Once upon a time, all actors did to prepare for a role was to don a suit or slip into a dress and step in front of the camera ready to go. Look at Jimmy Stewart, for example; it was pretty rare to see him look anything other than absolute perfection with nary a hair out of place. Sure, actors used to wear elaborate costumes or cake themselves in make-up for a role, but all that is just window dressing; the person underneath is still the same.
However, gradually over the years there’s been a growing trend for actors to go the extra mile for a role, whether that be physically or mentally. There’s no doubting the commitment, but is there a danger that those actors who do push themselves to their limits are going too far? Or should the fact that they get paid absurd amounts of money dictate that they should do whatever necessary for the role?
It’s difficult to pinpoint when this trend began, but Marlon Brando could be partly responsible. Brando was one of the first to bring method acting to popular cinema after studying under Stella Adler at her Studio of Acting in New York City. This form of acting required an actor to completely immerse themselves in the role, even when the cameras weren’t rolling. This Stanislavskian approach was considered to be a much more realistic form of acting and has since been adopted by some of Hollywood’s most revered actors. Brando never really changed his appearance all that much during these years but the attitudes towards what was required for a role had definitely changed.
One of the first high profile instances of an actor physically transforming himself into a characters was a certain Robert De Niro, a staunch proponent of the Method style, when he gained 31lbs to play an overweight Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull in 1980. Filming was shut down for around four months whilst De Niro ate his way around Italy and France to gain the weight. He also trained as a boxer, winning two out of three fights in which he entered.
The gaining of weight is something that has happened several times since, including Charlize Theron in Monster and Vincent D’Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket, in which he gained a then record 60lbs. D’Onofrio’s excessive weight caused him to injure his left knee, which required surgery.
In a similar amount of dedication, Morgan Spurlock decided to eat nothing but McDonald’s food for his Super Size Me documentary. Over the course of the experiment, Spurlock gained weight, lost muscle and even started having heart palpitations as a result of his diet. Spurlock may not be acting as such, but he’s still pushing himself to the absolute limits for the documentary.
On the flipside, there’s been an increasing trend amongst actors to dramatically lose weight for a role. Tom Hanks, Michael Fassbender and Anne Hathaway have all dropped a significant amount of weight for a role, with Hathaway apparently living on a diet of lettuce leaves for a couple of weeks prior to shooting Les Miserables. Hathaway refused to give too many details on how she lost the weight, worrying that others may copy her unhealthy eating habits.
However, probably the most shocking example of weight loss in a role is Christian Bale as insomniac Trevor Reznik in The Machinist. Bale dropped 63lbs down to 121lbs (about 8 and a half stone for us Brits) by living on nothing but coffee, water and a single apple every day for four months. Bale allegedly wanted to drop down to 110lbs but was dissuaded by the filmmakers.
Recently, Bale put on weight for his role in American Hustle, and you can see the shocking difference in the two roles below.
Similarly, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto both lost a considerable amount of weight as they played AIDS sufferers in Dallas Buyers Club. McConaughey dropped around 38lbs for the role, allegedly eating nothing more than two egg whites, a bit of chicken, a small pudding and two Diet Cokes a day for three or four months. There’s quite a difference between the gaunt, almost emaciated physique of Ron Woodruff and his muscled character in Magic Mike less than two years ago.
Leto’s weight loss is just as startling, especially when you consider how much weight he put on for his role as Mark Chapman, John Lennon’s killer, in Chapter 27, which actually caused him to develop gout.
One could argue that in order to accurately tell a story about eating disorders or illness, weight loss is required, but is there a realistic danger that the health risks far outweigh the artistic benefits?
Then we come onto the mental issues actors can face. This is probably even more of a grey area than what’s been mentioned previously as one could argue that a person’s mental state is much less obvious and what could affect one person may well not affect another. But there’s still no denying that some actors push the envelope further than others. Take Heath Ledger for example. To prepare for his role as the Joker in The Dark Knight, Ledger lived alone in a hotel room for a month, keeping a journal as if he were actually the Joker. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to prove that this preparation had anything to do with Ledger’s death, but it’s not exactly a stretch to imagine the two may be in some way connected.
When preparing for his Oscar-winning role in The Pianist, Adrian Brody actually broke up with his girlfriend so that he could draw on appropriate emotions for the role (some reports say she broke up with him, but it was the result of Brody being so committed to the role that he gave up his whole life for it). This actually involves other people the whole thing, potentially putting his girlfriend’s mental health and wellbeing on the line, which is something you’d have thought he’d be keen to protect.
So there we have it; just some of the ways that actors have prepared for a role, but are they doing too much? Would we lose a bit of what makes them special if they didn’t do this kind of thing or should they take more time to consider the potential effects their preparation has, not just on themselves but those around them?
Let me know what your thoughts are below.