If you are at all a fan of Daniel Day-Lewis, Anne Hathaway, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, or the many other actors who employ it, you know about method acting. In its most widely known form, (though not quite what Strasberg meant when he coined the term), it is the idea that in order to play a character truthfully, an actor must ‘live’ the character or pieces of the character’s life. For example, if your character has just gotten back from living in the woods for six months, you might go camping. (If you’re Day-Lewis, you might actually live in the woods for six months.)
I personally employ this whenever my character has a habit that I don’t fully understand. For instance, I played Anne in a student-directed production of Noel Coward’s "Shadows of the Evening." Anne is a reticent, upper-class Englishwoman who chain-smokes. I am not a smoker at all and I had no idea how to motivate her smoking. So I took the two weeks of rehearsal and became a smoker in order to learn how to handle a cigarette naturally and to understand why people smoke.
I discovered two things: that I hate smoking (it smells bad, is needlessly messy, and I am ridiculously sensitive to nicotine), and that Anne smokes when she feels things that she does not want to feel or does not know how to express. This insight was helpful, because it allowed me to use the smoking to show her emotional moments. Without that, she falls flat and disappears behind Linda and George.
While method acting can be useful in that way, it can also be extremely dangerous. Physically, but also emotionally. Many of the great acting teachers theorized on how to best portray a character’s emotions. Some believed that it was more important to show the emotion than to feel it; others believed that feeling the emotion was the first step in showing it and thus created ways of accessing real emotion. Which, if either, you choose is largely dependent upon who you are as a person and as an actor. If you access real emotion, however, you should be careful. Especially if you are also a method actor.
This is because plays, television shows, and movies are generally about ‘special’ moments in their characters’ lives. The moments when things happen to them. Emotions usually run high. You have to be careful when using your own emotional memories to access levels for these scenes. There is such thing as going too far. For example, if you are playing a character who experiences a moment similar to one of the worst moments in your life, such as getting beaten up, it might not be a good idea to use that moment to motivate the scene because it might take a long time to re-recover from it.
I say this not because I want to dim your brilliance, but because I know that things happen that are difficult to recover from. There is a reason that many people believe that Heath Ledger's method acting for the Joker greatly contributed to his death. Is it worth your mental health to stir up terrible memories so that you can play the character with greater verisimilitude? Unless it is a really important, one time performance, probably not.
Granted, I am sure there are people who can dredge up terrible memories, put them on stage or screen, and leave them there when they go home at night. If you are one of those people, my hat is off to you. If you are not, I suggest you leave the extreme method acting at home and try a different technique with a less terrible, though still emotionally relevant, moment.
I get it. Believe me, I do. Theatre is important. Acting in whatever form is important. The show must go on and we must breathe as much life into the production as we can. However, you have to take your health into consideration, especially your mental health. “All the world’s a stage,” so make sure that you keep the production that is your life flowing smoothly and soundly so that you can do what you love.