The sign of a society in strife? Method acting

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Allow me to take you back to the year 2000. John Howard is the Prime Minister; jeans are dark-coloured; hair is aggressively layered; mental health is for weirdos. I am 15. I have dreams. Mainly they are about being invited to appear as a session musician for Placebo at Big Day Out and Spike from Buffy being real and marrying me. I am in year 10.

At school we are allowed to choose our own elective subjects for the first time. For some reason, rather than enrol in a computing class, in which I might get unfettered access to Good News Week fan fiction and pictures of David Duchovny, I choose drama.

One day, early in the semester, I arrive at drama class to find that our teacher, Mr James*, has positioned the chairs in an intimate circle. We all sit, he draws breath, and then, with little explanation, tells us the story of a child he knew who died. He cries extravagantly as he does this. Some of the students begin to cry with him.

When the story has finished, he leans forward. His eyes are no longer teary, they are bright and excited. “What I have just done,” he announces, “is part of method acting.” He explains to us that method acting is about finding life experiences you can draw on and using them to inhabit a character. “Dustin Hoffman stayed up all night if he wanted to look tired,” he tells us. “Now, you are all going to try and find sad memories you can draw on for performances.”

We have reached a point in Western society where performative onerousness is celebrated.Credit:

What follows is full-on. One girl talks about coming out to her parents, another about a horrendous divorce in her family. People are sobbing. I try to think of something that will make me cry, but I am so vicariously traumatised by everyone else that instead I quietly have my first panic attack. (I don’t know it is a panic attack because it is the year 2000.) When the bell rings we are thrust, punch-drunk, back into the everyday world where no one else has spent the past 50 minutes crying and talking about Dustin Hoffman. The emotional whiplash is palpable.

The next week we begin Medea rehearsals. I’m cast as The Chorus. No crying is required. I get a B+. I never do drama again.

Fast-forward to the present. Things are very different. For example, if I was a drama teacher and I wanted to trigger a bunch of teenagers, I would require their parent’s permission, a lit review and ethics clearance. Every You Every Me no longer speaks to my personal torment. The X Files has been rebooted and is awful.

Method acting has changed too. Dustin Hoffman is now an alleged groper whose decision to pull an all-nighter looks positively lazy. Modern method acting is Leonardo DiCaprio sleeping in dead animals and eating raw meat. It is Jeremy Strong asking to be tear-gassed on the set of The Trial of the Chicago 7 and staying in character on Succession to the extent that his cast mates are not even sure if they have met the real “him”.

One day I am at an event, making small talk with a man who I do not like. This person is waxing lyrical about human-eyeroll Jared Leto and how “intense” and “committed” he is. “Apparently he got so into the part that he sent dead rats to the other cast members,” this bloke says about Leto’s performance as the Joker. “And in Morbius he used crutches and a wheelchair the whole time to stay in character.” After this insight, my companion segues into his love of Tough Mudder and I tap out.

It is only later on that it occurs to me that these two things – method acting and Tough Mudder – are symptoms of the same disease. It is no longer enough to simply excel at acting or getting dirty while exercising. We have reached a point in Western society where performative onerousness is celebrated, fetishised even. It is as though the entire point of the activity is to let people know how much you have suffered.

This is not to suggest that amazing things aren’t achieved – Jeremy Strong, for example, is fantastic as deluded, broken Kendall in Succession; but non-method actor Brian Cox is equally wonderful as his abusive, forever-disappointed father

Anyway, while I personally think “going method” is overrated, tales of actorly overindulgence are also completely delicious, so I don’t actually want them to stop. It is deeply satisfying to hear Leto or Strong describe their voluntary suffering in great detail. Which, now that I think about it, sounds sociopathic. Which might be why I couldn’t cry in that drama class?

*Not his real name

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