and harmful to the actor or actress. By reading the works of Lee Strasberg and Konstantin Stanislavski, as well as work journal articles and dissertations based on these concepts, I've been able to understand them more objectively and encourage everyone interested in these topics to do the same.

I really hope I didn't offend anyone by posting this comment. I just feel that an informed reader is a powerful thinker.


Did you know the guy who played the Joker and killed himself was a method actor? The reason he killed himself was he got depressed, just like his character.


Seems to me the guy who Dustin Hoffman was acting with was a little bit jealous about his drive and dedication to the character. Absolutely, it's important to immerse yourself into the character. Treat the character as as living thing and become it.


Method acing has become the primary teaching tool in the united states because it lets actors masturbate emotionally and that feels good. Ask any psychiatrist and they will tell you that using past emotional experiences is a healing process and you will soon lose the ability to use them.

What if you have to play an alien? I doubt very many of you have that past experience. Besides, what type of sick person wants to go through their entire acting career recalling their mother's death? Method acting as taught by Konstantin was about making acting real, not living real moments. He would roll over in his grave if he knew what Stanislavsky and others did to his process.


Laurence Olivier will always be the best actor ever and that's because he could act and he became his characters. Olivier was and is so electrifying. All the other actors are just amateurs compared to Olivier. There will never be another actor that great.


why are people jealous of talented people just because they themselves are nerds and not capable of doing anything in life? It's so easy to criticize and so difficult to create. method or no method, brando was and will remain one of the most amazing actors this world has ever seen.


The simplest way to describe method acting is it's about human behavior in front of a camera or onstage. If anything it's about "not acting" and its genre is realism, which applies to most movies and stage plays today.


I have read reams about method acting and still do not know what the word means! What we want it to, I suppose. I hold it responsible for the common fault, especially in American soaps, of screwing up your face and body into a suitable expression and attitude for the next line before you deliver it. Ugh!


i believe that stella adler did a great job with her method acting. as a student who studies drama, i love her method, and i will use it until i die. but here in south africa there's no actor that lives the character of his/her role. they're all faking it, especially in the soap that is called generations.


What a great work they did there, but I believe we should start thinking on another new way to do the stuff. I am a film director based in Cameroon. Etiendem R.


Hey anon 60049, you have absolutely no idea.

Brando's performance in 'On the Waterfront' is nothing short of extraordinary and revolutionary. You have no humanity or understanding of acting if you can't see that.

If you want to see just how good he is, look at the performances of everyone else in that film. He is quite simply in a league of naturalism and emotion all of his own.

Kazan's genius was just meeting Brando and making sure he continued to work with him! Couldn't go wrong.


I have to agree with Stella Adler. Every person has a life story: values, attitudes, behaviors they were taught, experiences they have lived through, and this restricts their behavior at any moment in time as each person is restricted to his/her own life story. Don't you at times wish you could be somebody else? I think that is the appeal of acting.


Thank god for comments ranting about Brando and Dean! I'm so sick and tired of hearing about them. Especially Dean, who was the most overrated actor of all time. Brando was revolutionary but that's was all. People seem to think he was a god or something.


Personally I think that both James Dean and Brando were amazing actors! They didn't 'over-play' the character as some more popular actors nowadays do. And they really found the inner emotions of the character to make it convincing and believable to the audience.

James Dean was famed to be so into character that he'd have troubles getting 'out'. And I love Stella Adler's approach to the Method, really makes sense to me.


Sorry, posters, but I'll have to cry "foul" on the Marlon Brando hating. Even if you can't appreciate his performance, he deserves recognition for taking method acting in cinema to another level.


I have to agree with anon 58984. Brando's acting in On the Waterfront is just so bad it's laughable. And those eyebrows, wow!


James Dean was the most overrated actor of the 20th century. Marlon Brando wasn't much better. The 1930's produced real acting and true character portrayal. These mush mouthed, tortured souls are simply tiresome!


Richard Boleslawsky is not American. He is Polish.


I found this to be very helpful to be used in drama sessions and also can be used in life. very good.


Studying acting helps anyone in life. Talking and getting what you want; Jobs, etc.


A very informative article indeed -- one which has encouraged me to try and find out more about the method. The comments of nbohr99 are not complete as he talks about a 'Terrific Guide'. Can the details of the guide be given please? It would be a great help in my search. -- Karan


I found a terrific guide to method acting. The guide covers relaxation, concentration and sense memory. These are the foundations of method acting. It details several exercises, including the "breakfast drink" and "the mirror". Best of all the guide is free...


I believe Stella Adler was the only American acting instructor to have studied with Stanislavski.

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