If you’ve been paying even a little attention to the media circus around Suicide Squad, you’ll have heard about what Jared Leto’s been up to. Dead pigs, used condoms, boxes of bullets: you name it, he’s sent it to one of his poor costars. All in the name of method acting.
Increasingly, it seems like ‘going method’ covers a variety of sins. From having a full on Christian Bale rage-fit, to semi-stalking a woman (cough, Jamie Dornan), actors regularly use it as a reason to go to lengths that would otherwise seem arguably unhinged. But for all the extreme stories of actor pretension, one thing stands out: it always seems to be men.
Is that because there simply are no female method actors… or is the answer a little more complex?
Let’s dismiss right away the former half of the question: there are female method actors, the same way there are funny woman comedians and serious actors who are women of colour. They’re there: we just don’t hear about them so much.
Hilary Swank’s a method actor. Did you know that? For her incredible turn in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry, she spent five weeks living as a man – flattening her chest, stuffing socks down her trousers and losing weight so her cheeks became hollow: “They thought I was my cousin Billy from Iowa.”
Then there’s Ms Legally Blonde herself: Reese Witherspoon’s recent vehicle Wild saw her lug 65-pound backpacks up hills, living makeup-free with nary a square meal. “We wouldn’t break for lunch, we’d just eat snacks. No bathroom breaks. It was crazy, but it was so wonderful. It was complete immersion.”
The idea that female method actors don’t exist is clearly laughable, so why don’t we hear about them? To answer that, we first need to know what is meant by method acting.
People often attribute the beginnings of method acting to Konstantin Stanislavsky, the Russian actor and director who pioneered naturalism as a performance style. His ideas later inspired acting innovator Lee Strasberg, who developed his own method. In actual fact, neither of those techniques resemble what many people today understand to be ‘method acting’.
Urban Dictionary’s definition is closer to the Strasberg method: “Trying to relive shit you probably ain’t ever lived, on cue no less.” At its simplest, it’s a way of channelling your own experiences and emotions into whatever character you’re playing. But nowadays most people assume it’s when an actor lives as their character – see Daniel Day-Lewis living as Abraham Lincoln for three months while filming. A quick survey of articles and interviews mentioning ‘method acting’ suggests there is little consensus. The term’s original meaning has broadened into a catch-all term covering any actor who ‘immerses’ themselves in a role.
It may be this confusion that’s led to the method acting narrative being defined by feats of machismo, particularly when they make for far better headlines than nuanced explanations of acting technique. See Leonardo DiCaprio, whose turn in The Revenant was ridiculed and praised almost in the same breath for its sheer brutality and degradation. Not everyone was a fan, but there’s no question the way he approached that role defined last year’s Oscar race.
Furthermore, if this is the standard by which method acting is judged, women just don’t get as many chances to take on roles with those sorts of demands. With just 22% of protagonists being women in the top films of 2015, there are simply less roles for them overall. When women are on screen, it’s less likely they’ll be leaders, less likely they’ll have a defined occupation, less likely they’ll be in dangerous, challenging situations. There’s a reason why Charlize Theron’s Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road was such a standout.
Speaking of Theron, despite being one of the few women to appear on ‘method acting’ lists, if you’d actually read any interviews with her, you’d realise she stopped method acting in the nineties. Despite her epic transformation in Monster as Aileen Wuornos, during shooting she spent most of the time in fits of laughter, telling the Telegraph, “I was worried the paparazzi would get pictures of us between takes that looked like we weren’t taking it seriously.”
If masculine method acting is characterised by bodily challenges, it can be fairly surmised that people assumed Theron was method acting because of the extreme bodily transformation she underwent. She got ugly, she even put on weight!
In Angelica Jade Bastién’s brilliant piece in The Atlantic, deconstructing how Leto’s method was largely ego- and marketing-driven, she touches on the fact that the media discussion around women actors is about “how brave they are for deciding not to be beautiful.” The media seems to see ‘deglamorized’ women, as Rotten Tomatoes described Theron, on the same level of extreme as Shia LeBeouf dropping acid for The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman.
Method acting, it now appears, has been appropriated by the media and film critics as a way of myth-making about actors. Another vehicle with which to discuss male actors as complicated, daring and impressive creative beings while, as Bastién suggests, reducing female actors to their looks. That might feel like a harsh conclusion, but it’s one that rings sadly true, particularly in the wake of #AskHerMore.
Despite the marketing hype, Suicide Squad has largely been panned. With much of the backlash focusing on Leto’s lacklustre performance, only time will tell what’s next for Hollywood’s method actors…