Madness in their method: have we fallen out of love with actorly excess?

The Succession star Jeremy Strong has been widely scorned after a magazine profile revealed his ‘preening’ and ‘self-indulgent’ acting process. But many actors have been lauded for their method – so what has changed?

Robert De Niro is the greatest actor of his generation. So claimed the headline in a popular magazine last year, and it’s not a controversial claim. The evidence offered for this opinion was the same that’s always wheeled out when discussing De Niro’s acting: “[He] took method acting to previously uncharted levels. He got a New York cab licence for Taxi Driver, learned Italian and lived in Sicily to prepare for The Godfather Part II, put on 60lbs to play Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, learned Latin for True Confessions and the sax for New York, New York. He was the hardest-working man in Hollywood,” wrote the journalist.

For decades, this has been the general feeling about actors: the more method, the better. After all, if they don’t eat raw bison and sleep in an animal carcass (Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant), stay in a wheelchair and be spoonfed by the crew (Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot) or lose so much weight that they start to go blind (Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club), they’re just playing make-believe. And why should they get all that fame, adoration and money just for that? All of the above actors were rewarded for their efforts with an Oscar, and actors talking about their method efforts has become as much a part of the run-up to the Oscars as shops playing Do They Know It’s Christmas in the run-up to the holidays.

That’s the thing about going method: if you don’t talk about, no one off the film set knows you’ve done it, and what would be the point of that? Last month, Lady Gaga told Vogue that she stayed in character for a year and a half, and spoke with an Italian accent for nine months, all in service of playing her character, Patrizia Gucci, in the camp-fest House of Gucci. “It’s not an imitation, it’s a becoming,” she solemnly told the magazine. Unfortunately, all that “becoming” didn’t seem to leave her time to coordinate with the other actors about what an Italian accent is, as in the film they sound as if they come from entirely different countries. Yet talking about method acting has become a great exercise in marketing on the film circuit and Gaga is seen as a possible shoo-in for an Oscar nominations.

Lady Gaga as Patrizia Gucci in House of Gucci.
‘It’s not an imitation, it’s a becoming’ ... Lady Gaga as Patrizia Gucci in House of Gucci. Photograph: Fabio Lovino/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc

So Jeremy Strong, who plays Kendall in HBO’s Succession, must be wondering where he went wrong. Fans of the show, which is now in its third season, have known for a while that Strong is an intense actor, one who goes “all-in” on his performances, as he has said in interviews; and the other cast members have hinted as much. Brian Cox references it in his new memoir, Putting the Rabbit in the Hat, with audibly gritted teeth. And until this week, that has worked in his favour: he won an Emmy last year and, given that his character on the show is such an intense outcast, the fact that Strong himself is so intense and so different from his co-stars made sense to the public. Until this week, when the worm turned.

The New Yorker is no slouch when it comes to taking creativity seriously, so Strong must have assumed he was in safe hands when its staff writer Michael Schulman, whom he has known since 2003, turned up to profile him for the magazine. By the eighth paragraph of the article, he would have been firmly disabused of that notion. “Preening intensity” and “self-indulgent” are two descriptions that appear early on, followed by less than positive comments from his former and current co-stars: Cox describes Strong’s intensity as “a particularly American disease”, while Robert Downey Jr, not known for underplaying performances himself, says Strong “crosses the Rubicon”. The strongest comments come from his co-star Kieran Culkin, who told the journalist about Strong’s methods: “That might be something that helps him. I can tell you that it doesn’t help me.”

The profile quickly went viral. Some people have defended Strong, including Jessica Chastain, who worked with him on Zero Dark Thirty and Molly’s Game, who described him as “lovely … Very inspiring and passionate about his work. The profile that came out was incredibly one-sided. Don’t believe everything you read, folks. Snark sells, but maybe it’s time we moved beyond it.” But in the main, there has been much cackling glee over the profile, a sense that the emperor’s method nudity has finally been exposed for what it is: pretentious, performative, narcissistic nonsense.

“Going method” is now the catch-all term for an actor going to absurd lengths to embody a role, from Pacino pretending to be blind while making Scent of a Woman (at the end of the shoot, he allegedly wrote a note to his co-star, Chris O’Donnell: “Although I didn’t see you, I know you were great”), to Johnny Depp sleeping in Hunter S Thompson’s basement next to several barrels of gunpowder as preparation for playing Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The original techniques were coined at the beginning of the 20th century by the Russian director and actor Konstantin Stanislavski, and refined in the US by the acting coaches Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner at the Actors Studio, which stressed that actors should emotionally identify with their characters. It is the rare celebrated mid-century American actor who didn’t emerge from the Actors Studio, and so Cox is right to describe it as “a particularly American disease”. This led to what is probably the most famous anecdote about method acting. When making Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman allegedly went without sleep in order to look and feel as exhausted as his character. “My dear boy,” his exasperated co-star, Laurence Olivier, said to him, “why don’t you just try acting?

Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver.
Robert De Niro got a cabbie’s licence for his starring role in Taxi Driver. Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex Feature

Yet despite Olivier’s scorn, method-ish acting has held an especial fascination for actors, journalists and the public for decades and has become the, if not easiest, then at least the surest way for an actor to accrue respect. Forest Whitaker learned Swahili for Last King of Scotland; Nicolas Cage had four of his teeth pulled out for Birdy. (It is, by and very large, men who have been lauded for going method, partly, I suspect, because going method often involves weight gain and loss, which is a more complicated prospect for a female actor. But mainly, I suspect more strongly, because such extreme behaviours are much less tolerated from women in Hollywood than they are from men.)

So where did Strong go wrong? He has never described himself as a method actor, and he doesn’t stay in character during a shoot. But he has said that he has “to believe in what he’s doing”, in other words, believe in the reality of his character. The anecdotes in the profile about depths of his commitment to a role are funny: asking Aaron Sorkin to spray him with teargas during the making of The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Sorkin declined); refusing to be in the makeup trailer with his Succession co-stars so as to better embody his character’s alienation from his family. But they’re no more silly than De Niro shaving down his teeth for Cape Fear, or Adrien Brody selling his apartment and car in order to get closer to his character, the Holocaust survivor Władysław Szpilman, in The Pianist.

The profile implies that Strong is a “networker” who likes to “attach himself like a remora to famous actors”, although another way of looking at that is he’s an actor who works with other actors who sometimes like him, as in the case of Chastain. Extreme efforts at acting are only really funny when the results are bad, which is why the idea of Gaga shouting “bravo!” for nine months is so hilarious. But even Strong’s critics admit that he is very good at his job. So what’s the problem?

I’m going to defend Strong here. I have even less time for pretentious actor bullshit than most, because a big part of my job is interviewing actors and, after more than 20 years of this, I have a zero-tolerance approach to actors talking about their job as though it’s a mystical artform demanding athletic levels of endurance. And seriously, what is the deal with “method acting”? Why not “method writing”, or “method interior designing”? If a novelist lived like his characters while writing a book, people would think he was insane – why laud it in actors?

So when I interviewed Strong in September, my bullshit-o-meter was braced. But here’s the thing about Strong: he’s the real deal. I don’t mean he’s such a great actor, although I do think he is incredibly good, I mean he really believes this stuff. I had always assumed that method-y acting was either a performative show in an attempt to prove an actor’s depth or commitment, or frantic compensation for the actor’s inability to actually act. There is an implication in the New Yorker piece, I think, that Strong is overegging his process in order to be seen in the same lineage as his heroes, Pacino, Hoffman and, most of all, Day-Lewis.

Leonardo Dicaprio in The Revenant.
Leonardo Dicaprio in The Revenant. Photograph: Kimberley French/20th Century Fox/Regency Enterprises/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

I’m not sure how you would prove someone is faking method-ish acting, any more than you could prove someone is thinking bad thoughts, but it’s impossible to spend time with Strong and not think he’s genuine. His intensity isn’t, it seemed to me, about ego; it’s about trying to be a better actor, and proof of that is that is – unlike every other method-y actor – he rarely talks about the lengths he goes to; all of those anecdotes come from those he worked with. His biggest mistake was probably being so intense on what is an ensemble show, and therefore impinging on the other actors. But De Niro surely wasn’t much fun to work with on The Godfather Part II, never mind Marlon Brando on The Godfather, and no one laughed at them. I’m not an actor, and I’ve never worked with Strong. But I can tell you, as someone who has interviewed a lot of actors, I’ve met much sillier and self-absorbed ones than him, all of whom were far worse at their job than him.

Another mistake, perhaps, was agreeing to be profiled during the time of what can be roughly described as All This. It’s hard not to laugh at an actor who says, during a global pandemic, when it comes to acting, “the stakes are life and death. I take [Kendall] as seriously as I take my own life.” Actors who take themselves too seriously have never looked more absurd, especially since the start of the first lockdown, when a dozen or so of them earnestly sang Imagine to cheer up the little people. But only last month, Nicole Kidman said, as part of her publicity campaign, that she stayed in character for the whole shoot of the TV series Nine Perfect Strangers, which Strong has never said he does. So I’m not sure why what’s impressive in Kidman is laughable in Strong.

Maybe there’s a feeling that Strong – unlike De Niro and Kidman – isn’t famous enough to get away with this nonsense. Maybe it’s the suggestion that – unlike Day-Lewis and Depp – he’s not handsome enough (“The hangdog face of someone who wasn’t destined for stardom,” as the New Yorker put it). Maybe it just seems too self-conscious from him, as though Day-Lewis training for three years as a professional fighter for The Boxer didn’t involve some forethought.

It may just be that we still don’t know how to talk about actors. Are they great artistes or meat puppets who merely say sentences someone else has written? Do we want them to be acting or reflecting their own reality? The mockery of Strong and simultaneous veneration of other method-y actors suggests it’s an uneasy combination of the two. Fans thrilled to the suggestion – heavily played up by Bradley Cooper and Gaga – that the two of them had feelings for one another during the shoot for A Star Is Born, but were more weirded out by Oscar Isaac kissing Chastain’s arm on the Venice red carpet while promoting Scenes from a Marriage.

The media and public are fascinated by famous actors’ personal lives, and that also includes how they do their incredibly well-paid jobs. So it feels a little unfair to then knock someone who answers that question in such an intense – yes – but also heartfelt way. The late critic AA Gill once wrote that to review a TV show you have to judge it by whether it succeeded in its intention, so even if you hate reality TV, if a programme is good reality TV, you give it a good review. Pretentious actors are truly unbearable. But for those of us who just have to watch them as opposed to work with them, the end result should matter more than the method.


Hadley Freeman

The GuardianTramp

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