Can an Actor Go Too Far When Preparing For a Role?

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?

Brando was one of the first to bring Method acting to mainstream films

Brando was one of the first to bring Method acting to mainstream films

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.

Robert De Niro’s amazing transformation in Raging Bull

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.

Christian Bale in The Machinist (left) and American Hustle (right)

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.

Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club (left) and Magic Mike (right)

Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club (left) and Magic Mike (right)

Jared Leto on the poster for Chapter 27 (left) and showing off the weight he lost for Dallas Buyers Club (right)

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.

Heath Ledger

Heath Ledger

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.

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75 thoughts on “Can an Actor Go Too Far When Preparing For a Role?

  1. chris2508 says:

    I really interesting article here Chris, nice job.

  2. jjames36 says:

    I think it is possible to do too much. Moreover, I think much of it is often unnecessary. The appearance doesn’t create a strong performance. The acting does.

    I method actors say they feel differently when they go through such transformations, which might be true. But it doesn’t change the fact: the acting is still what sells the audience, not the physical transformation.

    Which is why such things usually underwhelm me. Just act well and we’ll buy it.

    • Definitely agree with you that the acting is the most important thing above everything. Transformations can help sell a role to a certain extent but if the acting isn’t there to begin with then they’re fighting a losing battle.

      • jjames36 says:

        I’d even contend that the transformation generally can be sold in other ways: make up, costuming, lighting, camera angles, digital adjustments in post production, etc.

        Can these other elements accomplish everything a physical transformation can? Not always. (Christian Bale in the Machinist or Tom Hanks in Cast Away jump to mind.) But they can usually go a long way.

  3. theipc says:

    Great post!!

  4. vinnieh says:

    Interesting article about an interesting topic.

  5. yaykisspurr says:

    I think you’ll find some of these actors need to go through the physical transformations to get the acting right. They do it for themselves not for the audience…the audience simply gains from their own needs. Great post. Cheers.

  6. I’m so glad to see that someone is writing about this. Yes, physical transformations can underline the believability of a particular character, but I can’t help but think that the obsession with weight gain/loss among Hollywood actors vying for Oscars has exacerbated the messed-up relationship that more and more people–especially Americans–have to food.
    I’d signal out Daniel Day-Lewis as culpable, too. Sometimes he’s great (There Will Be Blood) but sometimes the guy just goes too far… (Gangs of New York).
    So, in sum, I’d say the answer to your questions is: absolutely!

    • I definitely think it could potentially have a negative effect on those watching, particularly those with an eating disorder. If they see that someone has lost shed loads of weight, then they could try and copy them, but I don’t know if that’s something the actors should be wary of or not.

      Daniel Day-Lewis is insane. He really goes all out for his roles and I’m torn as to whether it shows dedication or whether it makes him seem a little bit unstable!

  7. Hunter says:

    This is a very interesting issue and it’s one that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I actually just watched Raging Bull the other day and I forgot how terrifying it is to see De Niro so heavy. It obviously adds a lot to the movie, but the health risks don’t seem worth it to me. In some ways, it distracts from the film to see the actors look so different and worry about them etc… It always scares me when actors go through this for their roles and I wish the trend would stop. People come to expect it now though, I remember a lot of people criticizing The Hunger Games actors for looking too good when they were supposed to be starving to death, which I suppose I understand, but I think the health of the actors is more important personally. A lot can be done with makeup and acting so I think actors should stick to that.

    • It can be pretty scary to see actors like this. I remember feeling slightly concerned when I saw Michael Fassbender in Hunger, he was so thin in that. And I do remember the Hunger Games furore, with people saying that Jennifer Lawrence was too fat to play Katniss, yet not once did anything like that cross my mind when watching the film. The performances did more than enough to convince me.

  8. keith7198 says:

    Wow! Very thought-provoking article. I think the short answer is yes, actors can push their body and mind too far in their preparation. I completely understand it’s their profession and many of them are extremely dedicated. On the other hand they are actually doing something for the entertainment of others. As much as we may enjoy their performances, for me it’s hard to justify placing their physical and mental health in jeopardy. I don’t know, it’s an interesting discussion for sure.

    • Thanks Keith! I would definitely have to think twice about putting my mind and body through such torture just for a film. Is it really worth it in the long run? Maybe it is for some people. I do admire the dedication some of the actors go to but I do worry that at some point someone is going to go too far.

  9. movierob says:

    Excellent post Chris!

  10. ruth says:

    Intriguing article Chris! I think method acting seems risky, it’s not just the physical transformation that can be dangerous but the mental immersion can actually be fatal. As in the case of Heath Ledger playing The Joker. Some actors can seem to do it, obviously Leto and Bale are a great example, but I don’t know that it’s necessary for a great performance. Ultimately the *acting* is what sells the performance even if the actor doesn’t quite resemble the person he/she is portraying.

    • Thanks Ruth! I definitely agree that the mental immersion can potentially be a lot more dangerous. Researching a role is one thing, but putting your sanity at risk for a two hour film is another thing. As for weight loss and gain, I think a reasonable amount is fine, but when you start dropping weight to dangerous levels then it starts getting very risky.

  11. Popcorn Nights says:

    Fascinating post Chris, I enjoyed reading. Out of the examples you give I’ve seen most of them, and think the performances have been enhanced by the actors going the extra mile with their physical appearance. They are all excellent, and Bale’s as Trevor Reznick is one of my all-time favourites. That said I wouldn’t expect it of any actor, purely for my entertainment (or indeed the entertainment of others). It does feel a little like a pissing contest between actors at times…who can shed or put on the most pounds.

    • Thanks Stu! Haha yeah I agree it has almost become a bit of a competition now! I just hope no-one pushes it too far. It can definitely enhance a performance and I admire them greatly for doing that for our entertainment, but I’m like you in that I’d never expect it from them.

  12. Gene says:

    Great topic Chris. My mind immediately when to Ledger’s Joker when I saw your title. I can see actors wanting to be able to understand or relate to the characters they’re portraying, but there has to be a clear line where you’re losing yourself for the sake of the character. I would imagine the mental preparation would be far more dangerous. I think surrounding yourself with people you trust to help you through whatever experience you feel you need to undergo to relate to a role would be incredibly helpful. People to keep you grounded or “bring you back”, so to speak.

    • Thanks Gene! The mental side of things is definitely very dangerous and I think if actors are going to push it then they need a good network of people around them to help. As much as I think Ledger’s Joker is one of the greatest film characters of all time, it wasn’t worth him potentially messing his head up for.

  13. Victor De Leon says:

    Thought provoking post! A very good read. I think if the actor starts to show any ill side effects then perhaps it may be a bit too far but artists do like to suffer for their art so it is a gray area they inhabit.

    Mental and physical prep can be a double edged sword so much more than just some actor packing a few pounds to look heavy but not relate to the character they play.

    This was a great post and an amazing topic for discussion. Kudos, Chris!

    • Victor De Leon says:

      Also, I must agree with what Ruth said above. It is the performance and the “acting” that sells the whole thing. Not so much having to look exactly like what the character calls for in every situation.

    • Thanks Vic. Artists do like to suffer for their art and I can go with that to a certain degree. Maybe if I was an actor then I’d have more of an insight, but I don’t know if I could commit to pushing myself so far. Maybe that’s what separates good actors from great ones.

  14. Carl says:

    This is a great post and made for an interesting read, thanks I think method acting became big around the time of the Hollywood renaissance in the 70s, so the whole face of cinema moved away from what had been fairly theatrical beforehand. I’d say it’s a good thing – Ledger aside! Bale is literally like a balloon when it comes to this, add in his Batman Begins bulk too, the man goes wildly up and down! I think these days, dramatic weight gain or loss can be serve as an easy way to get an Oscar nom (the Academy almost always honour these kinds of performances) though it does take an extremely committed actor to do this sort of thing, so kind of balances out. But nice post.

    • Thanks Carl! Cinema was definitely much more theatrical prior to the 70s, although Brando had gone much more method in the 50s and 60s. Weight gain and loss definitely does seem to be rewarded by the Academy, maybe they see it as true commitment!

  15. johnlink00 says:

    Great work here! As someone who is currently still studying the history of theater (which is tied directly to The Method) it is safe to say that there is no one true way to access character.
    I remember hearing that Matt Damon was on anti-depressants for years after yo-yoing between low weight for Courage Under Fire and putting it back on. Was it worth it? Do we even remember Matt Damon in that movie?
    It reminds me of a great story. Dustin Hoffman was starving himself and depriving himself of sleep for a torture scene in The Marathon Man. His scene partner, Laurence Olivier, walked in to shoot the scene. Hoffman looked like absolute shit.
    Olivier walked up to him and said “Try acting my dear boy, it is much easier.

    • Thanks John! I didn’t know that about Matt Damon but that perfectly makes the point that it can be damaging to do such things for a role. And that’s a fantastic story about Hoffman and Olivier, love that! It just goes to show the different ways people have of acting and becoming a character.

  16. thycriticman says:

    As everyone already said, this is a interesting topic choice. While it is admired for someone to do it, and expresses a whole lot of dedication, some people indeed do take it very far. The dangerous efforts could be avoided but I do stand behind smaller things, such as a film being based on a real person, the actor playing the part should have coffee with, or dedicate time to getting to know who he will be playing. Or Peter Weller going to a mime school to learn how to properly portray a robot is a good example of well.

    • I definitely think that a certain amount of preparation is needed, even on the physical side of things. An overweight guy wouldn’t have been able to play Superman, so they’d have to bulk up. I like that example of Peter Weller, that’s a fine way to prepare for a role.

  17. Awesome post, Chris. I admire the method acting approach, that is, their devotion to assume the role. I have always wondered about when the role was finished. How do they snap out of it? I hate to bring up Tropic Thunder, but the scene where Kirk Lazarus played by Martin Downey Jr. goes through the breakdown because he has an identity crisis has always struck me as somehow realistic. How does Bale, DDLewis, Robert DeNiro, for example, shake off their roles? What about Streep? Funny how no one talks about that.
    The price they all pay for fame, accolades, and adoration seems sad, however, they have my respect and adoration.

    • Thanks Cindy! It really must be difficult to shake off the roles afterwards. I imagine they become quite attached to them, even if they’re not very nice characters. Essentially living as someone else for a good few months must be shattering too, i’d be exhausted!

  18. Such a great post, Chris. I think yeah, actors CAN go too far in their preparation for a role. I think with Heath Ledger, for example, The Joker, took a toll on his mind. As for bodily changes, Bale is king, That man is insane! haha

  19. Brittani says:

    Great read! I think the dramatic weight differences are a little much. It looks convincing, yes, but that’s awful for your health. With Heath, I absolutely hate it when people say he killed himself over playing the Joker. I have a few friends that are convinced by that. So thank you for not saying that. lol

    • Thanks! Yeah I don’t think for a minute that Ledger killed himself over being the Joker. I don’t even think he meant to kill himself. But I do think it might have had an effect on him. It’s a fine line that you have to be careful not to cross.

  20. Smash says:

    Excellent, excellent work here. This post is thought-provoking, well-written, and insightful.
    I think there’s a limit that can be pushed for sure. Sometimes appearances need to be altered to help suspend the viewer’s disbelief, but I don’t think it’s worth it if someone’s health is on the line. The most absurd example I can think of it Robert De Niro having his teeth filed down for his role in Cape Fear. Totally unnecessary and stupid. One can gain/lose weight, yes. But once you start messing around with your teeth like that, there’s no going back. Sure, you can get nice dental work done, but why? Why just destroy your teeth, when you can easily have a grill or false teeth snapped in instead?

    • Thanks so much Smash, means a lot!

      I had no idea about De Niro in Cape Fear, that’s absolutely insane and completely unnecessary. If he didn’t do that it would have made no difference to the role, regardless of whether he felt more in character that way. As you say, there’s no going back with stuff like that, it just beggars belief!

  21. Physical changes certainly add to the believability of the character and the lengths some actors go to for their art is commendable. But there’s a fine line when it comes to health risks and this is something the industry needs to be mindful of. Very interesting post.

    • Thanks Natalie. I definitely think the industry need to be more mindful of things like this, similarly with those addicted to drugs. I wonder if there are any official people, like counselors or whatever, who are there to help people with stuff like that.

      • I’m not sure if they do, but it sounds like a brilliant idea. It’s such an odd industry to work in, especially when you consider the fame angle, and access to therapists or counselors could only have a positive effect. The music business also seems to be plagued by similar demons and it makes you wonder how those in the industry do actually cope with the pressures.

      • I know that they have stuff in place in the football world for stuff like this. They have club chaplains for people to talk to and then try and help out people who are depressed or have an addiction. You’re right, it’s such an odd world these people live in, with such exorbitant amounts of money, that it’s only natural some go a bit crazy!

  22. Damaging your personal life, your mental health or your physical health is too far for entertainment. I don’t do art so haha don’t care 😀

  23. Very interesting piece Chris, brilliantly written. Brando was probably the catalyst, you’re right. I’ve always admired actors who disappear into their roles; there’s something hypnotically authentic about it I find.

  24. I can respect the thought process that goes into method acting to an extent, but there’s clearly a point at which it crosses the line into madness. Going on a few ride-alongs to see how police operate is a sound idea. Locking yourself in a room for weeks on end to experience isolation insanity is not. Losing or gaining a modest amount of weight in a reasonable span of time, OK. Dramatic weight alteration is just shortening your life for the sake of what, for most people, will be two hours of entertainment and nothing more.

    There needs to be a line. There are films where the characters were drug addicts, and so the actors took drugs to experience what it was like. It’s insane.

    A person’s life should never be subordinate to a piece of entertainment — even if the person in question thinks it should be.

    • Totally with you on that Morgan. This kind of preparation is fine up to a point but some take it too far. The example you mentioned about taking drugs is a fine one, there’s just no point in risking your health for the sake of a couple of hours of entertainment that might end up a massive flop anyway.

      I admire those who push their limits, but I would never expect it of anyone.

  25. Wow, this is a very good and interesting article (actually, I’m a little surprised that you never mentioned Daniel Day Lewis)! I find the psychology behind method acting to be quite amusing. I do think that the problems these actors go through are worth it because in the end they give breathtakingly amazing performances!

    Dorian

  26. JustMeMike says:

    Thanks for this post and for looking under the stones for us to find these transformations. While I am aware that actors do immerse themselves, and that acting does involving a considerable amount of work, it is still rewarding to read about some those details in this piece.

    Some time ago, I knew an actress who studied under the tutelage of Uta Hagen at the HB Studio in New York. While not as famous as Stella Adler, Hagen’s methods were not so dissimilar. So I’ve heard these kind of tales before, albeit 2nd and 3rd hand.

    Personally, I never for a moment thought of acting aside from a small role in elementary school. production of Arsenic and Old Lace. The once ( my character was killed off quite early) was enough for me.

    • It is amazing the lengths these actors go to. I suppose it has to be commended on some level, although I do worry about them sometimes! I don’t think I could go to these lengths, although I haven’t done much acting either to be honest. I’d like to think I would go all out for a role but I just don’t know if I could.

  27. sati says:

    Great article but the suggestion Ledger’s preparation had something to do with his death is a bit much, I mean let’s not be overdramatic a month in a hotel room and pretending to be Joker is not what would drive a person mad.

    The weight loss I’m fine with it if it is necessary to accurately portray the character but if someone does it more than once or twice like Bale does I kinda see it as either award baiting or just really, really stupid and horribly irresponsible.

    • I’m not saying there’s a definite link between Ledger’s preparation and his death but I think such a thing could have an effect on someone with underlying mental health issues which it seems Heath did have. I don’t think it directly resulted in his death but I do think it’s possible it didn’t help.

      And I agree it’s the constant weight fluctuations that can prove problematic. It’s gotta have an effect on your health.

  28. jackdeth72 says:

    Hi, Terry:

    Great and very informative article!

    One of my unsung heroes would be Dale Dye. Technical adviser to war films dating back to ‘Platoon’. Where he ran the cast through the wringer for a month ahead of shooting. To get the right look and feel of sweat soaked and bleached booted “grunts”. With all their insignia, name tags and shoulder tabs and flashes where they belonged.

    Another Christian Bale transformation, though far less grotesque was endured for ‘Rescue Dawn’.While one can never forget Sir Lawrence Olivier’s, “Try acting, dear boy.” to a disheveled and sleep deprived Dustin Hoffman before their scenes in ‘Marathon Man’.

    Also like the buffed up and out Nick Cage in ‘Con Air’. And the muscle on muscle Stephen Lange in ‘Avatar’. A near miraculous change from Lange’s pudgy, sleazy Freddy Lounds days in Michael Mann’s ‘Manhunter’.

    • Hey Jack! Thanks very much 🙂

      Some great examples you give here! I think bulking up and putting on muscle is a fine way to prepare for a physical role, and probably necessary to actually cope with the demands. As long as they bulk up the correct way, of course, and not with drugs or anything.

  29. hybridZone says:

    I think the bar has been set extremely high for actors nowadays, so most actors go the long mile in method acting for meagre roles as this adds a lot of recognition to their acting prowess

  30. caragale says:

    A very interesting read, Chris. It’s scary, I think, what some of these actors put themselves through. The results are usually phenomenal, but you can’t help wondering if somebody needs to draw a line somewhere…

  31. Mark Walker says:

    Excellent piece of work here my man. Physical transformations are always quite striking. Personally, I admire it very much and like you say, these guys get paid enough money, why shouldn’t they fully commit themselves to their craft? I’d do it if the role required it.

    DeNiro is Raging Bull is my all time favourite performance and McConaughey’s work in Dallas Buyers Club deserves the Oscar this year. That being said, they also shouldn’t forget to act and just leave it up appearances. Thankfully, very few of them don’t (with the exception of “50 Cent” in that film I can’t even remember the name of) 😉

    • Thanks Mark! I’d like to think I could do the things these guys do, but I just don’t know. I mean, I reckon I could bulk up if I had the time and a personal trainer or whatever, but the slimming down one would be the hardest for me I reckon.

      But you’re right, there has to be some substance behind the transformation, otherwise the whole thing’s pointless. I did come across 50 Cent when I was researching this (but can’t remember the name of the film either), but I think that goes to show that if the acting isn’t good and the film as a whole isn’t decent then it’ll be totally overlooked and forgotten.

  32. Dan says:

    I love Laurence Olivier’s comment to Dustin Hoffman during the filming of the Marathon Man where Hoffman stayed up for three days straight to prepare for the role. Olivier took umbrage to Hoffman’s “method” and said “try acting dear boy!”.

    The fact remains, some of the finest performances of the last 40 or so years have come from actors who do the “method” – they live and breathe these characters. It works for them and they have delivered some of my most favored performances. Hoffman is my favorite actor because of the way he prepares.

    But Olivier has a point. They are supposed to be acting, not living these roles. But maybe that’s the difference between old school and new school – as cinema became far more realistic in its portrayal of life compared to the Studio Era, just as directors became more daring and dynamic, so did the actors.

    • A few people have mentioned that Olivier quote and I think it’s fantastic! Shows two completely different ways of getting into character. There definitely has to be a balance between physical transformation and actual genuine acting ability.

      I think that’s an interesting point about actors reflecting the change in cinema and I think you’re probably right to be honest. Studio era actors just wouldn’t work in a gritty film, a kind of film that wouldn’t have been around all those years ago.

  33. The Vern says:

    Very cool article. The changes Christian Bale went through is down right Scary. Geeze people. Use a fat suit and some makeup. I wont mind, really Interesting to read abou Mr. Brody preparing for the Pianist by breaking up with his girlfriend.

  34. i am i mills says:

    Yo Terry, this is a Reeeaaallly good read man. Some of the transformations blew me away! Well researched and well written. I was actually searching for Christian Bale’s weight transformation images on google which somehow lead me to this blog.

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