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The Most Intense Method Actor Performances In Movie History

Updated October 15, 2020 5.4k votes 1.4k voters 135.9k views15 items

List RulesVote up the actors who had the most intense method acting performances.

The term "method acting" is used loosely these days. According to Oxford Dictionaries, method acting is "a technique of acting in which an actor aspires to complete emotional identification with a part." The great acting coach Constantin Stanislavski popularized the technique in the early 1900s.

Seems logical right? Think of the feelings as your own, and you might feel them - better yet, you seem even more real in feeling them. In the 1930s, Lee Strasberg adapted some of Stanislavski's method for American actors, emphasizing the practice of tying the character's memories to the actor's own memories so as to further align their emotions. 

Notice that part about never leaving character? About keeping up an accent or impediment between takes? Or being incredibly hard to deal with on set because you are a method actor in character? None of that was ever supposed to be part of the deal.

Method acting got a bad name throughout the years for the liberal use of its terminology. Stanislavski and Strasberg were both brilliant minds who yielded arguably  some of the best acting guidance to date. While it's practically a curse word in many circles, method acting can be an amazing tool to get an actor in the right mindset.

Below is a list of some of the most intense uses of the method with astounding results. Keep in mind: the term is used here loosely, as some of these actors - Heath Ledger, for example - only utilized one or two principles of the concept.

  • Heath Ledger's turn as the Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight is not technically method acting, as he did not - as some mistakenly reported - stay in character between takes. For example, he allegedly would talk and joke about his daughter. What does make his performance stand out is the unique prep it required.

    To become the clown prince of crime, Ledger locked himself away in a hotel room for about a month to work on the distinct voice, laugh, slouch, and movements. He also kept a Joker diary with acting notes, ideas, and imagery. There was also a section of things the Joker might find funny, so Ledger could directly dive into different parts of the character's mind with the flip of a page. There is no trace of the actor in the performance, which is awe-inspiring.

    Without a doubt, this performance would have launched an amazing new chapter in an incredible actor's career.

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  • After a long break from acting, Daniel Day-Lewis returned to the silver screen at Martin Scorsese's personal request to play William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting. He had reportedly been living a simple life as a cobbler in Florence, Italy, for years. To prep for the role, Day-Lewis learned everything there is to know from the butchers of Peckham Rye's W. Head and Co., who were flown in from the United Kingdom for a few weeks. He also became an expert marksman with knives and meat cleavers. 

    During filming he would, as is tradition, only answer to Bill or the Butcher, and would reportedly spend all of his off time glowering and threatening his on-screen antagonist, Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio).

    He went so far to stay authentic that when temperatures reached below freezing, he refused to wear winter jackets because they comprised materials that didn't exist in that time period. He would, however, play Eminem's music between takes to rile himself up. Daniel Day Lewis is the real Slim Shady.

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  • Having studied directly with some of the legendary teachers who brought method acting to the mainstream, Robert De Niro put in the work to play the incredibly iconic Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver.

    In the film, Travis Bickle has great dialogue about not being able to sleep, so he works extra shifts and long hours. To portray an unhinged, overworked, insomniac taxi driver, De Niro became an unhinged, overworked, insomniac taxi driver. While finalizing work on another flick in Rome and prepping for Taxi Driver, which involved studying people with a mental illness, he trained, took the test, and got his cabbie license. De Niro then proceeded to work overtime during his 12-hour shifts as a cabbie by actually driving people around NYC. Imagine hopping in a cab with De Niro at the wheel.

    During filming, he was so in character that he was able to tweak the script and actually ad lib many of his lines, including one of the most famous lines in cinema history, "You talking to me?"

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  • For his efforts in Roman Polanski's The Pianist, Adrien Brody at age 29 became the youngest actor to receive a Best Actor Academy Award. To prepare for the role, he began by practicing the piano four hours a day until he had mastered Chopin. To get into the mindset of a Holocaust survivor - a man who had lost everything -  he stripped all "comfortable living" from his life. He gave up his apartment, sold his car, disconnected his phones, sold all but two bags of his worldly possessions and left for Europe. In addition, he broke up with his long-term girlfriend to further feel the pain of loss.

    During filming, Brody went on a crash diet, losing 30 pounds in a matter of five weeks. He got down to a slight 130 lbs. (He's Six Foot Five!) He did this to feel the emptiness that comes with starving, all the while immersing himself in holocaust memoirs and completely staying in character day in and day out.

    It took Brody a little over 6 months to fully recover, physically and mentally, from the whole ordeal.

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