If you’re an actor, acting coach, acting teacher, or just plain fascinated by the craft of acting, you must watch Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond on Netflix. The docu-mentary follows actor Jim Carrey and details his journey from beginning to end as he played his idol Andy Kauffman in the 1999 movie The Man on the Moon. Not only does the film document his acting journey as Andy Kauffman, but it also dives into the complicated and brilliant mind of Jim Carrey himself as an actor and a hu-man being.
Jim didn’t just pretend to be Andy Kauffman during the filmmaking process, he claims Andy essentially possessed him from the day he was told he got the part until the film was complete. He refused to answer to “Jim” on set and spoke only as Andy, often doing strange and reckless things in order to fully embody his comedic idol. Some would say he took things a little too far, causing heated arguments, emotional turmoil and even physical pain to himself and his colleagues on the film set. He was chastised by some as an extreme method actor.
This documentary was incredible and brought up so many thoughts on method acting. If you are familiar with Jim Carrey at all, you know he has been somewhat of a poster child for existentialism in Hollywood. In his personal life, he has experienced tragic loss, tremendous success, and everything in between. So hearing how particular roles have affected this journey of self (and vice versa) over the years was simply fascinating. You cannot listen to his words without considering your own mortality for at least a brief second.
But for me, it sparked the question, is the term method acting being used correctly in Hollywood and elsewhere for that matter? With such a negative connotation, and more so now after this documentary, is method acting something we should idolize or criticize? What is method acting and what is it NOT? Did Jim Carrey take method acting too far?
What is method acting?
The term “method acting” has evolved from the teachings of legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg. Strasberg taught a style of acting based on that of Constantine Stanislavsky- Russian acting teacher who is the most important person in the history of acting. (Nearly all methods of acting are based at least in part on Stanislavsky’s teaching.) His style of acting came to be known as The System, and Strasberg’s style based on The System came to be known as The Method.
The essence of Lee Strasberg’s The Method is this: an actor must use affective memory to bring about real emotion. The focus is on the details of a particular situation in order to create a remembered emotion.
For example: if we think back to a particularly emotional event in our past (the death of a loved one, the birth of a child, ect.) we should be able to recreate the emotion by calling to mind all the sensory details that were involved. What were you wearing? How did the room smell? Was it cold? Hot? Humid? Who was there with you? What were they wearing? What did they say? By recalling each and every detail, we can essentially bring back the natural emotion now in a controlled environment.
Sounds a little more complicated than the term “method acting” that gets thrown around a lot, right?
What method acting isn’t.
The term “method acting” has come to be known as the crazy actions of an actor who takes his or her role too far, doing things they would never normally do for the sake of becoming the character. Method acting does not mean diving off a cliff because it’s what your character would do. It does not mean dying your hair and wearing strange clothes just for the sake of understanding this person you are playing. It is a series of training techniques in which the actor learns to use affective memory to bring up true emotion. It’s possible that wearing certain clothes or try-ing to experience specific sensory details would help in achieving that affective memory. But method acting is not simply an extreme game of make believe.
Film actors often lose or gain substantial amounts of weight for a particular role. They often train relentlessly at the gym, learn a language or an instrument, and even sometimes uproot their lives for a period of time in order to experience what their character has experienced. These things are typically referred to as “method acting”. But by definition, the actor who quietly uses exercises from the Strasberg method like relaxation, concentration, and sense memory would also be a method actor.
As actors, I think it’s important to make this distinction and defend our craft against the negative stigma that the dreaded “method actor” has come to possess. The truth is every actor uses some sort of method, whether Strasberg’s or a number of others. All acting methods use varying degrees of techniques to achieve a believ-able character. Where you draw the line between those exercises and reality is up to you. Jim Carrey just happened to draw that line far, far beyond what most actors would. Some would argue that makes him the best in the business. Some would ar-gue that makes him partially insane. I say, watch the documentary and decide for yourself.