When art imitates life: The mad world of the method

Leonardo DiCaprio is reportedly researching drug use while preparing to play Timothy Leary in a new movie. John Hiscock looks at an acting technique that takes empathising to extremes
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The Independent US

Now, the school of method acting is set for the trip of the century as Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio prepares to take on the role of LSD guru Timothy Leary, whose exploits lent the 1960s' counterculture the slogan: "Turn on, tune in, drop out."

Although there is no sign that DiCaprio, who knew Leary before his death in 1996, is planning to indulge quite as outrageously as his subject matter, his habit of approaching every project with a dogged thoroughness is espoused by method actors all over the world.

DiCaprio, who will also produce the film, has hired award-winning playwright Craig Lucas and Leary archivist Michael Horowitz to develop a script for the film, which will focus on the LSD advocate's life between his enrolment at West Point in the 1940s and his escape from prison in 1970.

Depending on whom you ask, method acting is either the most dependable, advanced acting technique or the most overrated. Actors are divided as to its usefulness, although the system has produced some of Hollywood's leading actors, such as Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and James Dean.

Newman has gone so far as to use it in the Pixar animated film, Cars, in which he supplies the voice of one of the cars, saying: "I wanted to be the first animated character on screen to demonstrate method acting."

Most agree that "The Method", as popularised by Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio and the Group Theatre in New York in the 1940s and 1950s, is difficult to learn and to teach. It requires a performer to draw on their own experiences, memories and emotions to shape how a character might react. The intention is that the characters become complex human beings with multiple feelings and desires.

Strasberg's Method was derived from the Stanislavski System, after Konstantin Stanislavski, who pioneered similar ideas at the Moscow Arts Theatre.

Additional reporting by Jerome Taylor and Kate Thomas

Marlon Brando On The Waterfront, 1954

Widely regarded as one of the greatest actors of the last century, many regard Brando's ability to bring an unnerving, gritty realism to his roles as a direct result of his early schooling in method acting. His performances in films such as On the Waterfront, and also A Streetcar Named Desire, not only sent shock waves through Hollywood but provided inspiration for generations of method actors, including Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro.

Brando started taking lessons at the Actors Studio in New York in the 1940s. For his first film, The Men (1950), Brando spent a month in bed at a war veterans' hospital preparing for his role as a badly wounded soldier struggling to come to terms with his disability. Four years later, his starring role in On the Waterfront earned Brando his first Oscar. "Marlon never really had to learn to act. He already knew," Stella Adler once said of her former pupil.

Paul Newman The Hustler, 1961

One of the best-known exponents of the method technique, Paul Newman made his name with iconic movies such as The Hustler (1961) which he played pool player Fast Eddie. However, while preparing for the film Winning (1968), he found that the research became an obsession in itself. The film tells the story of an obsessive petrol-head and his long-suffering wife and Newman insisted on learning how to race cars under the guidance of US racing legend Lake Underwood. He went on to race in the Le Mans 24-hour race, coming second, and has even had a Nissan car named after him. Now 81, Newman has brought the technique to the world of computer animation. In this summer's joint Disney/Pixar animation Cars, he plays the voice of Doc Hudson. A grinning Newman told reporters at the film's US premiere, "I wanted to be the first animated character on screen to demonstrate method acting."

Dustin Hoffman Marathon Man, 1976

John Schlesinger's psychological thriller Marathon Man (1976) gave Dustin Hoffman the chance to hone the skills he had learned with method maestro Lee Strasberg. He went to extraordinary lengths to prepare himself - at one point disappearing to sleep rough for two days in preparation for the film's most famous scene, in which the Nazi war criminal, played by Laurence Olivier, tortures him. On his return, an enthusiastic Hoffman asked if there was any other way he could prepare for the scene. Olivier is reported to have replied: "Why don't you just try acting, my dear boy? It's much easier." Seven years earlier, Hoffman had won the iconic role of Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy (1969) by engineering an encounter with the film's producer while dressed as a beggar on a street corner in Manhattan. The startled producer was so impressed, he awarded Hoffman the part on the spot.

Robert De Niro Raging Bull, 1980

Twenty-first century actors and actresses are expected to lose or gain weight at the drop of a hat, but Robert De Niro brought similar dedication to the art of acting more than 20 years earlier. For the role of boxer Jake La Motta in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980), he gained an unprecedented 60lbs (more than 4st) and obsessively worked out with professional boxers.

Another protégé of Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg, De Niro habitually researched in minute detail the background to each of his roles. For The Deer Hunter, De Niro spent weeks living among Ohio steelworkers. In preparation for the sociopathic Travis Bickle in Scorsese's Taxi Driver, De Niro worked 12-hour shifts as a New York cabbie for a month.

Sissy Spacek Coalminer'S Daughter, 1980

Arguably the ultimate method actress, Texas-born Sissy Spacek moved to New York in the 1960s, where she hung out with Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan. She was introduced to the Actors Studio by her cousin, Rip Torn, who also trained in the method technique (he starred with Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider (1969)and appeared with Paul Newman in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962). The morning of her audition for Stephen King's Carrie (1976), Sissy didn't wash, put Vaseline on her hair and turned up in her mothballed high- school prom dress. Looking suitably unattrative, she walked away with the role. For Coalminer's Daughter (1980), which documented the life of country singer Loretta Lynn, Spacek toured with the singer for weeks. Lynn's legions of fans were so impressed with Spacek's portrayal they encouraged her to release an album. She did - after winning an Oscar for her performance.

Richard E Grant Withnail And I. 1987

While not renowned as a method actor, the persistence of a determined director forced Richard E Grant to go the extra mile in penetrating the role of down-and-out alcoholic thespian Withnail, in Bruce Robinson's cult hit Withnail and I (1987).

After a childhood growing up with an alcoholic, abusive father, Swaziland-born Grant had always been teetotal. Robinson, however, refused to accept Grant could play the role of Withnail - based on the real story of a down-and-out alcoholic actor - without experiencing the feeling of being utterly inebriated. (This was, after all, the sort of character who resorted to drinking lighter fuel when the wine ran out.) Grant gave in, tried alcohol for the first time and was violently ill. "[Richard's] often told that story," Robinson once said, "but he never bothers with the rest of it, the part where I have to clear the stuff up, which was awful."

Renee Zellweger Bridget Jones's Diary, 2001

Some method actors spend as much time getting into character for the role as they spend making the movie. So it was with Renee Zellweger, who applied - anonymously - for a work-experience placement at publishing house Picador in preparation for her role as Bridget Jones. She has since described how playing the role of an English graduate desperate to break into the publishing industry was an acting challenge in itself. She dropped her Texas accent, ordered takeaways every night and changed her hairstyle. The ploy worked and nobody at Picador recognised her. "I had to go through magazines every day and clip out cuttings about myself," Zellweger said. Fellow chick-flick star Reese Witherspoon was not so lucky. She was recently recognised delivering pizzas on the back of a moped in London in preparation for her role as a delivery girl in Penelope, due for release later this year.

Adrian Brody The Pianist, 2002

If the straitjacket fits, Adrien Brody will wear it. The 32-year-old Oscar-winner only stopped short of complete insanity when preparing for his role as a mentally ill war veteran in the 2005 thriller The Jacket. Strapped into a restraining vest, he spent hours locked in a sensory deprivation chamber to empathise with his character, who gets trapped in the drawer of a morgue. For his 2002 role in The Pianist, material deprivation was the key to his performance, however. Brody sold his Manhattan apartment, car and mobile phone - and learned to play Chopin flawlessly - to emulate the Polish pianist who lost everything to the Nazis. His latest role, in Peter Jackson's King Kong (2005), involved asking staff at Sydney's Taronga Zoo if he could climb into the gorilla enclosure. "They wouldn't let me do it" he says. "But [then] I wasn't playing King Kong. If I had been, I would have done it anyway."

Leonardo DiCaprio The Aviator

DiCaprio's reputation as a teenage heart-throb has somewhat obscured his reputation in the film industry for being able totally to immerse himself in the character he is portraying. For his next role, as Timothy Leary, whom he befriended before the Sixties guru's death in 1996, the actor is expected to research drug use - including LSD - and the counterculture of the 1960s. He calls it "doing his homework". Martin Scorsese, who directed DiCaprio in The Aviator, in which he portrayed the young Howard Hughes, compares him to another Italian-American actor, Robert De Niro, with whom he worked in his early days. "Leo's process is reminiscent of De Niro's," he said. "There are 'shape changers'; people who can change shape. We found ourselves surprised when Leo would walk on the set. It was Howard. I hadn't seen that happen for a long time in pictures."