Method acting is not exactly a new technique of the stage and screen, as its origins can be traced back to the teachings of Konstantin Stanislavsky in the early 20th century. While the idea of completely embodying a character in order to bring about a truly honest performance isn’t a novel one, it’s certainly come into increased prominence in the last few decades. Some actors can take the technique a bit too far, however, pushing the limits of both themselves and those around them.
Here are Screen Rant’s 10 Actors Who Almost Went Crazy in Their Roles.
Robert De Niro - Cape Fear
De Niro’s well-known for paying a dentist several thousands dollars to grind his teeth down in order to pull off the look of the psychotic Max Cady, but he took the role much further than that. The tattoos that the two-time Academy Award winner sports in the film were made with vegetable dyes, which take months to fade, and he’d spent a similar amount of time reading up on and studying the behavior of sex offenders. De Niro’s performance reportedly creeped out Martin Scorsese as much as it did moviegoers, and the actor would jokingly leave voice messages as Cady on his director’s machine just to freak him out.
Nicolas Cage - Birdy
Cage has made a career out of playing outlandish, over-the-top characters. From Vampire’s Kiss to Ghost Rider, Cage has never shied away from his unofficial title as the craziest actor in Hollywood. For his role as a disfigured Vietnam veteran in the 1984 drama Birdy, Cage had four of his teeth pulled just to add an extra dimension to the part. He then shocked the film’s crew by wearing his character’s facial bandages (on and off set) for five weeks straight. Whether you choose to acknowledge his insane talent, or simply dismiss him as a loon, there’s no denying Cage’s place as one of the most fearlessly dedicated thespians in the industry.
Joaquin Phoenix - I'm Still Here
Back in 2008, when this two-time Academy Award nominee announced that he was quitting acting to pursue a career as a hip-hop artist, most assumed it was a hoax. After roughly a year and a half of bizarre behavior and public appearances resulted in this 2010 mockumentary, which was later confirmed to be staged. After the film received a decidedly mixed critical reaction, Phoenix took a break from the acting game. He’s since returned from his self-imposed hiatus to earn a third Academy Award nomination for his phenomenal work in The Master, so it’s safe to say he’s now firmly back on track.
Kate Winslet - The Reader
One of the most extraordinary talents working today, Winslet holds the distinction as the youngest actor or actress in history to be nominated for six Academy Awards. Her first (and only) win came for her role as a former Nazi concentration camp guard in this 2008 drama, a performance that apparently took a significant toll on the actress. She’s said that it took months for her to fully break free of the part, equating leaving the character behind to escaping a serious car accident. Thankfully, Winslet has seemingly moved on in the years since, and she continues to be one of the top actresses in Hollywood.
Adrien Brody - The Pianist
The 6’5 Brody slimmed all the way down to 130 pounds to pull off the emaciated look of a Holocaust survivor in Roman Polanski’s historical drama. He’s since said that the genuine desperation that comes from starvation was something he couldn’t fake, and at times he found himself wondering if he was going to be able to escape the role with his sanity. It reportedly took the actor over a year and a half to settle back into his normal life. Considering that the role resulted in Brody becoming the youngest actor to ever notch a Best Actor Oscar win, we’d say it was worth it.
Jamie Dornan - The Fall
Before Dornan gained worldwide fame for his leading role in the 50 Shades of Grey adaptation, he was starring as the “Belfast Strangler” in this BBC series opposite X-Files star Gillian Anderson. In order to help get himself in the mindset of a serial killer, the 33 year old actor confessed to following a woman off the train and pursuing her (from a distance) for several blocks. He probably should have kept that information to himself.
Shia LaBeouf - Fury
LaBeouf has made every effort to move on to more serious roles since his days of palling around with Optimus Prime and Bumblebee in the Transformers franchise. He’s come into his own as a serious method actor, known for going to various extremes for his movies, and his supporting role in David Ayer’s WWII film Fury was no different. The cast has confirmed that the actor had his own tooth pulled for the part, and even cut his own face with an actual knife - and kept it from closing up throughout shooting - not to mention not bathing in months... with he himself admitting he had “spent days watching horses die.” Even for LaBeouf, that’s another level of commitment.
Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight
Few actors have immersed themselves in a role quite like Ledger did when he was tapped to play Batman’s arch-nemesis, the Joker for Christoper Nolan's The Dark Knight. The actor locked himself away in a London hotel room for a month, keeping a diary and experimenting with various voices and mannerisms until he’d come up with his ideal vision of the character. The result was one of the greatest villainous performances of all time - one that earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2009.
Tragically, Ledger never got to see his work on the big screen, passing away as part of an accidental prescription drug overdose the year prior. The claims that the role actually drove Ledger to his end are almost completely unfounded, but his last completed film role will forever be tied to his passing.
Jared Leto - Suicide Squad
The Clown Prince of Crime is not a role that can be taken lightly, and Leto may have taken his preparation for the part even further than Ledger did. The 43 year old’s decision to stay in character in between takes isn’t all that out of the ordinary, but his gift-giving habits certainly were. He sent his fellow cast members a series of bizarre presents, including a box of bullets for co-star Will Smith and a live rat for Margot Robbie. He even sent the entire cast a video of him in character alongside a dead pig (with one later slapped onto their lunch table filled to the brim with shell casings). Apparently 'method gift-giving' is a thing nowadays.
Daniel Day-Lewis - Basically Every Movie He's Ever Made
Of all the method actors working today, Daniel Day-Lewis may be the name most associated with the technique; no one embodies a character quite like him. From his work in My Left Foot (a film in which he broke two of his ribs because he refused to cease his character’s hunched-over posture) to the six months he spent alone in the wilderness preparing for The Last of the Mohicans, Day-Lewis dedicates his entire life to every role he takes on. But his three Academy Awards paint a very clear picture: he’s clearly doing something right.
What’s your favorite example of an actor pushing himself to the limit? Is method acting the only true way to embody a character? Let your voice be heard in the comments section, and be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel for more videos like this one.