Method acting is a technique used by actors as a way to prepare for their roles and it involved immersing themselves into their characters. Actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who recently announced his retirement from acting, is famous for his method acting. He has absorbed himself in each and every role he has played, earning him some of the most memorable roles in film history.
But Day-Lewis is not the only one who has taken method acting to a whole new level. We want to put the spotlight on those actors who decided to give the all-encompassing technique a try. For many, it resulted in winning Academy Awards.
Most of these actors have been rewarded for both their passion as well as their struggle. Some lost weight, some gained, and some injured themselves – all in the name of the craft. And some perhaps even went too far. But you can be the judge of that.
Daniel Day-Lewis: A Legend
There’s a reason Daniel Day-Lewis is considered a legend and envied by many actors. He gave 120% to all his film roles. But the one that stands out above the rest in terms of method acting is the role he played in My Left Foot from 1989. It’s the role that won him the first of his three Best Actor Academy Awards.
Photo by by Lars Niki/Getty Images for Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
Day-Lewis played the Irish writer and painter Christy Brown, who was born with cerebral palsy. The only way Brown could exhibit control of his body was with his left foot. He spent most of the production in a wheelchair.
His Actions Paid Off
He went so far as to refuse to move from his wheelchair and even had the crew lift him over obstacles. He would insist that his meals be spoon-fed to him. Day-Lewis was reported “visiting restaurants in a wheelchair” and “had to be lifted across the lighting cables each day to reach the set.”
But his hard work and devotion paid off. All that time slouching in his wheelchair resulted in two broken ribs and an Oscar for Best Actor.
Day-Lewis went even further in his other roles too…
He Did Things That Were Unheard of
For his role in The Crucible (1996), Day-Lewis lived on the set, which was a colonial village, meaning no electricity or running water. He even built his own 17th-century house, using only the tools American settlers would have had available to them at the time!
When Gangs of New York was being shot (2002), he refused to wear a winter coat and eventually caught pneumonia. For his role in Lincoln (2012) he refused to break character. No if’s and’s or but’s. He essentially walked, talked, and even texted as Abe, according to his co-star Sally Field.
She Never Met the Real Daniel Day-Lewis
“I never met him. Never. I met him as Mr. Lincoln. He met me as Molly, as he called her,” Sally Field said. He demanded that everyone on set of the film, including director Steven Spielberg, refer to him as “Mr. President.”
He also wouldn’t let English cast members speak to him in their own accents, fearing it could throw him off. All this meant that it must have been a drag to work with him, but clearly his dedication paid off (he won the Oscar for that role too) and served as inspiration to others in the industry.
The next method actor is another one who really goes beyond the limit!
Christian Bale’s Has Made Extreme Physical Transformations
If you’ve seen Christian Bale’s movies, you may have noticed how his weight fluctuates dramatically with his roles. For The Machinist (2005), Bale dropped 63 pounds and it wasn’t even requested by the director.
For that role, Bale didn’t seek any weight loss guidance from a professional. He said that his diet consisted of one can of tuna and one apple per day. He figured that if he felt okay, he could keep going. He got down to 120 pounds and the rumor is that he wanted to go further, but producers warned him against it.
On to the Next One…
A mere 5 months later, Bale went the other direction and bulked up for his role in Batman Begins (2005), gaining around 100 pounds. This time, gaining the weight was healthier than the weight loss. He ate a high-carb diet and trained for three-hour sessions.
His co-star Michael Ironside mentioned that Bale might not have gone so far if the screenwriter took the time to change the script. He said “The writer is only about five-foot-six, and he put his own weights in,” Ironside said. “And then Chris said, ‘No, don’t change the weights. I want to see if I make them.’ Those weights he writes on the bathroom wall in the movie are his real weights in the film.”
Next, one of the most famous and loved actresses took on her own challenges for a role.
Meryl Streep Learned Polish and German for Sophie’s Choice
Meryl Streep is on the list of method actors as well. But in her case, it wouldn’t be considered going too far. She learned a new language, which is challenging, but always beneficial. While most actors playing characters from foreign countries might practice some words and phrases, and getting the accent right, Streep went all the way.
Photo by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Streep won the Oscar for Best Actress in the role in which she hired a tutor to learn both Polish and German. Her character was meant to speak German in a Polish accent, saying “That was serendipity. I just had the Polish accent, so everything sounded Polish.”
Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer
This time, it wasn’t Meryl Streep who took method acting far – it was her co-star Dustin Hoffman. And it may be considered too far. And while many actors tend to tap in to their own memories to make a scene more realistic, Hoffman actually this emotional recall not on himself, but on his younger co-star, Meryl Streep in the movie Kramer vs Kramer (1979).
Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images
The two already had tension on the set after Hoffman decided to slap Streep across the face to prod her anger and tears before an early scene in the film. And then right before a pivotal scene in the movie, Hoffman, who used information about Streep’s then real-life boyfriend to make the scene as real as can be.
And some may say he took it too far…
He Took it Too Far
Hoffman was aware of the recent passing of Streep’s then boyfriend and decided to use the emotional recall technique on her, without her knowing beforehand. He made remarks about her boyfriend’s death, evoking a genuine performance in her that he considered was pivotal to the scene.
Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images
Hoffman’s trick may not be the most professional, but the movie became a real emotional heavy hitter and stole the show at the 1980 Academy Awards.
Marlon Brando: One of the First
Marlon Brando started his career in theater – the home of method acting. Before his role as Kenneth in the 1950 film The Men, Brando was in six Broadway plays. Thus, he knew how to bring theater into film and he fundamentally redefined acting.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
The Men took place in a military hospital, where Brando’s character, a paraplegic former soldier, has to come to terms with his situation. He did most of his preparation before filming, having spent a month in a hospital bed at Birmingham Army hospital, where he studied the hospital patients. One thing he learned was how to rely on upper-body strength the same way many of those patients did.
Next, another actress who did what she felt she had to do!
How Hillary Swank Prepared for her Role as a Man
Hillary Swank lived as a man for a month to prepare for her role as a man in Boys Don’t Cry (1999). Many actresses auditioned for the role of Brandon Teena, a character who was based on a real female-to-male transgender who was murdered in 1993.
Swank showed up to the audition in her then husband’s clothes and a cowboy hat and got the role. Then for a month before shooting, she lived as a man. She cut her hair super short, bound her breasts and even stuffed a sock in her underwear – all to pass as a boy. She spoke with a low voice, and introduced herself as Hilary’s brother, James. And unsurprisingly, she also won the Oscar for Best Actress in 2000.
Jim Carrey: A Method Actor in Comedy and Drama
During the filming of the 1999 biography drama Man on the Moon, portraying the life and death of comedian Andy Kaufman, Jim Carrey refused to break character. Similar to Daniel Day-Lewis, he literally became the character off-set and made the crew conform to his demands.
Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic
Carrey didn’t respond to anyone on set unless they referred to him as Andy or Tony (Tony Clifton was Kaufman’s alter ego). When embodying Clifton, a Vegas lounge singer with a nauseating personality, Carrey would put cheese in his pockets to purposely smell bad.
And Jim Carrey did a lot more than that to get into the role…
He Took a Punch
Kaufman’s real life fight with WWE wrestler Jerry Lawler was also re-created for the film. Kaufman and Lawler appeared on Late Night with David Letterman and the interview ended with Lawler slapping Kaufman and Kaufman then threw coffee in Lawler’s face.
For the movie, Lawler played himself and Carrey had to seize the opportunity. He wanted to experience everything Kaufman did, so demanded that Lawler put him in the same wrestling hold that actually landed Kaufman in the hospital for three days.
Against His Orders
The movie’s insurance company refused to allow the antic, but Carrey asked Lawler in secret, even begged him to do it, as Lawler later told the production team.
Having been denied by the production as well as Lawler, Carrey was furious, resorting to spitting in Lawler’s face and a then a really did occur – exactly what he hoped for. Lawler was then fired, but rehired. When they re-created the famous interview, Lawler didn’t hold back. The slap you see in the film is real.
Halle Berry is next. Which movie do you think she used method acting in?
Halle Berry: Getting into Her Character
Halle Berry needed to get inside the head of the drug addict character she played in Spike Lee’s 1991 film Jungle Fever. Berry didn’t have a history of drug addiction, so she took to method acting to really feel it out. And no, she didn’t do drugs.
What she did, though, was visit a crack den as part of her research, as well as not bathe for two weeks. ”It’s true,” she later reported. ”Ask Sam Jackson! He had to get a whiff of it.”
Robert De Niro: A Legend for His Commitment to the Craft
De Niro is another actor in which his brilliance as an actor is due, in part, to his dedication and commitment to the craft. And that includes his method of getting into this roles. In preparation for his role in Taxi Driver (1976), De Niro actually got a cab driver’s license.
Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
He worked 12-hour shifts and would pick up passengers around New York City during his breaks from shooting. Before playing the role of the young Vito Corleone in Godfather II (1974), he lived in Sicily for several months. He ended up winning the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award.
But it was his role in Raging Bull that really exposed the ability he has…
He Became a Raging Bull
De Niro gained 60 pounds to play the out-of-shape boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980). He also underwent rigorous boxing training, who was carried out by LaMotta himself. Apparently, director Martin Scorcese feared for De Niro’s life after the actor began suffering from respiratory problems due to the excessive weight gain. They even shut down production for a while.
De Niro won the Oscar for Best Actor. When asked about the weight gain later on in his career, he said this: “I knew I couldn’t do it past that age — I was 34, 35. That was my one chance.”
Rooney Mara Went All In
The talented Rooney Mara landed the part of computer hacker Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2005), but at the time she didn’t have a single piercing – not even in her ears. She wanted to really inhabit the character, so she did what she felt was necessary.
Photo by Michael Tran/FilmMagic
She ended up getting multiple real piercings all over her body. Mara had her lip, brow, nose, nipples, and ears pierced. She said, “because of all the tattoos and the makeup and the piercings, and the physical transformations my body has to go through, it would always feel sort of like I was in costume, even if I was naked.”
The next actor is another tried to arrest someone…off set!
Al Pacino Has Gone Lengths with his Characters
Another legendary actor is Al Pacino who’s also known for going deep in his roles. In Serpico (1973), Pacino plays the character of Frank Serpico, an undercover cop who exposes corruption in the police force. One day off set, he was driving in his car and saw a truck in front of him spewing exhaust. As Pacino was so heavily involved in the part, he pulled the driver over and attempted to make an arrest.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Then when he filmed Scent Of A Woman (1992), Pacino claimed that he actually couldn’t see during filming, and he played a blind character. After the shooting ended, Chris O’Donnell received a note of congratulations from Pacino with the writing: “Although I didn’t see you, I know you were great.”
The Late Great Heath Ledger
Heath Ledger’s The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) is arguably one of the best in the Batman franchise. And rumor has it that his immersion in the role may have played a role in his demise. To prepare for the role, Ledger locked himself in a hotel room for a month and barely slept.
He kept a diary filled with images of clippings from Batman comics, pictures from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, playing cards, pictures of clowns and other stuff.
And that was just the beginning…
Becoming The Joker
When shooting began, Ledger told reporters he “slept an average of two hours a night” while playing “a psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy. I couldn’t stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going.”
By the time he began filming his next movie shortly after, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Ledger was suffering from chronic insomnia, pneumonia, and exhaustion. During a break from filming, he went back to New York to build up some strength, but on January 22, 2008, he was found dead. They think it’s an accidental overdose.
Leonardo DiCaprio: A Serious Actor
Normally, cast and crew of big Hollywood movies that are shooting in harsh weather get to sleep in a hotel with a normal bed. But Leonardo DiCaprio isn’t your average actor. During the filming of The Revenant (2015), DiCaprio would sometimes sleep in the animal carcass in order to genuinely portray his rugged character of Hugh Glass.
photo by Rose Hartman/Archive Photos/Getty Images
“I can name 30 or 40 sequences that were some of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do,” Leo said. “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.”
If you’ve seen The Pianist, you might be interested to know how the actor did it…
Adrian Brody: The Pianist
In 2003, Adrian Brody who was 29 at the time, won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role in The Pianist. His character was based on the real life Wladyslaw Szpilman, a concert pianist who survived the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto.
Director Roman Polanski insisted that Brody practice piano four hours a day in preparation. By the end of those sessions, he was able to play specific passages by Chopin. But Brody took things more than just a step further to get into the mindset of someone who lost everything.
He Left Everything Behind
Before choosing to move to Europe, he gave up his home, his car, his girlfriend and most of his belongings. He also lost weight and got to 130 pounds. He summed up his experience by saying this:
Photo by Richard Blanshard/Getty Images
“There is an emptiness that comes with really starving that I hadn’t experienced… I couldn’t have acted that without knowing it. I’ve experienced loss, I’ve experienced sadness in my life, but I didn’t know the desperation that comes with hunger.”
Jamie Foxx: Being Ray Charles
Jamie Foxx may be a comedian and comic actor, but he is fully committed and nailed his role as Ray Charles in Ray (2004). Not only did he lose 30 pounds for the role, Foxx also went to lengths to experience what it would be like to blind.
He actually glued his eyes shut, which was a suggestion by director Taylor Hackford. So Foxx wore prosthetics modeled from Charles’s eyelids. “Imagine having your eyes glued shut for 14 hours a day. That’s your jail sentence,” Foxx said. It paid off though. He won the Oscar that year.
Sylvester Stallone: The Real Rocky
Sylvester Stallone got some real punches while filming Rocky IV (1985). Stallone asked his co-star Dolph Lundgren to “really” knock him out. He later referred to it as a “bad idea.” He said, “Later that night my blood pressure goes up to 260, I go to the hospital, they put me in an emergency jet, and fly me back to America.”
Photo by United Artists/Courtesy of Getty Images
“Next thing I know I’m in intensive care for five days with nuns walking around. He hit my heart so hard that it banged against my ribs and started to swell, and that usually happens in car accidents. So I was hit by a truck!”
Ashton Kutcher: Becoming Steve Jobs
Every actor has his own method in preparing for a role. For the movie Jobs (2013), Ashton Kutcher took his planning into his own hands and went on an inadvisable “fruitarian” diet for his role as Steve Jobs. His diet left him in the hospital for two days right before filming as a result. Apparently, his “pancreas levels were completely out of whack.”
Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for WeWork
The movie didn’t do so well and his efforts didn’t really pay off. Two years later, Michael Fassbender earned an Oscar nomination for playing the exact same part in the movie Steve Jobs. Fassbender didn’t go on any strange diet for it, either.
The Cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) won the Oscar for Best Film. The cast, including Jack Nicholson, lived at the psychiatric ward where the movie was being filmed. If you saw the movie, you may remember how realistic the acting was. And it’s for a reason!
Photo by Jean-Marc ZAORSKI /Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
The cast would interact with actual patients and do real group therapy sessions. And some of those sessions were even filmed without their knowledge.
The next method this actor used was quite painful, to say the least!
Billy Bob Thornton: Hard Work Pays Off
For his role in Sling Blade (1996), Billy Bob Thornton used a strange and painful method to get his character Karl’s signature walk just right.
Photo by Vincent Sandoval/Getty Images
He placed crushed glass inside his shoes, which forced him to limp around. He received an Oscar nomination for the role. You know what they say: no pain, no gain, right?
Val Kilmer: Embodying Jim Morrison
Val Kilmer was determined to land the part of Jim Morrison in The Doors (1991), spending thousands of dollars making an eight-minute music video of him singing the band’s songs. After getting the part, he went on to memorize 50 Doors songs.
Photo by Paul Butterfield/Getty Images
He was said to have also worn Morrison’s clothes and went to his favorite Hollywood hangouts. Kilmer spent hundreds of hours interrogating Paul Rothchild, the band’s producer and consultant on the film.
And the producer had something to say about it…
Kilmer Knew Jim Better Than Jim Himself
At the end of the filming, Rothchild said that Kilmer” knows Jim Morrison better than Jim ever knew himself. He’s nailed—to the extent that The Doors themselves had difficulty telling whether it was Val singing or Jim singing.”
Photo by Estate of Edmund Teske/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
“Early on, I’d bring them into a recording studio and I randomly switched Val and Jim and they guessed wrong 80 percent of the time.” That’s pretty impressive!
Nicolas Cage: Pulling Teeth
Nicholas Cage went pretty far for his role as a Vietnam veteran in the movie Birdy (1984). To really feel the physical pain his character had, Cage had a few teeth pulled—without anesthesia!
Photo by Paramount/Getty Images
More so, he spent five weeks with his face wrapped in bandages. “The reactions on the street were brutal,” Cage said later. “Men and women laughing, kids staring. And when I took the bandages off, my skin was all infected because of acne and ingrowing hairs.”
Sometimes actors have to outsource real emotions. See the next actor’s method…
Aaron Eckhart: Getting Familiar with Grief
Many actors will tap into their own personal grief to make their acting as real as possible. But not every actor has experienced sorrow in a deep way. Aaron Eckhart admitted to attending a grief support group to prepare for his role in Rabbit Hole (2010).
Photo by Pool APESTEGUY/BENAINOUS/DUCLOS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Eckhart doesn’t have children, and he confessed that his presence there was uncomfortable, going so far as to tell a fake story about the loss of a child in front of couples who had actually did lose their own. “You really believe that you just lost a child. You are as close to reality in that sense as possible,” said Eckhart. His efforts earned him a nomination for his role in the film.
Jamie Dornan // The Fall (2013)
Jamie Dornan plays a serial killer on the Netflix series The Fall (2013), and he did some rather unpleasant things to experience “the thrill of the chase.”
Photo by Mark Davis/Getty Images for Netflix
So, “On the tube … I, like, followed a woman off the train one day to see what it felt like to pursue someone like that,” Dornan said. He kept his distance but really did follow her for a few blocks.
Shia LaBeouf: He Has His Ways
The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman (2013) and Fury (2014) are two movies in which Shia LaBeouf did what he felt he needed to do to perfect his roles. For his role as Charlie Countryman, the character who takes acid during one scene, Shia wanted to make his portrayal as real as possible so he took LSD. He filmed his experience and sent the video off to co-star Evan Rachel Wood for feedback.
Then for Fury, the day after he got the role as a WWII soldier, he joined the U.S. National Guard. He said, “I was baptized—accepted Christ in my heart—tattooed my surrender and became a chaplain’s assistant to Captain Yates for the 41st infantry. I spent a month living on a forward operating base. Then I linked up with my cast and went to Fort Irwin. I pulled my tooth out, knifed my face up, and spent days watching horses die. I didn’t bathe for four months.”
Buddhist Min-sik Choi: Oldboy
South Korean actor Min-sik Choi starred in Oldboy (2003), and unforgettable film and Choi is no less committed than his American acting peers. Choi plays Dae-su Oh, a man imprisoned for fifteen years who gets revenge on his captors once released.
The character counts off the years in his confinement by burning his flesh with a hot wire. Of course, the effect could have been pulled off with make-up and prosthetics, but Choi wanted it to be real. So he actually burned himself repeatedly.
You won’t believe what he did in another scene! It took him a long time to recover from it.
Eating Live Octopods!
Once his character was freed from prison, he goes to a restaurant where he asks to eat something that’s alive. He’s given a living octopus. And no, it wasn’t a prop. Choi actually ate several live octopods!
It was actually very hard for the actor, with each retake being torture for him because he is a committed Buddhist. Before he killed the octopus, Choi said a prayer to each one in apology for taking its life. And according to director Park Chan-Wook, it took him a long time to recover from the experience.
Charlize Theron: Playing Monster
Charlize Theron’s portrayal of Aileen Wuornos, a real-life serial killer in the film Monster, is one that landed her the Oscar for Best Actress. And one would never recognize that it was even here if they didn’t know ahead of time.
She gained 30 pounds and wore prosthetic teeth, managing to embody the mentally ill character physically as well as mentally.