Would you learn how to cook meth if your job asked you to? What if they wanted you to skin a deer?
The greatest performances often come at tremendous cost. We’ve all heard of actors losing insane amounts of weight for a role or leaning into method acting exercises and living their day to day lives in-character. However, there are a plethora of other unique acting techniques Hollywood players rely on to prepare for big roles.
When an actor practices for a role in a shocking way, they frequently make terrible sacrifices that lead to critical acclaim. The performer needs to figure out how to shed their own identity to become the character. This means their preparation can get super weird, and can sometimes even be detrimental to their mental and physical health.
In 2016, Leonardo DiCaprio finally won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of real-life frontiersman Hugh Glass in The Revenant. While he got to enjoy his success, DiCaprio really had to earn it.
After each cold day of wilderness shooting wrapped, DiCaprio did not return to a nice warm hotel. Instead he slept in animal carcasses, consumed raw meat, and swam in frozen rivers. DiCaprio told Yahoo Movies! he wanted to really immerse himself in what it was like to be a frontiersman in the 1800s, saying:
I can name 30 or 40 sequences that were some of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. Whether it’s going in and out of frozen rivers, or sleeping in animal carcasses, or what I ate on set. [I was] enduring freezing cold and possible hypothermia constantly.
Bryan Cranston won four Emmy Awards for Best Actor due to his performance as a terminally ill chemistry teacher turned drug lord in Breaking Bad. Perhaps it was his preparation for the role that helped him nab multiple wins?
During a 2016 radio interview with Howard Stern, Cranston admitted he learned how to make meth. "We were taught how to make meth [by] DEA chemists who were our consultants on the show. We didn't cook it, but we were told exactly the process at that high level."
After Stern insisted he believed Cranston actually cooked meth, the actor did not deny the accusation:
Maybe. I can't tell you one way or the other. It's extremely difficult [to cook meth]. There are so many volatile components to it that at any given time, you could literally blow up. So you had to be very careful and very specific to follow this. Most of the cooks are also meth heads themselves. That's why they get themselves in trouble and you see burn marks, or their hands are missing.
Natalie Portman needed to look like a trained prima ballerina for Darren Aronosky's mind-bending film Black Swan. Portman plays Nina, a ballerina who's required to depict the delicate White Swan as well as the dark Black Swan for a production of Swan Lake.
At the time of filming, Portman was not a master ballet dancer; her only experience with ballet came as a young child. In order to prepare for filming, Portman trained eight hours a day, six days a week, for almost a whole year. The already-thin actress also went on a restrictive diet limited to foods like almonds and carrots.
To get her body into ballerina shape, Portman participated in cross-training and grueling endurance exercises. Looking back on the period, Portman recalled, "There were some nights that I thought I literally was going to die."
Thankfully, all Portman's hard work paid off. She took home the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2011, and Black Swan was a commercial and critical success.
Director Steven Spielberg wanted his cast to experience the rigors of military life firsthand to prepare them for filming the WWII epic Saving Private Ryan.
Because of this, all actors cast as members of the 2nd Ranger Battalion were required to take part in a grueling seven-day boot camp. This roster included: Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Jeremy Davies, Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, and Giovanni Ribisi. No one was given special treatment.
Captain Dale Dye – a seasoned Marine and military advisor – pushed the cast to their physical and mental limits. The exercises often left them vomiting from sheer exhaustion and hurdling towards nervous breakdowns. Burns called the seven-day boot camp the worst experience of his life:
We get there, we set up our tents, and it starts raining and it doesn't stop raining for seven days. It is 30 degrees at night and you are in a soaking wet tent, a soaking wet uniform, with a soaking wet blanket wrapped around you.