Method ActingGreat character development is the key to engaging your audience and creating a great film. Actors use several well-known acting techniques to develop their characters and deliver their material, one of which is method acting. Method acting actually involves a series of approaches but its overall aim is to develop lifelike performances by encouraging the actor to replicate the emotional experience of the character through his or her own emotions.

In essence, in method acting, the actor is asked to internalize the emotional life and thought processes of the character. The actor is expected to literally feel the same emotional impulses as the character would in circumstances described in the script. The classical approach, in contrast, focuses on externalizing these processes of character development by developing a certain set of skills (i.e. voice, movement, imitation etc.)

The Technique

Method acting approaches vary, but they usually follow roughly the same process:

  • Real Life Observation  – In developing the character, the actor must first spend time observing how the character’s real life counterparts move and operate in the world. Where do they go? Who do they interact with? How do they interact?
  • Re-Training – The method acting approach focuses on the portrayal of lifelike and “believable” characters rather than theatrical caricatures. The actor is expected to readjust the way s/he thinks and feels to fit the portrayal of the character.
  • Character Motivation – The actor needs to ask a series of questions to determine motivation: how would the character react in the given situation? What situations would need to occur to motivate the character in a particular direction? What events would trigger particular emotions within the character?
  • Emotional Memory – Key to the method acting approach is the shift away from the actor’s portrayal of emotion toward the actor’s internalization of that emotion. The actor is expected to feel the emotion rather than simply pantomime it. This process is typically enabled by the memory of a past event within the actor’s own life that triggers the same emotion.

Films Are About Life

Characters are based on real people, so to effectively portray the character in question, you must go out there in real life and observe! Sitting in a cafe with a notebook will not work; this observation requires getting out there and moving within the environments and communities where these people live and work. Find out how they spend their free time and take part in these activities. What upsets them? What actions would they take to communicate their frustration? Who would they talk to about it? What complications do they experience on a daily basis as a result of their environment or as a result of their own personalities?

Get Moving, Get Speaking

Mastering “re-training” and “emotional memory” are often considered the most difficult aspects of method acting, but these strategies are key to securing a life-like character portrayal. When developing a character, it is important to consciously push the boundaries of your creative process into the physical, developing your character through movement and embodiment.

Be experimental! While most people would associate empathy as an emotional response to another person’s well being, try to interpret empathy as a bodily response and use it as a tool to develop a particular physicality for your character. Place your character in a variety of situations and experiment with different ways in which your character could physically react. This will help you develop a more nuanced understanding of your character and make the re-training aspect of method acting that much easier to accomplish.

Physical embodiment includes your mouth. Your character will likely speak at some point, so your internalized experience of the character must extend to the way in which the character delivers dialogue. Your interpretation and understanding of the script will change dramatically once you make the transition from memorizing the text to actually speaking the words out loud.

As you deliver your dialogue, you will discover subtext within the context of your character’s particular emotional responses. This will further help you to develop the character’s complex personality. A useful tip is to converse with other “real life” people beyond the scripted dialogue of your character. This “freestyle” stream of consciousness exercise will help you develop the character’s psyche and “re-train” the way you speak and think.

Daniel Day-Lewis is the poster boy for the “extreme” method acting approach. He is often noted for his intense personal involvement and commitment to character development and preparation. Famous examples include his preparation for his leading role as Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness Of Being where, despite the film being in English, he taught himself to speak Czech. Whilst filming his Oscar-winning performance in My Left Foot, Day-Lewis insisted on being wheeled and carried around the set by crew in preparation for his Oscar-winning lead role as Christy Brown, an Irish artist with cerebral palsy.

While Daniel Day-Lewis’ work ethic might represent the extreme end of the method acting spectrum, the basic premise of immersion and physical embodiment is essential to the approach and, in turn, securing a life-like portrayal of your character.

A Word of Caution: Moving Beyond The Acting School

Though your training may have been thorough and complex, do not limit your education to the confines of your acting college or to your own personal experiences. The most prestigious breeding stables of Hollywood talent will never offer you the complete education required to be a brilliant actor, and they would likely say the same thing if asked. Take every opportunity afforded to you to further your education, in the form of workshops, extracurricular activities, or even via a more formalized institution-based program.

The nature of acting requires you to be able to reflect objectively upon the experiences of people, and this is best enabled by a diverse education. If you have chosen acting as your career path then you (should) have made a lifelong commitment. Take risks by choosing roles with which you are not immediately comfortable. These risky portrayals will diversify your skill set and approach. At worst, this choice will avoid “typecasting” and at best it will exponentially improve your ability as an actor.

If you do choose a method acting approach, try to develop your career in the same way you would develop your character. Be experimental, get involved, and take risks!