“There’s a part of the creative process that is ineffable”

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Isaac Butler tells us about his new book on Method acting and its history

In a current film landscape where the gap between commercial blockbusters and more challenging work has only grown wider, it might seem counterintuitive to publish a book on Method acting. The style itself is more often evoked in interviews with actors who deny practising it, than it is actually reflected in contemporary releases — the intensely-researched, simulated ego death that we read about in press tours for prestige dramas is, it turns out, the farthest thing from the genuine article. In reality, the evolution of the Method is a story that spans several decades, teachers, and movements in the film industry both domestic and writ large — and yet, contemporary understanding of it has been limited to an intersection of the personal and the practised, in a style of acting that prioritises an actor’s deepest emotions rather than cast them aside. 

Isaac Butler, co-author of The World Only Spins Forward — an oral history of the play Angels in America — attempts to correct these misconceptions in his new book The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act, released on February 1st of this year through Bloomsbury. In a dense, multi-faceted history, Butler chronicles the birth of the Method in turn-of-the-century Russia, its migration to the States during the first World War, and its diffusion inside the world of American theatre — and, later, its film industry — through stars like Marlon Brando and his artistic descendants. Weaving together tales of creative pride, critical disdain, and the philosophy behind what it means to be an actor whose craft relies on the intangible notion of “truth,” The Method is essential reading, not just for its spirited engagement with the many players concerned in shaping contemporary notions of what the Method even is, but also for the candour with which Butler contends with these questions.

As a film critic himself, Butler’s exacting, deeply observant eye for detail is on full display in our conversation, though his analytical prowess goes hand in hand with his emotional investment in the subject matter. This balance between the personal and the studied permeates both the book and this interview, where we discussed the contrasts between his curiosities and the eventual results of the book, as well as the popular image of the Method today and how it fares with what is, to use Butler’s language, a more “pluralistic” landscape for film and television actors.

Claire Davidson (CD): In preparation for this conversation, I read a few interviews you gave during the press tour for The Method, and you said that you were inspired to write the book after playing a role so emotionally entombing and intense that you had to stare at walls for hours in order to recuperate. What role was that?
Isaac Butler (IB): It was the lead role in the play Talk Radio by Eric Bogosian. Barry Champlain is the character’s name. He’s a self-loathing radio shock jock doing a call-in show, and he has a nervous breakdown live on the air. That’s the whole play. You’re just sitting there, chain smoking cigarettes, and after 75 minutes, you have a nervous breakdown — 15 minutes later, the play is over. Student directors have two weeks of rehearsal, and I had no real guidance as to how I should do this. So, I just used what training I had, went really deep into myself, and to all the really ugly parts of me. And I was also chain smoking on stage, real cigarettes — I was a smoker back then, which I do not advise. But even then, on top of my normal smoking, I was smoking fifteen cigarettes over the course of the night. And then I was doing this sort of emotional excavation work, and it just left me feeling physically and mentally ill at the end of the show every night. It was really hard. And I mean, apparently I was great. I just decided that it wasn’t worth it. I just realised that I wasn’t tough enough. 

So, it sort of led me to these twin realisations. One of them was that I shouldn’t be an actor. The other one was, even though I was not going to continue being an actor, I had a new level of appreciation and respect for actors, because they had to be able to go in and out of this kind of state at will. They had to be tough enough to do it, but also vulnerable enough to do it, and that’s really impressive.

CD: What about that experience gave you a curiosity towards the subject for your book? What turned it from a curiosity into a fully fledged book proposal?
IB: I had done this book called The World Only Spins Forward, which was co-written with Dan Kois. I was having lunch with the editor, and he said, “Do you have any ideas for another book?”, and I had three or four ideas. And he said, “I think that Method one’s the most interesting. Would you write a proposal on that?” That’s the very boring story of how the proposal got made. 

But as to how that wound up on the list of ideas: I work as a director, I’ve worked with actors, I’ve performed. I’ve played a lot of different roles in the theatre industry. I’ve also written as a culture writer, and I’ve interviewed actors, and I’ve just always been really interested in artistic processable forms. And I just thought it was really interesting that these peculiar ideas had arisen in Russia. When they arose, they came over to the United States — skipping over most of the rest of Europe — and absolutely transformed how we think about acting here in the US. I thought that was probably an interesting story. And then, when I started digging into it, I discovered that it had a lot of really colourful, larger-than-life characters, and a lot of great conflict and backstage drama — all the things that make for a juicy story. And then I got really excited, both because I thought the story was interesting, and I thought that if I could render that story in an interesting way, and get the audience hooked on wanting to know what happened next. That I could sort of fold them in, you know, like egg whites in a batter. I could kind of fold in all these ideas about creativity, and acting, and American and Russian culture and history. Hopefully, you had a fun time, but you’ve also learned an enormous amount, and it’s sort of sunk in as a result.

CD: You obviously had a lot of experience dancing around this idea beforehand, but what were some of your greatest misconceptions that were challenged in the process of writing this book?
IB: One of the things that I trace for the book is how the definition of the Method in the public eye changes over the course of the 20th century. It eventually becomes this thing that we associate with Daniel Day-Lewis, Robert De Niro, Jared Leto — people doing this really intense research process in which they sort of live as the character, and then refuse to break character once they’re on set. That’s not actually what the Method is. The Method is this totally different thing that has to do with psychology and emotion and stuff like that. I thought that it was both of those things, and that there was more of a link between those things than there really was. And it turns out there’s much, much less of a connection between those two things than I thought.

CD: So you thought the Method was mostly about the research preparation that went into it, to simulate those emotions, rather than the process of getting those emotions out themselves?
IB: No, I just thought you did both, really. And it turns out that Lee Strasberg, who sort of codified that psycho-emotional process here in the United States, was actually very opposed to the thing that we call the Method today, to what Daniel Day-Lewis does and things like that. He would say things like, “Well, if we’re doing a fight scene, and I tell you, ‘Hit me, you got to really hit me,’ that’s not acting. Acting is an imaginative act. So you pretend to hit me, but I am so in the reality of the character that I hold down.”

CD: So many of the stalwarts of the Method style of acting — like the people who are blurbed on the book —  have either died or are rather old. What is it like to write about such an intensely personal process when it comes to people you don’t know, and most likely never will?
IB: That was a thing that I realised shortly around the time that I started writing the proposals — oh, actually, all the teachers are dead! There are still people teaching these theories, but all the original teachers are dead. Most of their protégés and students are in their eighties or older.

I interviewed Estelle Parsons for the book. She’s in her nineties. The good news is that all of these folks left voluminous records, and most of those records are available to the public in places like the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and the Harry Ransom Center, UT Austin. So, for example, you go through Stella Adler’s papers — and you can go through them all, there are hundreds of boxes —  and there are transcripts of decades of her classes. Then, you can watch videos of her classes and listen to audio tapes. And then there are her calendar agendas, and letters and telegrams she wrote to people, and stuff like that. The same is true for Strasberg. You can go read Harold Clurman and Stella Adler’s love letters, if you want to — there’s a lot of material that they left behind. 

Lots of those people wrote memoirs, lots of their friends wrote memoirs, so it’s really just trying to look at them from as many angles as possible, because you want to render them as complex, full human beings, and to have a complicated, neither fully positive nor fully negative view of them, and to make you, the reader, feel like you’re really there with them without them being fictionalised. That’s the real challenge of nonfiction. How to make them feel as vibrant as fiction without making stuff up, without sensationalising. I mean, if you look at the back of the book, there’s tons of research cited, but there’s tons of research that’s not cited, because it’s just about trying to get into their headspace and figure out how they were.

CD: By the time the book reaches the American film industry in the 50s, so many people who were starting to see the Method teachings in front of them for the first time, whether they be casual viewers or critics, didn’t really know how to talk about it. They were associating actors with the wrong teachers, and they weren’t really being attentive to it all. As somebody who works in that space yourself now, why do you think so many critics, even to this day, struggle so much with talking about such an intensely personal style of acting?
IB: Acting is really hard to talk about. I struggled in how I talk about it in the book, for sure. It’s a real challenge. I get off doing this book because if you talk to critics — and believe me, I have lots of friends who are critics — when we have breakfast together and talk shop, one of the things they talk about is how hard it is to describe acting. And one of the things that’s hard about it is you don’t always know what’s going on inside the actor, and that results in the performance you see. There’s all sorts of specialised vocabulary and jargon, and you just never know, you know?

It’s one thing that Stanislavski and Strasberg in particular struggled with in trying to describe their own theories, because there is a part of any art form, of any creative process, that is ineffable, that resists language and description, and that’s fundamentally mysterious. There’s this mysterious thing, and I’ve had actors tell me that. I think that’s part of why. Also, when you’re a film critic or a theatre critic, there’s other stuff going on. One of the things that I think is great is that often, critics have a thing they know a lot about and really specialise in. If you read one person, you might learn a lot about the writing of the thing. If you read another person, you might learn a lot about the acting of a thing. Reading a wide group of critics I think is really helpful. 

Another reason people are having so much trouble understanding what’s going on when the Method first emerges is that it really is new, and it’s very rapidly changing ideas of what acting is, and what good acting is. There’s an older generation that sort of thinks, “What the fuck is this? What is going on? Is this good? I don’t know. Am I gonna be out of work because of this thing?”

CD: You speak in the book about the gendered way in which many people, casual viewers and critics alike, tend to speak about Method acting both in the past and in a contemporary sense — especially in a contemporary sense. You’ve said before that it’s because we don’t view women in the industry as able to be serious, and I definitely think that’s true, but why do you think such infamous accounts of harm are associated with the Method?
IB: The acting teacher who taught Sidney Poitier sexually assaulted many of his students, and was successfully sued by his female students right before his death about civil liabilty for that. There’s a footnote in the book that talks about this.

What I was gonna say is this: look, there is abuse prior to the Method. There’s abuse in acting schools that have nothing to do with the Method, and on sets run by people who are opposed to it. But there is something about imbuing someone with the authority over what is true and what is real that, if people aren’t careful, can open the doors to tyranny and abuse. That’s true in therapy. That’s true in the arts writ large. That is a particular risk, because the Method enshrines truth as one of its highest values. If that authority on what is true is the star of your movie, a director, or an acting teacher, that can create some problems. 

Stanislavski himself would be wary of this. And Richard Boleslawski, his protégé — who was really the person responsible for teaching his techniques in the United States and, among other things, taught Lee Strasberg — was very wary of this. We have a transcript of one of his classes from the 20s where he says explicitly, “You think I’m a genius, you think that I can do all of this for you, that I’m this guru. I’m not. The only thing that’s going to help you is hard work, and paying attention in class, and doing it.” He really didn’t want to be thought of that way. I don’t know if Strasberg, for example, really wanted to be a charismatic, all-powerful guru. He just wasn’t watchful to make sure that didn’t happen. 

It takes more than not wanting it to happen. I say this as someone who’s been a director. When I guest-directed plays, for example, being an up-and-coming director from New York City — you’re going to school, and you’re teaching these kids, and you’re directing them. They really look up to you, right? You have to work really hard to make sure they know that you’re not some all-powerful god or authority figure, you’re not going to make or break their careers. You have to work hard to be like, “Hey, I’m a human being. I’m an artist; let’s work together, let’s collaborate.” It’s a problem of authority, that creates some very particular pitfalls that I think people have to watch out for.

CD: People have this view of the very cerebral, insular, male genius practitioner, when in reality many actors, particularly during the resurgence in the 60s and 70s, were students of the Method, regardless of their gender. Why do you think, even in retrospect, that this very one-note view of this acting style has come into fashion?
IB: Well, part of it is just… Marlon Brando. Marlon Brando didn’t consider himself a Method actor, but Marlon Brando’s performance style, the end result of his process, becomes so essential in the public view of what people think the Method is, and it’s not a performance style that’s really available to women. It’s not a performance style that women are really allowed to do, that really high level of messiness. It’s not until the 70s, in New Hollywood, that women are really allowed to do that. I also think that it’s just sexism, but due to sexism, we’ve forgotten things — for example, Ellen Burstyn is one of the greatest Method actors of all time. And Ellen Burstyn took over the Actors Studio when Lee Strasberg died to make sure that, as an institution, it wouldn’t fall apart without him. She is currently the co-president of the Actors Studio. She is the greatest single painter of Strasberg’s legacy, and the Method’s legacy, but people don’t think about her in context, because we think about male actors more. Jane Fonda, great Method actor. Anne Bancroft, great Method actor. And Shelley Winters. The other thing is that there’s some lost history there as well that I tried to resurrect a bit in the person of Kim Stanley, who was able to be as messy as Brando, and was, in fact, called the female Brando during her life. Kim Stanley was an alcoholic, and she struggled with her mental health, and she only made six movies — and only in a couple of those is she playing a lead, and they’re small films. A lot of that legacy is kind of lost. But it’s absolutely true that there’s a great strain of Method, female performance — in fact, there’s a new book out that’s very good. I corresponded with the author a bit. It’s Women, Method Acting, and the Hollywood Film [by Keri Walsh]. It just came out last year, and it’s very much about this. 

The other thing I think that has maybe contributed to this a little bit is there is a strain of scholarship that argues — and I think they’re wrong — that there’s some inherent sexism to the Method, and that there’s a lot of women who are traumatised by their experience with the Method. There’s a book called An Actress Prepares [by Rosemary Malague] that’s very much about this. I think there’s also been, on top of the sexism, a desire on the Left to kind of disavow the Method when it comes to female performance as something that is purely toxic and harmful. What Women, Method Acting, and the Hollywood Film argues is that, actually, for a lot of actresses of that period, the Method was absolutely essential to their feminist project. It’s an interesting debate, and I think both sides of that debate make some really good points, and probably both are true at the same time. But if you look up a video of Lee Strasberg teaching female students, you know he’s very harsh to everyone. 

CD: In the final few chapters of the book, you discuss the fate of the Method in bleaker terms, crediting the rise of franchise films, more morally simplistic screenwriting, and a whole myriad of things — nothing is monocausal, but I remember you discussing those as two big factors that led to the style’s demise. Do you see another genuine resurgence of the style, akin to something of the 60s and 70s, or do you think that these ruptures in the industry will lead to a more diverse range of styles permanently?
IB: I think it’s permanent. I want to be positive about it. Pluralist diversity is a permanent thing. I just don’t see us going back to a world in which there’s a single, monolithic belief that everyone exists in relationship to, whether they agree with it or dissent from it, in any corner of American life. The Method is one of many of those monoliths that broke apart in the 80s and 90s. I think a lot of good stuff came out of that being broken up. 

There are still people who practise the Method. There are core parts of standard philosophies and ideas that are still the absolute foundation of American acting, directing, and dramatic writing training. The question is, in this new, pluralistic world, this marketplace or buffet of ideas, do we still have room for complexity? Do we still have room for complicated performances, where we’re not sure if the person is what we think, whether we like them or not? Do we have a complex view of their humanity and their soul? I just hope that we do have that. You certainly don’t get that from Marvel movies. 

I think the big crisis over the last year, if you follow box office numbers — because, again, the business world has a lot of impact on this — I’m not sure that kind of complexity is going to live on in the American film that’s shown in a movie theatre. No non-blockbuster film cracked $50 million at the box office last year, for the first time. You’re breathing deep with anxiety! People don’t want to go see non-blockbuster films in the theatre, you know? I think that’s going to have a profound impact on what acting is, going forward. My only hope is that, okay, if it’s not going to be the movies that are shown in the theatre, then it’s the movies that are streamed, or it’s the television shows. That then other art, other aspects of acting, will pick up the slack, but I don’t know that they will. I hope they do.

CD: In doing research for this, and fully immersing yourself into some material from an actor’s perspective, you obviously got a more fleshed-out view of the Method. Do you think you’ve gained a bit more respect and a bit more versatility talking about other different styles of acting as well?

IB: I’ve always liked studio films of the 30s and 40s. Those pre-Method movies, I’ve always enjoyed them. But reading a lot about how the business worked during those decades actually gave me a whole new appreciation for what those actors are doing, because the norms of what it means to be a good actor at that time are actually entirely different. They’re entirely different from what they are today. I’ve always been someone who likes a wide variety of things. I go to see plenty of experimental plays, where there’s no call for realistic performance. I like silent movies, which have a very high performance. I like opera, which is very heightened. I’ve always tried to be open-minded, but I do think that I gained a new appreciation for how each of these genres of acting have their own rules of what’s good and bad, and their own ideas of what human experience is, and that you can learn a lot through trying to view them through their own lens, instead of through our present day, if you try to be like, “Well, what is his vision of human experience?” 

CD: I definitely think so. Near the end of the book, you talk about how, even though a lot of people have no idea of the history of what they’re discussing, many Method traditions have seeped into our contemporary view of acting. For example, how actors talk about their characters in the first and third person interchangeably. I’ve always thought that one of the laziest criticisms in acting was, “this person only plays one type of character, they only play themselves,” because I feel like that’s kind of ahistorical.
IB: I mean, during the pre-Method era, that was what you wanted. Actors had a carefully crafted persona — that was their type, and every role they did related to that type in some way. George Clooney, I think, actually still maintains that kind of thing: there’s an essential Clooney-ness in each role. 

For me, I would say a couple of different things: Stanislavski’s ideas, they’re the groundwater now, or the foundation. They’re the cornerstone. They’re just there. They are part of the firmament. As you said, even when we don’t know that we’re speaking from the point of view of those ideas, or engaging with those ideas, we usually are. To give just a silly example, anytime you say “story beat,” that’s a Stanislavski idea. What I like to think about in terms of acting, at this point, is that I would hope that we can talk about it as contextually as possible.