Acting Class Los Angeles: Andrew Wood Acting Studio

There has been a lot of discussion in the media of late about “Method acting” and its legitimacy. In a new article in the LA Times, actor Andrew Garfield defends Method acting, and talks about his experiences preparing to play a Portuguese Catholic missionary in Japan for Martin Scorsese’s film Silence.

The “Under the Banner of Heaven” star recalled employing Method acting in Martin Scorsese‘s 2016 religious drama “Silence,” in which Garfield played a 17th century Portuguese Jesuit missionary who ventures to Japan. For the role, Garfield studied Catholicism with renowned Jesuit priest Father James Martin and took special note of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises.

“It’s basically a 31-day retreat that you do where you actively meditate on the life of Jesus Christ and you place yourself, using your imagination, into every single stage and scene and moment of the life of Christ, from his inception to his resurrection,” Garfield said. “It’s a transformational process. I had a relationship with an imagined Christ in my head by the time I had finished this retreat.

That is not the only thing he did to embody the life of a priest.

“I had some pretty wild, trippy experiences,” Garfield added, “from starving myself of sex and food for that period of time.”

What Garfield is describing here is his effort to “live the part”, to live as the character he would portray had lived, or some approximation of that. It seems that this idea of “living the part” has become synonymous with Method acting in our public discourse, as has the practice of staying in character while not performing. These practices may or may not have merit, but they don’t have anything to do with Method acting, at least as it was originally conceived.

Stanislavsky, whose System is the antecedent for the Method, once tried “living the part”. as described in Isaac Butler’s book The Method How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act.

Whenever Stanislavski felt lost, he researched his way forward. Perhaps, he thought, he could understand the Miserly Knight’s solitude by experiencing it himself. So he tried a kind of research that, a century later, would become standard practice in the long line of actors who claimed to follow in his footsteps: He tried to live as his character lived. He traveled to a castle and had the staff lock him in its basement, but all he picked up was “a bad cold and despair … Apparently, to become a tragedian it was not enough to lock myself in a cellar with rats. Something else was necessary. But what?”–

That was the only time that Stanislavsky ever experimented with anything like “living the part”, and he rejected it as a failure.

Nor was it a part of the teaching of Lee Strasberg, who was the American heir to Stanislavsky and is the teacher most associated with the inception of “the Method”. The hallmark of Strasberg’s work was the pride of place that it gave to a technique pioneered by Stanislavsky called emotional memory. With emotional memory, the actor attempts to relive some episode in their past life as a way of supplying the needed emotional content of a scene. Giving this priority to emotional memory became a significant point of contention with Strasberg’s contemporaries such as Stella Adler and Bobby Lewis, who felt that it encouraged self-indulgence in the actor and detracted from the presentation of the writer’s vision.

While I don’t usually teach emotional memory, I can see that it may have its uses. Actors may be called on to start a scene in an extreme emotional state, with no “runway” or stretch of scene that will help them to reach those peaks by going through the character’s experience as suppled by the writer. Emotional memory could be very useful under those circumstances. Also, I think emotional memory may work in another way: not as a rehearsal technique, but as a practice that helps actors get in touch with their emotional life and bring their emotions closer to the surface. The writer Franz Kafka once remarked that a book should be an axe to break up the frozen sea within, and I think emotional memory can function in that way as well: it can help to resurface emotions that have been repressed or buried and make them more available to the actor. I think emotional memory has to be practiced responsibly; it’s not a way to deal with traumatic experiences. That is the proper purvey of the psychologist or psychiatrist.

Regarding living the part, I am not sure. I can see how Garfield’s study of Catholicism and exploration of ascetic existence might have helped him prepare for the role, and he certainly seems to feel that it did. I’m a believer in doing whatever works, and I think every actor’s process is an individual, personal thing. I suppose I am less convinced by the idea of staying in character on a movie set while you’re not acting. It seems to me that it would be well-nigh impossible to sustain the pretense that you are a 17th century priest while hanging around on a movie set between takes. But again, whatever works.