“My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?” These were the words that the venerable thespian Laurence Olivier uttered to an overtly enthusiastic Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man. The latter, who had a reputation for being a method actor, lost over a stone and decided to go three days without sleep to be more convincing in the role of Babe – an acting style that Olivier felt was somewhat unnecessary.
But Hoffman was by no means the first, as it’s a technique that dates back to Constantin Stanislavski at the turn of the 20th century, nor will he be the last to adopt this immersive, emotionally involved approach. And Jared Leto – who dons the familiar, sadistic smile of The Joker in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad – has controversially, and notoriously vied to get into the mind of the role during his preparation. Which, when dealing with a character so callous, devoid of empathy and downright bonkers, is a recipe for disaster.
A fake story has circulated this week featuring quotes from Will Smith – who plays Deadshot – claiming that his co-star is an “ass”. Now, there may not be any evidence that these remarks actually exist, but it would hardly be surprising, as Leto was said to have sent a series of horrific gifts to his colleagues, ranging from a dead hog, a live rat, bullets, used (yes, used) condoms, and anal beads. Producer Charles Roven was quoted when speaking to Collider, that the actor refused to answer to anything but ‘Mr. J’ and that he isolated himself from the rest of the group.
But film shoots are like any job, and camaraderie is essential – you spend long days, and six day weeks in the company of this small collective of people, and to deliberately distance yourself is a questionable decision. Leto would be forgiven had the performance been a more accomplished one, but he was arguably the weakest thing about Suicide Squad – so was it really worth pissing off a bunch of actors you may well be collaborating with again one day?
He doesn’t even have an awful lot of screen time, and when he does feature he lacks that vacancy behind the eyes, which allowed for both Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger to perfect the same role – a certain unhinged, unpredictability about their demeanour where you feel they have no remorse. Leto didn’t capture that succinctly enough, but perhaps had he spent less time shopping for dead pigs he might’ve been able to.
Leto isn’t the only actor to go to extreme lengths – just take Robert De Niro. You can understand why he took up boxing training to portray Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, for subtle details like the stance, the drop of the shoulders, when perfected, make a world of difference. You can also comprehend why actors lose/put on weight for roles – if they aren’t damaging their health (which Tom Hanks feared he had done when preparing for Philadelphia), given their physical appearance in a film is so essential, and rather difficult to fake. But De Niro took it a step too far in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, when he genuinely got a cab licence for the role of Travis Bickle, and drove people around the streets of New York City, which, if you think about it, is completely absurd.
Tom Cruise started delivering packages to people ahead of his performance in Collateral; in a bid to blend into the crowd, Halle Berry reportedly didn’t shower for a fortnight for Jungle Fever; while Jamie Dornan allegedly risked his reputation, and freedom, when following a girl home one day to get into the mindset of his role in The Fall. Daniel Day-Lewis decided to live on the set when acting in The Crucible… Go home Dan, go home.
On the outside, method acting can appear to represent a lack of imagination on the actor’s part, or perhaps it’s just a prolonging of actually starting the work set out in front of them. They can get so caught up in ‘research’ that maybe it’s just a means of putting off the actual work they’re being paid for.
But hey, who am I to judge? If it means conjuring up some of the very finest performances we’ve ever seen grace the silver screen, then let the actors go about their preparation in whichever way they like. If they feel it helps to inform, enrich and craft their performance, then let them go about it. De Niro is breathtakingly good in Taxi Driver, Hoffman equally in Marathon Man, and Day-Lewis is just about remarkable in anything he’s even been in. But used condoms, Jared… Really?