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When they accept a new role, actors often undergo incredible transformations. To play in Tootsie (1982), Dustin Hoffman wore a wig, tight skirts and high heels in real life. Robert De Niro worked as a taxi driver in New York for the film Taxi Driver. Jack Nicholson stirred his anger as he recalled the feuds with his ex-wife while filming The Shining (1980). This method where an actor experiences the same things as his character was originally proposed by Russian director Constantin Stanislavski in the 19th century. Then, its followers in the United States adapted it to the cinema. Today, this system, in different versions, is still taught in various acting schools, from New York to Hollywood.

What is the Stanislavski “Method”?

Actor and director Konstantin Stanislavsky is the father of the modern theater school in Russia. In 1898, together with director Vladimir Nemirovitch-Danchenko, Stanislavski established the Moscow Art Theater where he successfully applied and developed his system for decades – an advanced and somewhat rebellious method that denied old dogmas. He described it in his book The work of an actor on himself (1938).

Its system is based on the following principles:

  1. Truth of experience (actor must feel truthful emotions)
  2. Work with the circumstances (the actor must study the lifestyle of the character)
  3. Play “here and now” (all action starts on stage)
  4. The actor must constantly improve
  5. The actor must interact with colleagues on stage.

In short, an actor had to play (i.e. LIVE) his role for Stanislavski himself to say: ” I believe ! »

>>> How did Russian theater guru Constantin Stanislavski revolutionize playwriting?

How did Stanislavski’s system end up in the United States?

Richard Boleslawski

In 1923-1924, the Moscow Art Theater went on tour in the United States. The organizers launched an incredible PR campaign: articles on Russian theater and the genius of Stanislavski appeared in the media, a series of lectures on the art of acting, hosted by Stanislavski and emigrant actor Richard Boleslawski, was organized.

Lee Strasberg

American interest in the Russian system was so great that Boleslawski, together with his colleague Maria Uspenskaya, in 1923 opened the American laboratory Theater. Among their pupils were Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler who later organized the Group Theater and then their own studios.

Strasberg vs. Adler

Strasberg attended the performances of the Moscow Art Theater and was amazed by the acting, which was natural and effortless, by his own admission. Working at the Group Theater, Strasberg developed this system to adapt it to American cultural norms. Its basic principle was the use of “affective memory” and was based on the fact that an actor had to relive a singular event from his past to manifest true feelings on stage.

Marilyn Monroe with her coach Paula Strasberg

Strasberg applied his method not only at the Group Theater but also when he ran the Actors Studio in New York in the 1950s. Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman and many others graduated from his school. In Hollywood, he also founded the Lee Strasberg Theater & Film Institute, calling his system Method Acting » (“Acting method”).

Stella Adler

However, Stella Adler disagreed with Strasberg on the acting methodology and decided to personally interview Constantin Stanislavski – of whom she became the ONLY American student. In 1934, Adler spent five weeks in his practical training in Paris and later founded the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. Among his students were Mark Ruffalo, Judy Garland, Elisabeth Taylor and Melanie Griffith.

Mark Ruffalo – In Stella Adler’s acting class

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In addition, there were other followers of Stanislavsky’s methods in the United States, such as the actor of the Moscow Art Theater Mikhail Chekhov (nephew of Anton Chekhov), who founded the Actors Laboratory in 1939. His system revealed the talents of Marilyn Monroe and Clint. Eastwood.

Marilyn Monroe reads a book by Mikhail Chekhov

Turning pain into art

Today, many Hollywood actors constantly work with the Stanislavski method, Strasberg’s methods and Adler’s technique, adapting them over time. One of them is Jack Nicholson, who, ” during those lean years, sat in Los Angeles cafes for hours discussing Stanislavskian metaphysics with like-minded film theorists », as the journalists wrote. His emotions in The Shining by Stanley Kubrick (1980) were authentic: That typewriter scene – that’s how I was when I got my divorce. » During his preparation for Flight over a cuckoo’s nest (1975), he communicated with the real patients of a psychiatric clinic.

Al Pacino was introduced to the Stanislavski method as a teenager and then found it…boring. ” What does a kid of thirteen, fourteen know about Stanislavski?did he declare. All I knew was to sing, dance, have fun, imitate. Now I was looking at my navel twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It took me I don’t know how many years to get over it. “. Today, he is co-president of the Actors Studio with Ellen Burstyn and Alec Baldwin.

Jack Nicholson and Lara Flynn Boyle

Robert De Niro learned the Stanislavski method with Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg and experienced incredible life scenes for his roles. For raging bull (1983), De Niro participated in three fights in the ring, in addition to gaining more than 20 kg. In preparation for Taxi Driver, the actor got a real license and worked 12-hour shifts for two weeks in a real New York cab. In Nerves raw (1993), he asked a dentist to grind his teeth.

Nicolas Cage also revisited the Stanislavski method during his career. ” Stanislavski said the worst thing an actor can do is imitate. Being a bit rebellious, I wanted to break that rule. So I tried a Warhol-like approach to the character of Sailor Ripley in Sailor and Lula (1990). In movies like Prisoners of the Ghostland (2021) or even flip-flop (1997) or Kiss me, vampire (1988), I was experimenting with what I would like to call the western Kabuki style or more baroque style or lyrical style of cinematic performance. Free myself from naturalism, so to speak, and express the performance more broadly”.

Dustin Hoffman

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Ultimately, the “Method” influenced not only the film industry, but also the actors themselves. As Dustin Hoffman once said, her feminist consciousness was strengthened by Tootsie : during his preparation for the role, he wore heels and women’s clothes and walked around New York incognito. He realized that being ignored as an average-looking woman made him realize how many women he also overlooked, because they didn’t fit society’s ideal standards of beauty.

In this other publication, discover four great Soviet actors who tried to realize the American dream.

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