Method in acting and science: Why there is no such thing

Marlon Brando in 'On the Waterfront'

Marlon Brando in ‘On the Waterfront’

Growing up in China, with the state television often showing boring programs, I was hooked to our cherished VCR and movies. My favorite actors growing up were Al Pacino and Robert De Niro (no surprises there).

It was only later on that I discovered while doing my PhD in the Netherlands, that actors like Pacino and De Niro were brothers-in-arms, fathered by one Marlon Brando. I hadn’t, until then, seen any of his older films and was under the superficial impression that The Godfather that was his finest performance. By chance, not to mention the miracle of the Internet, I downloaded Brando’s earliest movies and started watching them in chronological order. Throughout all of these impressive groundbreaking films, I was amazed at the way in which Brando painted the screen with the poetic movement of his hands, the touching winks of his eyes, the gentle tone of his voice, and the overall artistry of his acting instrument: his body and his spirit. It was a ride of constant amazement, joy and, surprisingly, humour. I found myself laughing at the emotions that he was able to convey in the most mundane and inconsequential scenes. I giggled in amazement that someone could do such things in a medium that until then, despite having seen loads of movies and admired lots of actors, I had never thought could provide such depth and artistry.

Robert De Niro in 'Taxi Driver'

Robert De Niro in ‘Taxi Driver’

And I wondered: what made it possible? How was he able to do that? Sure, he was a genius but I also knew that he had been ‘method trained’. So I took the natural path towards finding out about Stanislavski, Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg and others. I imbibed acting books, tried method acting at home in front of the mirror, rehearsed scenes from movies, and even, on occasion, used my method acting “skills” in everyday life. I remember being fascinated with the great emphasis that Stanislavski placed on having a loose body. Following his advice, I tried lying on my bed, as would a cat, with every body part totally relaxed. I realised that without my knowing, my toes would often be very tense. Relaxing them made me feel mentally relaxed as well.

Karl Popper

Karl Popper

At the same time, since I was studying science, I naturally got interested in the scientific ‘method’. I read up on Popper and other philosophers. What Popper said about ‘Falsification’ as the ‘method’ that scientists use seemed just right. I quoted him quite smugly and somewhat unthinkingly in discussion and debates with my colleagues. Apart from method, I found myself drawing other parallels between acting and science generally. When I heard Mickey Rourke talk about training to be an actor and practicing his craft for years like “a monk,” I envied him and realised that this was exactly what I had been guilty of not doing. The inspiration had been there but I was not putting in the long yards into my research.

However, as I read up more on the ‘scientific method’, I started running into blind alleys. For example, the first casualty was my Popperian idol. I realised that if science were to work on falsification principles, there would be virtually no science at all. For instance, objects not flying off the surface of the earth was a clear piece of falsifying evidence that Galileo’s hypothesis of a rotating earth was ‘wrong’. There are numerous other such examples as well. Similarly, I felt that other prescriptive recipes or algorithms or methodologies of science, could also be criticised and did not quite reveal how scientists went about doing their jobs.

At the same time, my reading on acting revealed to me that the method of Lee Strasberg (who had taught Al Pacino) was considered by Stella Adler (who had taught Brando and De Niro) to be faulty at best, fraudulent at worst! Especially under attack was Strasberg’s use of ‘sense memory’, in which an actor uses memories from her past to emote. See the clip below in which Dennis Hopper demonstrates the use of ‘sense memory’ quite brilliantly:

On the other hand, in De Niro’s words, Stella’s method consisted more of using imagination to get into the character rather than the actor getting into their own “neurosis” (De Niro’s exact word). I found out that there had been bitter polemics on the subject bringing into sharp focus the question as to what actually constituted method acting, with all sides claiming to be the true heirs of Stanislavski. And finally, there were ‘non-method’ actors like Lawrence Olivier who felt that every performer had his or her own method.

Al Pacino in 'Serpico'

Al Pacino in ‘Serpico’

The situation quite naturally became such that no matter how hard I tried, I could not coherently describe either of the two (acting and science) methods, apart from platitudes such as ‘trying to find the truth by abstracting away the clutter’ etc. Luckily, I found some peace, when at roughly around the same time, I heard two people I greatly admired in acting and science say the exact same thing about method. Al Pacino talking about Brando and method acting, and Chomsky responding to a question on the scientific method, said: “There is no such thing!” There it was at last; something that should be have been clear from the get-go: There is no algorithm, there is no recipe, in short there is no general method. The best we have are broad guidelines.

Chomsky went on to add something, which I am sure Pacino would endorse: “There is no such thing and the best you can hope for is to get a good mentor and do your apprenticeship”. I am thankful that I got David Hales in science; as for acting, I have no plans of pursuing that line, though I greatly appreciate the work put in by great actors, and I am still fond of drawing parallels between the two fields.


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16 thoughts on “Method in acting and science: Why there is no such thing

  1. Interesting read! I like how you drew insights from two different disciplines. I wouldn’t have thought to connect the scientific method with method acting the way you did here. I like the conclusion you came to, though I suspect it would make many scientists and actors quite nervous. Haha.

  2. Very interesting Post Rameez and lovely video by Hopper. It’s fascinating to see someone like you who is already a cross-disciplinary scientist taking such an interest in this art. I too believe in Film and I move between cutting-edge IT and writing. Like to hear more from you in future. And James Curnow – keep you the excellent blog.

  3. Really interesting read, and one connecting areas of thought I wouldn’t have thought to compare – thank you.
    Much as I admire both Chomsky and Pacino, I’m not sure that I agree with the ‘there is no method’ perspective. Rather, I think that methods are created rather than discovered, and are an imaginative leap. They create incredibly useful structures that bring us closer to some idealised ‘best’ we can never achieve. They can always be improved upon, they always have their limits, but to dismiss their validity runs counter to the evidence that scientific methods have improved our understanding of the world and acting methods have created fabulous performances.

    • Thanks for commenting! I don’t think we are disagreeing. So what many philosophers of science tried to was to see what is it that scientists do, what leads them to their success, what is their method? Well, it turned out that it wasn’t quite straightforward as that. A look at the history reveals that the so-called “method” is all over the place. Certain guidelines are shared but sometimes not even that. Its often a judgement call. In some fields what goes under the name of ‘method’ is some course on methodology of statistics. Well, that’s fine, but that really is only a small part of the big picture. Physicists for example don’t take a course in the method of doing physics. As a young researcher, I naively wanted the “method” written down somewhere which I could imbibe and then get on with my research. Well, that’s a fool’s errand as I discovered later 🙂

  4. An academic and thoughtful article, that got me thinking. I thought of James Dean, Montgomery Clift, and looked back on Brando’s early years too. They all displayed that same angst, and inner turmoil, when giving their best performances. Pacino often just shouts, but De Niro did change himself physically sometimes too. (Raging Bull)
    If your conclusion is that the Method School, and the scientific approach make no difference, I am not sure that I wholly agree. Especially as those actors trained in this fashion, do stand out from so many others who were not. Very enjoyable read though, and thanks a lot for posting it on Curnblog.
    Regards from England, and compliments of the season, Pete.

    • Apologies, I was tired this evening! I did not mean to include the words ‘and the scientific approach’ in my comment, no idea why I typed that! I realised too late to delete it.

    • Thanks for commenting. No, that was not my point. I guess my point was related to how there was no “method” to doing science and acting. What goes by the name of method acting can take many different forms, around some broad guidelines, with specific (and different) strands taken by different teachers (schools of thought). And then finally, I guess it also differs from one practitioner to the other. It is also true of science in that there is no general method. Sometimes one case is enough to convince the community that a theory makes sense; sometimes not even one is required and people just accept the thing; and sometimes several pieces of evidence in favour (of a theory) are still not enough. and so on…

  5. Interesting post. Those broad guidelines you mentioned allow actors to shape it to their own talent and art. It’s a flexible way to approach characters and has worked for many. The best ones employ it as means to become the chameleon.

    • Posted the reply to you below by mistake. Anyway, here it is again: Indeed, as we have in science: correlation does not imply causation; the result might be an artefact of the experimental set-up; start theorizing with highly abstracted models and gradually fill in the details (if you want it to apply it to the real world), etc etc and etc!

  6. Good commentary. So many of the actors you name here are fantastic and have given (or continue to give) some truly powerful performances. And their method couldn’t be more different from other great actors’ (say Laurence Olivier). Which further supports your thesis. 🙂

  7. excellent and unusual approach to the subject of method acting. here are some aditional thoughts for your consideration. stanislavsky’s tricks of the trade were devised to help the inexperienced actor hold his own place on stage with the experienced actors, who needed no such tricks to do their job. his ideas on how to help the untrained actor survive came to the united states via michael chekhov and were further diluted by stella adler and lee strasberg. the little miracle here is that the misunderstanding of stanislavky’s theories led to what was the perfect acting style for motion pictures and especially the work of american dramatists like tennessee williams in their translation to film. the finest generation of US actors were trained in what became known as the method. but Brando went deeper than all of them. in the early days of greek theatre when actors wore masks to express emotions, there was no need ot faking facial expressions to communicate states of mind and feeling. when the masks came off, actors had to be trained to simulate these masks, and the artificial yet sometimes stunning style of the british actors was born. what Brando accomplished was a return to the greek mask via a jungian journey through sense memory. in other words, he went so deep into the emotional quagmire that he became transformed into a new, living mask that represented more truly than ever before the inner state of humanity. it was neither a carvedmask nor a false approximation of basic emotions. when you watch brando on the screen, he takes you down deep into the primordial truth. you read in his face what you feel in your own heart. i have seen no other actor accomplish this. actors such as deniro and pacino are fun to watch as they arouse us with torrents of fake emotion, but brando gives us the real thing.

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