Saturday 24 March 2018

The Method to actors’ madness

Vincent D'Onofrio (left) opposite R Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket
Vincent D'Onofrio (left) opposite R Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket

Paul Whitington

In Antoine Fuqua's remake of Magnificent Seven, which we mentioned last week, Vincent D'Onofrio gives a compellingly strange performance playing one of Denzel Washington's band of renegades. His character, Jack Horne, is a rough-hewn 19th century tracker and Indian hunter: burly, hairy, and of questionable hygiene, his weapon of choice is an axe and his infrequent utterances are monosyllabic and bizarre.

In the hands of another actor, Horne would have been played as a stock character from a thousand westerns, the ill-mannered trapper/prospector with a heart of gold. But D'Onofrio is a method man from way back, a student of the Actors Studio who prepares meticulously for every role.

"It's the research you do that is exhausting," he once said, and no doubt he trawled the annals of frontier history in preparation for this role.

Perhaps as a result, his murderous trapper speaks in a garbled falsetto, mutters to himself constantly and flutters his eyes distractingly as he speaks. It's such a weird performance that I still can't decide if it's brilliant or bad, and it's par for the course for a fearless method actor who's always been prepared to risk looking ridiculous.

He'll go to any lengths to find a character, and in his breakthrough role in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, D'Onofrio packed on an incredible 70lbs in order to play Private Leonard Lawrence, a Vietnam-era US Marine recruit who loses his mind after being bullied by his drill sergeant. He got so heavy he wrecked his knee during the shoot, and lived for months on "bird seed and chicken nuggets" in order to lose the weight, but it was a compelling performance that helped put him on the map.

D'Onofrio belongs to an acting tradition that stretches all the way back to Konstantin Stanislavski, the great 19th century Russian theatre director who encouraged his actors to imagine entire back stories for their characters, and channel their own experiences to make their performances feel more real. Method acting was popularised in America by Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner, and made famous in the early 1950s by edgy young actors like Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift.

When Brando was cast as a paraplegic war veteran in Fred Zinnemann's 1950 drama The Men, he spent a month in bed at an army hospital to get in the mood. And when starring in A Place in the Sun (1951), Clift insisted on spending a night in jail because his character had. A precedent was set for any young actor who wanted to be taken seriously, but pretty soon the method antics began to get out of hand.

When Alfred Hitchcock was making his problematic 1966 thriller Torn Curtain, the great director became infuriated by his leading man Paul Newman's constant questioning of the script. And when Newman asked about his character's motivations in a scene once too often, Hitch replied testily that "your motivation is your salary".Hitchcock's response was typical of an older generation's impatience with what they saw as the self-indulgent excesses of method practitioners: older Hitch regulars like Cary Grant and James Stewart had simply turned up and done their job, so why couldn't these guys?

The method was particularly despised by actors from the English theatrical tradition. The great Charles Laughton once rather condescendingly said that "method actors give you a photograph - real actors give you an oil painting". Anthony Hopkins went further, calling the method "a lot of crap" and adding "I've been with actors like that and they're a pain in the arse". And Hopkins' mentor, the great Lawrence Olivier, famously confronted the excesses of the method while working with Dustin Hoffman on Marathon Man.

At one point during the production of John Schlesinger's classic 1976 thriller, Hoffman met up with Olivier after returning from a location shoot in New York. "I told him," Hoffman later recalled, "that we did this scene where the character I was playing was supposed to be up for three days. He says, 'So what did you do?' I say, 'Well I stayed up for three days and three nights'. And his famous line was 'Why don't you just try acting?' It became a kind of legend."

Indeed it did, and no one has better summed up the contrasting attitudes of method actors and more traditional performers. Sometimes, the antics of method actors are infuriating. Dennis Hopper was converted to the method by James Dean, and in 1958, when Hopper was shooting the western From Hell to Texas, he fell out badly with veteran director Henry Hathaway.

When Hathaway offered very precise directions on how he should deliver his lines in a scene, Hopper decided his character wouldn't react like that and refused to comply. So Hathaway had him do take after take from 7am till 10 at night until Hopper finally cracked and complied.

Of course there were some actors, like Brando and Robert De Niro, whose methods are hard to criticise given the quality of the results. When making Taxi Driver, De Niro got a cab driver's licence and spent weeks coasting around Manhattan at night in order to better understand his character. And for Raging Bull, in which he played 1940s middleweight fighter Jake LaMotta, he learnt to box so well that he won a couple of real fights, then put on 70lbs to play the older LaMotta.

All of which might sound excessive, until you watch those two performances. But then there are other actors whose blind adherence to method techniques imply a lack of imagination and talent. When Oliver Stone cast Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in his 1991 biopic The Doors, the actor really took it to heart. He memorised 50 of the band's song so he could sing with conviction in the film, got his hands on some of the singer's clothes and hung out in Morrison's favourite LA bars. He also spent days on end talking to Doors producer Paul Rothschild, but the result was a strangely stiff and mannered performance.

In his preparations to play a traumatised Vietnam veteran in Alan Parker's Birdy (1984), Nicolas Cage decided he needed to feel the pain his character might have, and had two teeth pulled without anaesthetic. He then managed to infect his face by wearing bandages on it for five weeks.

Adrien Brody may have won an Oscar for his performance in Roman Polanski's 2002 wartime drama The Pianist, but by God did he earn it. Not content with learning to play piano and shedding 30lbs to play Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman, he then decided he needed to feel as lost and isolated as his character had.

"I gave up my apartment, I sold my car, I disconnected the phones, and I left," he later recalled. "I took two bags and my keyboard and moved to Europe." His girlfriend was not amused, apparently.

Christian Bale lost 60lbs in order to play a mentally unstable factory worker in The Machinist (2004), then put it all back on again in just six weeks to star in Batman Begins, using pizza, ice cream and weight training. All of which felt more like a physiological achievement than an artistic one.

Of course the king of modern method actors is Daniel Day-Lewis, whose devotion to his craft is legendary. In My Left Foot (1989), he insisted on staying in character as the severely paralysed Dublin artist and writer Christy Brown, and so had to be moved around the set in a wheelchair and spoon-fed by crew members.

He flew in an English butcher to show him how to cut meat properly for Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York, in which he played a 19th-century gang leader called Bill 'The Butcher' Cutting, and caught pneumonia by refusing to wear modern overcoats between takes. And his co-star on Lincoln (2012) later said that she never actually met the actor himself.

Day-Lewis played Abe Lincoln, Sally Field his wife, but the method man insisted on staying in character at all times.

"I never met him," Field explained. "I met Mr Lincoln. He met me as Molly, as he called her. After I got the role, there were seven months before we began to shoot and he would text me all the time, in character. I would have to then answer back in the language of the time, which was really hard to figure out, but great fun."

All a bit over the top, you might argue, but three Best Actor Oscars later, Day-Lewis would appear to be on to something.

If you watch one film…

Sometimes, true stories really are stranger than fiction. In the early 1980s, during the short but destructive military dictatorship of General Galtieri, Argentina was traumatised by a plague of political killings and disappearances. And Pablo Trapero's intelligent new thriller tells the story of a family that turned kidnapping and murder into a business. In The Clan, which opened yesterday at selected cinemas, Guillermo Francella plays Arquímedes Puccio, a well-connected and respectable Buenos Aires family man.

He's been working for the government, abducting and killing left-wing enemies, but when Galtieri's regime falls, Arquímedes finds himself unemployed. To sustain his high-living standards, he starts kidnapping the sons of wealthy citizens and demanding extortionate ransoms. He involves his sons in his schemes, and when the ransoms are paid, Puccio kills his victim and starts again. Pablo Trapero's film explores the dark side of bourgeois respectability, and its inherent hypocrisies. Puccio says grace before meals, and plays the family man while his victims cower in the basement. The Clan offers telling insights into the banality of evil: it's a fine film, but it's not always easy to watch.

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