Appreciation

'An Actor's Work': Method Reacting

A century ago, Konstantin Stanislavski's guide for actors started a revolution. It still inspires today

An Actor's Work | AN ACTOR'S WORK A new translation of two Stanislavski treatises that underpin classic performances by Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Daniel Day-Lewis, and more
AN ACTOR'S WORK A new translation of two Stanislavski treatises that underpin classic performances by Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Daniel Day-Lewis, and more

''An Actor's Work'': Stanislavski revisited

Is there a moviegoer left who doesn't know what Daniel Day-Lewis is willing to do for the love of acting? Profile writers invariably marvel that the actor learned to hold a paintbrush with his toes to play an artist with cerebral palsy in My Left Foot, mastered canoe making to play an adopted Indian in The Last of the Mohicans, and excelled at knife throwing to play a 19th-century New York thug in Gangs of New York. What's more, any reference to his work habits is bound to mention Day-Lewis' fabled preference for remaining in character, even off camera. The star glowered menacingly at Leo DiCaprio during Gangs lunch breaks! He remained in his wheelchair with his two perfectly good feet dangling even after My Left Foot director Jim Sheridan called Cut! He slept in a prison cell for In the Name of the Father!

Divorced from an explanation of intention and practical effect, such exotic preparation is bound to sound obsessive, eccentric, even agonized. Yet the results are singular: Daniel Day-Lewis has learned how to disappear and be replaced on screen by Gangs' Bill the Butcher, or Mohicans' Hawkeye, or There Will Be Blood's Daniel Plainview, the role that just earned him his second Best Actor Oscar. These are all psychologically believable, identifiably realistic individuals, their characters built with the precision and calibrations of a craftsman.

It's doubtful that Konstantin Stanislavski had knife-throwing prowess in mind when the Russian actor and director first worked out his groundbreaking approach to the business of acting over a century ago at the Moscow Art Theatre. But Day-Lewis is just the latest, most earnest adept of Stanislavski's philosophy, which rejected the stylized grand gestures and declamations that were, until then, the prevailing style of Western stage performance — and created the dominant style of acting today.

Stanislavski called the detailed process he invented to analyze the components of creating a character a ''system,'' and distilled his thinking into two dense treatises, An Actor Prepares and Building a Character. Now Jean Benedetti has supplied a fresh, clarifying translation of both books to produce the new manual, An Actor's Work. Theater students, scholars, and those who want to parse the differences between Stanislavski's system and the American adaptation known as Method acting will want to delve into chapter thickets concerned with muscular release, ''Emotion Memory,'' and the truth that ''where there is no awareness of living feelings that are parallel to the character's, there can be no talk of a genuine act of creation.'' Lay readers, meanwhile, may want to just dip in and out of its wisdom about the importance of ''truthful, simple physical actions'' and consider that without Stanislavski, there would be no Blood.

There would also be no Robert De Niro, fat, furious, and incendiary as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. And there would be no Stanley Kowalski, Terry Malloy, or Don Vito Corleone from Marlon Brando, no Jimmy Markum in Mystic River from Sean Penn, no Maggie Fitzgerald in Million Dollar Baby from Hilary Swank, or horrifyingly gaunt insomniac Trevor Reznik in The Machinist from Christian Bale. Never mind Dustin Hoffman's exertions as a New York runner terrorized in a dentist's chair by a Nazi war criminal in Marathon Man — the real loss would be Hoffman's exertions in Tootsie, playing both soap opera actress Dorothy Michaels as well as pain-in-the-butt unemployed actor Michael Dorsey, a purist so committed to the Method that he refuses to sit when cast as a tomato because, he says, ''it wasn't logical.''

''The life of the character [an actor] is portraying, fashioned out of material drawn from his Emotion Memory, is often dearer to him than his own everyday life,'' wrote Stanislavski, urging his students to draw on personal memories of feelings to stay in touch with what's real. The advice sounds so Russian — and so...American. Hoffman's costar in Marathon Man, Laurence Olivier, was famously dismissive of the Method, with a particularly Blighty-centric distaste for the messy Yank interior psychological approach to character rather than the tidier, sturdier, exterior-oriented British way. The fact that the British-born, Irish-identified Day-Lewis immerses himself so ardently in a system as Russian — and as American — as Stanislavski's revolutionary, emotionally naked, physically fearless approach to creating realistic characters is a measure of the Oscar winner's own force of character, true. But it's also a measure of the elegance of Konstantin Stanislavski's system, the marvel of the Method.

Originally posted Mar 07, 2008 Published in issue #982 Mar 14, 2008 Order article reprints