What is method acting? Why Nicole Kidman stayed in character for five months

From Robert De Niro to Heath Ledger, plenty of Hollywood greats have taken the method approach for roles

90th Academy Awards - Oscars Arrivals – Hollywood, California, U.S., 04/03/2018 – Nicole Kidman. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

In order to prepare for her latest role in Hulu drama Nine Perfect Strangers, Nicole Kidman has revealed she remained in character for five months, no longer responding to her own name.

The actress plays the role of Russian wellness resort director Masha in the television adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s bestselling book.

Speaking during a Television Critics Association panel, Kidman revealed: “I’d only respond as Masha. I wanted a very calm healing energy to emanate all the time so I remember going over to people and sort of putting my hand on their heart, holding their hand, they would talk to me or use my name Nicole when I would completely ignore them.

“The only way I could actually relate to people was that way because I felt like otherwise I would be doing a performance and I didn’t want to feel that way.”

While it may seem like extreme measures to go to for a role, method acting is actually much more common than you may realise.

What is method acting?

Method acting is a technique used by actors whereby they fully embody the role they are about to play by staying in character for long periods of time. Method actors completely emotionally identify with the character they play, and are taught not to compartmentalise or fake feelings, but rather be in the headspace of their character, and experience all the emotions of a scene first hand.

Method acting, however, is not without its controversies. Many actors have spoken of struggling with getting back to themselves after taking on the persona of their character, and being unable to differentiate between their own thoughts and the thought patterns they took on as part of the role.

Which actors have used the method technique?

Daniel Day-Lewis

Daniel Day-Lewis has gone method for many of his famous roles. For Lincoln, he didn’t break character for seven months before filming until the last day on set. He also banned the film’s crew from discussing any modern-day current events, and communicated with his co-stars only in character, even via text message.

For his role in The Crucible, he lived on the film’s set, which was a replica of a colonial village with no electricity or running water. He used 17th-century tools to build himself a house on the set, where he remained for the duration of filming.

Robert De Niro

Another renowned method actor, Robert De Niro has used the technique for several roles, including Taxi Driver, for which he would use his filming breaks to take on 12-hour shifts as an actual taxi driver, ferrying passengers around New York City.

He also took on a physical transformation for his role in Raging Bull, for which he gained more than 30kg. He said it was important for him to actually gain the weight, rather than use prosthetics, so he could get into the mind set and understand the physical and mental challenges that come with being overweight.

Forest Whitaker

To take on the role of former Ugandan president Idi Amin, Forest Whitaker actually moved to Uganda. He learnt to perfect the accent, and even to speak Swahili. He also spent time with Amin’s family and studied his characteristics and mannerisms. The result was a performance that was deemed by many as scarily accurate.

Marlon Brando

Regarded as one of the original method actors, Marlon Brando would regularly embody his characters. For his role in the 1950 war film The Men, Brando spent an entire month in a hospital bed before playing an injured veteran. He also befriended a group of veterans, who had no idea he was an actor, spending months with them. His acting style has been admired by his peers for decades, earning him a place as one of the greats.

Heath Ledger

Heath Ledger’s method approach to his role as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight had tragic consequences. The actor, who died at the age of 28 from an accidental drug overdose when the film was in post-production, locked himself in a room for a month to help him descend into the character’s notorious madness. He scribbled his ramblings in a notebook and practised the Joker’s famously unnerving laugh. It has been suggested that the mental and physical impact of playing the Joker left Ledger with insomnia and depression.

Jared Leto

Jared Leto is another actor who took on the Joker in method style. He plays Batman’s nemesis in 2016’s Suicide Squad, and his notorious antics on set unnerved some of his co-stars, including Will Smith and Margot Robbie, whom he gave a pet rat.

"I did a lot of things to create a dynamic, to create an element of surprise, of spontaneity, and to really break down any kind of walls that may be there," Leto told E! News afterwards. "The Joker is somebody who doesn’t really respect things like personal space or boundaries."

Hilary Swank

To prepare for her role as a transgender male in the film Boys Don’t Cry, Hilary Swank spent a month living as a man. She lost weight so that her face would change to look more hollow, she wrapped her chest and cut her hair, and told her neighbours in California she was “Hilary’s cousin James from Iowa”, she revealed.

Updated: August 9th 2021, 5:03 AM