Method in the Madness: 10 Times Actors Went Too Far

Once upon a time ‘The Method‘ was…well a method an actor could employ in order to better connect with their character. And… if you will, a method for drawing on personal experience and emotional memory to lend a performance authenticity. Now though, ‘The Method’ has become less of a method, and more of an extreme sport in which actors vie with each other to see who will go to the most outrageous lengths to get inside a character’s head (instead of, you know, acting).

Here then are ten instances where method actors took things altogether too far.

1. Adrien Brody – THE PIANIST (2002)

Brody’s route to Oscar glory might not be the most extreme example of Method Madness, but he still went the extra yard for his portrayal of Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman. Not exactly a fatty in the first place, Brody dropped 40 pounds to fill the role. He also learned to play the piano, practicing four hours a day for months, and to better appreciate Szpilman’s predicament gave up his apartment, disconnected his phone, and moved to Europe with little more than the clothes on his back. He even dumped his longtime girlfriend so he could cry convincingly on screen. But at least he got to snog Halle Berry.

2.  Christian Bale – THE MACHINIST (2004)

Extreme weight fluctuation is the hallmark of the truly dedicated Method Man, and no one does it quite like Bale. He shed 62 pounds – an entire Olsen twin – to play a chronic insomniac in director Brad Anderson’s gloomy thriller, subsisting for weeks on a daily diet of an apple and a can of tuna, washed down with water and a single cup of coffee. Ignoring the anguished cries of his internal organs, Bale then force-fed himself like M. Creosote at an all-u-can-eat buffet to bulk up for BATMAN BEGINS (2005).

3. Nicolas Cage – BIRDY (1984)

To get inside the mind of a damaged Vietnam vet, Cage had four of his teeth pulled without anesthetic and kept his face swathed in increasingly fetid bandages for over a month. When he eventually peeled them off, his skin was a livid mass of acne and ingrown hairs. Five years later, he one-upped himself in horror-com Vampire’s Kiss by eating a live cockroach on camera. Twice.

4. Shia LaBeouf – FURY (2014)

In order to accurately portray a WWII tank gunner, LaBeouf found it necessary to actually join the U.S. National Guard, spending a month on a forward operating base as a chaplain’s assistant in the 41st Infantry. “I pulled my tooth out, knifed my face up, and spent days watching horses die,” he told Dazed magazine. For further authenticity, LaBeouf  refused to bathe for four months, which, given the confines of a Sherman tank, must’ve been a blast for his co-stars

5. Billy Bob Thornton – SLING BLADE (1996)

It’s an old actor’s trick to put a marble in your shoe in order to affect a convincing limp. Thumbing his nose at such namby-pamby half-measures, Thornton achieved psycho-killer Karl Childers’ signature shuffle by spiking his boot with broken glass.

6. Hillary Swank – BOYS DON’T CRY (1999)

To prepare for her audition as trans teen Brandon Teena, Swank lived as man for a month, cutting her hair short, strapping her breasts down and padding her pants with a pair of balled up socks. She was so convincing her neighbors believed the stranger among them was Swank’s brother.

She also trained so obsessively for her role as a boxer in MILLION DOLLAR BABY, she failed to notice a ruptured blister on her foot that led to a near-fatal staph infection.

7.  Tom Cruise – COLLATERAL (2004)

For his role as a professional assassin in Michael Mann’s classy neo noir, Cruise decided he had to learn to blend in with a crowd, something he is spectacularly bad at in real life. To achieve this he chose – as anyone in his position would – to work for a while as a UPS deliveryman. In full uniform, Cruise doled out packages to traders at the bustling Grand Central Market in downtown LA where, despite a laughably thin disguise, he went completely unrecognized – even by the man who sat and chatted to him for several minutes.

8. Robert De Niro – RAGING BULL (1980)

An early exponent of doing crazy shit to prepare for a role, De Niro trained fanatically to play middleweight champ Jake LaMotta, to the point that many ring aficionados believed he could have been a real-life contender. He sparred with LaMotta occasionally, breaking three of his ribs and knocking out a couple of his teeth. After honing his body to the peak of physical perfection, De Niro then spent four months ruining it, packing on over 60 pounds to play the older, fatter LaMotta.

9. Leonardo DiCaprio – THE REVENANT (2015)

No, Leo didn’t actually mix it up with a real grizzly bear. That would’ve been crazy! But he did subject himself to some brutal conditions, risking hypothermia by camping out in freezing temperatures and swimming in icy rivers. A devout vegetarian, he also ate raw bison and slept in an animal carcass. So, not crazy at all.

10. Daniel Day-Lewis – pretty much everything (1985 – 2017)

Day-Lewis is the undisputed king of off-the-dial bonkers methodocity. To wit: he spent two days in a prison cell without food or water for IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER (1993); lived off the land and built his character’s house with 17th century tools for THE CRUCIBLE (1996); spent the entire shoot of MY LEFT FOOT (1989) in a wheelchair, damaging his ribcage in the process; learnt to speak Czech so he could speak English with a Czech accent for THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING (1988); picked fights with random strangers and caught pneumonia after refusing to wear a modern coat on set of GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002); texted co-star Sally Field in character as Honest Abe a year before filming started on LINCOLN (2012); and immersed himself so fully in the world of haute couture for THE PHANTOM THREAD (2017), he was able to recreate a Balenciaga dress from scratch, on his own.

Following THE PHANTOM THREAD, Day-Lewis famously announced his retirement from acting, presumably because of the physical and mental toll his fanatical approach to the profession has taken on him. Whatever the reason, his Method throne is now vacant and waiting to be filled by whichever young pretender is prepared to gouge out an eye or live on the moon for a year in pursuit of a character’s “truth”. Over to you, Bale.

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