During the filming of Gucci House, Lady Gaga just couldn’t shake her character, Italian killer Patrizia Reggiani. “I lived like her for a year and a half,” she told British vogue last fall. “And I spoke with an accent for nine months.” Even off camera, she meant. The role consumed her so much, British vogue wrote that she was beginning to “lose touch with reality”; she eventually enlisted a psychiatric nurse on set to help her find her way home.

Gaga’s process lived up to its promise: her performance was among the most praised of the year. Yet even her colleagues wondered if she had plunged into the depths. In the same interview, Gaga talked about filming a scene with Salma Hayek. “I was doing sensory memory work next to her and she was laughing at me,” she said. Hayek jokingly painted Gaga with a catch-all tag familiar to actors of uncommon intensity: “Salma was like, ‘Oh, that f**king method actor is here.’ ”

The term “acting method” is used whenever an actor – Robert De Niro, Daniel Day-Lewis, Christian Bale – is really go for a role. But what does that mean exactly? And why can’t we, as a culture, decide whether the practice is an exciting sacrifice for the sake of the art or a self-aggrandizing extravagance? “The problem is that over the course of the 20th century, the definition of what the method game is and what a method actor is keeps changing,” says Isaac Butler, who recently published The method: how the 20th century learned to act.

The method – as originally devised by Konstantin Stanislavski and adapted by his disciple Lee Strasberg – “is a series of techniques and exercises intended to connect the actor with himself and his own idiosyncrasies” , explains Butler. By employing it, actors “use themselves, their psychology, their life experiences, and their emotions as a means of bridging the gap between actor and character.” There is a Russian word for this state of fusion, where character and actor become one: perezhivanie. Often translated as “experience”, perezhivanie occurs, according to Butler’s book, “when an actor is so connected to the truth of a role, and has entered so deeply into the imaginary reality of the character, that he feels this what the character is feeling, maybe even think about what the character is thinking.

Perezhivanie is what every actor, method or not, is looking for. But experiencing a role day in and day out – completely erasing the boundary between performer and character – was never the goal of mid-century acting coaches like Strasberg and his contemporaries Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner, who formed Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s. “That’s not what these people ever taught,” Butler said. “They always said it was psychologically unhealthy.”

This probably seems at odds with the modern idea of ​​what method play is. Throughout his storied career, Day-Lewis has consistently made headlines for his commitment to staying in character at all times, refusing to speak to Leonardo DiCaprio during filming. New York Gangs spend all the filming of my left foot in a wheelchair while playing Christy Brown, the Irish writer and artist with cerebral palsy. The three-time Oscar winner happens to have denied being a Method actor. “I’m not the method,” he said The New York Times after playing Brown. “I don’t even have a normal way of working. I tend to be wary of all systems of action.

Yet Day-Lewis’ approach to acting in the ’90s changed public perceptions of what method acting was, much like De Niro did when he reprized the role. of the method to Brando. Early in his career, De Niro – who was no fan of Strasberg or his Actors Studio – developed a behavioral rather than a psychological approach and involving an intense preparatory process. He gained and lost 60 pounds to play Jake LaMotta at various stages of his life in Angry bull. In The method, Butler notes that De Niro insisted on staying in character between takes, causing everyone to call him “Jake” or “Champ”. His work was so transformative it won him an Oscar and redefined what it meant for an actor to go all out. Who can forget that DiCaprio ate raw bison liver in The ghost and drive it all the way to its own best actor?

Often this specific type of “method work” is coded as hypermasculine, a show of extraordinary strength or commitment. Gaga aside, Butler notes that it’s rare to hear of a woman undergoing a complete De Niro-style transformation on a film set. But prominent actresses have practiced versions of the method, such as Jane Fonda, Estelle Parsons and Ellen Burstyn, who is currently one of the co-presidents of the Actors Studio alongside Al Pacino and Alec Baldwin. Meryl Streep achieved perezhivanie (and the Best Actress Oscar) by losing weight and learning Polish and German to Sophia’s choice.

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