It’s difficult to define a method actor because the term can be used to refer to a variety of things. There is no single “method” which actors pursue this type of acting, and actors labeled as “method” may have studied in a variety of ways and under instructors who have vastly different perspectives on how acting should be pursued. Method acting is not an American concept; it was developed playwrights such as Anton Chekhov and Russian actor and director Constantin Stanislavski. Only Stella Adler was a student of Stanislavski among the first generation of method acting instructors in the United States, which began to coalesce in the 1930s. Others taught various forms of method adapting Stanislavski’s concepts.
The big method acting movement started in the United States in the mid-twentieth century, and there were several instructors teaching different types of method acting at the time. Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner are among them. A method actor may have studied with all or some of these teachers and may use a variety of techniques to hone his or her craft. During his career as a teacher, Strasberg advocated for a variety of approaches.
The Meisner method is often the one that the general public associates with method acting. Actors who completely immersed themselves in their characters and acted in the moment to create a genuine response or action under fictitious circumstances, according to Meisner, achieved the most authentic acting. Though a performer’s actions on stage appear to be spontaneous, the Meisner method requires extensive pre-performance preparation, including partner exercises and rote learning of lines.
Strasberg’s method acting is more of a sense of character analysis combined with the use of the method actor’s memories to inform and fill a part. Stella Adler took a different approach and requested a more in-depth character analysis. She is perhaps best known for the work of a few of her students, including Robert DeNiro and Marlon Brando, both of whom are well-known method actors.
Essentially, the method actor’s job is to figure out how to inhabit the character and give him or her realism using both analysis and sensitivity to the character, as well as real-life emotions. There’s less emphasis on the character’s morality and more on how to bring him or her to life in the most authentic way possible. It’s easy to associate “method acting” with actors like Robert DeNiro or Marlon Brando. Bring a fully realized character to the screen in either the role of Vito Corleone or the Godfather.
Dustin Hoffman is another well-known method actor, and one of the best explorations of method for movie fans can be found in the film Tootsie. Hoffman’s character instructs other actors in the opening sequence, and he continues to do so throughout the film using Method principals, a mash-up of Meisner, Adler, and Strasberg’s methods.
Other schools have sprung up since then that take some aspects of method acting seriously, but it would be unrealistic or foolish to claim that method actors are the only true actors. Many actors don’t use any of the method styles and still manage to deliver chilling, emotional, or incredibly realistic performances. Although the method actor has honed specific methods of the craft based primarily on Strasberg or Adler’s teachings, there are many other actors who are just as skilled and act in completely different ways.