If you enjoy watching older movies, especially the silent films of the 1920s, you may notice that many of the actors of that time performed using the big, bold motions of classical theater; people didn’t yet understand how persistent, confining, and unblinking the lens of the camera was. Today, movements are much more subdued. If you compare the performances of Gustav Fröhlich in Metropolis (1927) and Keanu Reeves in The Matrix (1999), you’ll see what’s immediately obvious: Fröhlich’s face contorts, his body writhes, and his hands are in almost constant motion, whereas Reeves’s expression only changes fractionally and his movements and hand gestures (besides martial arts motions) are minimalistic. These are two hit sci-fi adventure movies made within a century of each other, so how are the acting styles so completely different? Acting itself has changed a great deal in a short time.
Even before cinema began to really sweep the world in the early 1900s, there had been a dynamic change in the “soul” of acting toward focusing on nature and realism. On June 27, 1897, two Russian men named Constantin Stanislavski (an actor) and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko (a playwright) had a lunch meeting that lasted 18 hours, ending at breakfast the next day. The result of that exchange in ideas was what became known as “Moscow art theater” or “the Stanislavski system.” Rather than using large motions to reflect emotion, Stanislavski believed emotion must be experienced. Gone were the days of quite literally going through the motions; roles must be prepared for, studied, and, most importantly, felt.
The resulting work became beloved across the globe and hit New York City in 1923. This system of acting has had a resounding impact on American acting ever since. The American interpretation of Stanislavski’s system became known as “method acting,” which is one of the most common schools of thought in film acting today. Though it started on the stage, method acting is vitally important to the screen. It first hit movie theaters in an influential film called A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) with Marlon Brando. There are several modern schools of method acting. Lee Strasberg’s may be different than Stella Adler’s, but both share the common thread of emphasis on story and character rather than words.
Method acting brought something to the world of cinema that it sorely needed: a mode of acting that could handle close-ups, subdued tension, and big, intense moments. The lens saw clearly the fakeness of the type of acting that was popular for thousands of years and bore into the actor’s soul. In other words, if the actor wasn’t thinking it, it wouldn’t show on their face and the audience wouldn’t feel it. An actor must carve out their experience and live through the emotions and thoughts of the characters to get a real reaction. This intensely difficult process is why some actors do such strange things to get “into the part,” such as staying in character between takes, learning Swahili, practicing the piano for four hours a day, or locking themselves in their apartments and secluding themselves from all social contact. The soul-searching nature of method acting has been both mocked, such as in the film Tropic Thunder (2008), and criticized for its ridiculous intensity.
This is the essence of why film acting can be so very different than theater acting. While it’s true that method acting originated, and is often used, on the stage, it’s cinema where this style is most accepted. Film and its constraints to some extent require small, subdued motion imbued with untold emotion, whereas theater demands more vitality and energy to reach the full space of its audience.
There are other, simpler differences between screen and stage acting, too. For instance, theater must be done in one take. That’s very difficult. But sometimes, having to do take after take after take can be just as difficult. Film requires a lot of moving parts, including lighting, cameras, motion, and the setting. A perfect performance may be interrupted by a microphone dipping into the frame or the wind not whipping in the right direction. Film can have a sizable amount of completely unpredictable interruptions, which can be maddening for a method actor trying to get into character.
There are some who believe that theater is a purer form of acting. Film actors have a metaphorical hammock to fall onto when their performances aren’t good. Good timing, good reactions, and good instincts can be artificially introduced later on by a particularly adept editor. Theater actors work for months and months and need to keep their energy up for hours. Film actors must be ready, with all of their subdued emotion and thought process, at a moment’s notice. Who’s to say one is more difficult or “purer”?
Learn more about stage and screen acting and how “the method” has impacted films from the 1950s onward:
- The Origins of Acting, From Ancient Greece to “the Method”
- Stage Versus Screen: What’s the Big Difference?
- The World in a Frame: Acting
- Stage Versus Screen
- Acting for the Stage
- Delsarte’s Structural Acting System (PDF)
- Naturalism and Stanislavski
- Constantin Stanislavski Biography
- The American Perspective: Robert Lewis, Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner
- The Camera, the Actor, and the Audience
- Acting for the Camera
- What Is Method Acting?
- Extreme Method Acting: 15 Actors Who Took Their Craft to Another Level
- 10 Most Shocking Method Acting Performances
- Method Acting and its Discontents
- Is Method Acting Destroying Actors?
- The Death of Method Acting