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Is There Method to the Madness: Christian Bale’s Weight & Method Acting

Christian Bale is losing a massive amount of weight again for his role in the upcoming Concrete Island. It’s rather topical, given that the actor took time out of an interview to lambaste those who would deride his massive amount of weight loss for The Fighter:

‘To be honest, I find it laughable that it’s considered to be some f—ing gimmick — it’s so patronizing. For God’s sake, do people not understand what a pain it is to do? It’s as though it’s some comment about, ‘Oh it’s easy for him, because he’s done it a bunch of times.’ It’s not easy, it’s not fun — it’s horrible.”

In fairness, I think Bale misses the general thrust of the argument when he makes the (entirely fair) point that it’s a very difficult process. I don’t think anybody will argue that such control over his own body mass is easy (as, if it were, I’d probably choose to be the epitome of physical fitness, but it doesn’t work that way). I think the general question is whether such a large fluctuation in weight adds a benefit to his roles that is worth the physical strain. Is there a gain for the pain, so to speak?

What's the skinny?

Bale does tackle the issue later on in the same interview, and argues that physically changing his appearance does allow him to get deeper into the character:

In fact, Bale, who plays troubled boxer Dicky Eklund in The Figher, says, “I would never pick to do that, but it’s a part that I like and he’s a welterweight and he’s a crackhead. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a welterweight with any fat on him — or a crackhead. So it’s just what you end up having to do.”

This is an argument I can understand. I am not an actor, but I can understand why it might be easier to divorce the character from your own personality if you can look in the mirror and not see yourself. And, with all credit to Bale, it works on the audience as well. In The Fighter, I didn’t get the sense that I was watching Bale. This possibly comes down to a variety of tools in the actor’s arsenal (body language, posture, makeup and accent, among other), but I’ll concede that his body mass is a huge part of it.

Fact meets fat?

But changing your own body mass doesn’t immediately equate to a great performance. Mark Wahlberg, in the same film, appears absolutely ripped (moreso than usual), but I’m always conscious of the fact that I am watching Mark Wahlberg. While Matt Damon put on some weight for the lead role in The Informant!, I’m not convinced that the glasses and moustache couldn’t have done most of the work for him.

This sort of approach is frequently classified by the media as “method acting”, which seems to be pretty much the default definition of any style of performance or pre-performance preparation which doesn’t fit in the “show up, work and go home” mold. My better half, who studied drama at college, is especially fond of calling me out on the assumption that any crazy stuff that actors get up to can be described as “method acting”.

Rescue me!

In layman’s terms (or in language that I can understand), the method – at least in its classic form – is more about mindset and emotion rather than any physical change. It’s about imagining how a character feels in a given situation, almost putting yourself in their emotional shoes (rather than simply approaching the role from a dispassionate theoretical perspective). This is the classical theory of method acting, as it evolved from the Stanislavski Method, which was defined at the end of the nineteenth century, and represents a rather large conceptual change from more traditional schools of acting:

Lee Strasberg (1899-1982), a teacher and theorist of acting and a leader of the Actors Studio, suggested that the most effective film performers were those who did not act. “They try not to act but to be themselves, to respond or react,” he said. This may be a debatable proposition in the sense that performers’ images and roles are invariably constructed by such factors as studio publicity and genre codes, but it does relate to a central tenet of the Stanislavski Method: actors were not to emote in the traditional manner of stage conventions, but to speak and gesture in a manner one would use in private life.

Is Bale trying to have his cake? And possibly, while not preparing for a role, eat it too?

Rather than the approach which most journalists would describe as “method acting”, the original approach was not about trying to “live the life” of the character, nor about radically changing your own perspective to align with theirs. Instead, it focused on finding common ground between the performer and the character:

The “Method” required a performer to draw on his or her own self, on experiences, memories, and emotions that could inform a characterization and shape how a character might speak or move. Characters were thus shown to have an interior life; rather than being stereotyped figures representing a single concept (the villain, the heroine), they could become complex human beings with multiple and contradictory feelings and desires.

James Dean is regarded as one of the actors to help popularise the approach in Hollywood, and he really seems quite distinct from the more extreme antics of actors like Robert DeNiro or Daniel Day-Lewis.

Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Macho Macho Man!

In fairness, though, the craft has developed substantially since then. Perhaps the most famous school of though came from actress Stella Adler, who taught the technique to both Marlon Brando and DeNiro. Adler proposed “extensive research” into the subject, and it’s from this approach that we perhaps see the more modern takes on this method develop. Everyone knows stories about actors playing police officers who go on stakeouts, or Nick Nolte taking heroin in order to play a recovering addict.

This sort of research and preparation can then help the actors construct a more rounded character, drawing from their own experience to construct a more realistic response to the character’s circumstance:

Note the emphasis on different “styles” of method acting, as there is not only one method, but multiple methods that, nevertheless, have some approaches in common, most of all the psychological motivation in approaching a role. Regarding most of the texts dealing with method acting, it is a common error to speak of one method, especially if there is only question of Lee Strasberg and the Actor’s Studio. There exist different schools and philosophies of method acting, among others, Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, and Sonia Moore. Common techniques of method actors combine physical with psychological exercises, all created and trained for the “truthful” creation of a role. Ranging from the use of the technique of the “affective” or “emotion memory” to the exercise of the “magic if”, the method actor establishes a set of significant acting elements contributing to the identification and acknowledgement of the acting style as a method. The technique of affective or emotion memory, for example, deals with the activation of the actor’s personal memory and the use of it for creating a role. The technique of the “magic if” is simply explained by the question: “What would I do if I were my character in this situation?” Further techniques functioning within the process of creating a role are the one of “public solitude” and “substitution”.

No bones about it...

There’s an argument to be made that, although newspapers and journals refer to what Bale is doing as “method actin”, it isn’t an apt description. He turns himself into the character, rather than using his own experiences to help him play the character. Bale himself reject the idea that he follows a particular method:

It’s very limiting if I have to relate every damn thing in somebody else’s life to something that’s happened in mine. At the end of the day, I’m faking it. Pure imagination. I never took any classes, I just go, ‘I better wing this one and make it up!’ Everybody talks about the process too much. The interesting thing about a movie is the movie.

Perhaps it’s best to describe what Bale does as a “process” rather than to use the label “method”. However, this article isn’t necessarily about how you class Bale (or any of the other actors who undergo arduous physical transformation), it’s more about how this impacts their performance.

The above article on “method” explicitly explores Bale’s performance in The Machinist as an example of an actor practicing his craft to help him dig into the mindset of an emotionally disturbed character:

In Anderson’s film, the strategy of “method acting” in Bale’s performance is both the predominant subtext and label appearing on stickers of theatre posters, DVD covers and booklets and, therefore, supports advertising campaigns of stores like Virgin and Tower Records. The most common slogan appeared to be “Christian Bale in The Machinist, [it’s] Method Acting Madness!”. But, is there a “method” to the character’s and the actor’s “madness”? How can the subtext and the label of acting in general and of “method acting” in particular be defined in this case? What does this acting strategy have in common with the art of “method acting”?

Bale’s performance apparently focuses on the body and the physical action of the body that, in a direct and immediate fashion, teaches and forces us to closely watch his loss of weight and to be further forced to literally count his bones: “Ravaged by fatigue, his body is little more than a bag of bones. Wracked by exhaustion, his weary mind increasingly plays tricks on him.” It is the physical state, the “fatigue” and the “exhaustion”, caused by the psychological state of guilt, the “insomnia” and the “neurosis”, that determines the subtext of acting and the film’s narrative motivation. We are forced to experience an actor’s extreme struggle for unity in the characterization of his role and may, indeed, be tending quickly to acknowledge this struggle as a subtext of an acting style defined and labelled as “method acting”.

So perhaps there’s an argument that “method” has become a broader term. I’ll leave that up to those who have studied drama to debate and determine, but I think it all makes for a fascinating insight into how actors create characters from nothing.

Actors like Bale are thin on the ground...

I’m not sure what I make of this sort of physical transformation for a particular role. In fairness, there are reasons that some pundits write off this sort of “extreme acting” (if you will) as a cynical ploy. As powerful as Charlize Theron was in Monster (where she “uglied” herself up to play a serial killer), it did feel like it was a conscious attempt to garner awards. She has not attempted any such extensive physical changes for any other role, off the top of my head (and certainly has not shown any of the same enthusiasm for more mainstream movies, where the prospect of receiving an Oscar is all but a pipe dream). It seems that this is a common strategy for actors who are being asked to “up their game” in prestige, awards-baiting films – as if this approach si the one that “real” actors use.

The attitude seems to be akin to the “A for effort” mentality, the idea that suffering for your art makes it good by default. I disagree with that assertion. I don’t think you can objectively measure what makes a great performance, it’s so subjective. While one actor may turn in a better performance by making these changes, while another might simply be overwhelmed by the changes they’ve made. I don’t ascribe to the theory that adopting an approach that takes more effort immediately garners one more appreciation and respect. It’s the final result of the process, the performance itself, which must be judged.

One of these is nominated for an Oscar...

I am reminded of that wonderful story about Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man:

A story circulated for a long time that Dustin Hoffman (being a “method actor”) stayed up all night to play a character who has stayed up all night. Arriving on the set, Laurence Olivier asked Hoffman why he looked the way he did. Hoffman told him, to which Olivier replied in jest, “Why not try acting? It’s much easier.”

Of course, this isn’t an entirely accurate account:

Hoffman repeatedly denied the story, and finally cleared up the matter in 2004. The torture scene was filmed early in the morning, Hoffman was going through a divorce from his first wife and was depressed, and had spent the previous two nights partying hard. Hoffman told Olivier this and his comment related to his lifestyle and not his “method” style of acting.

Still, it spread because (even if it’s untrue) it’s a good story and it underscores an important point. A lot of brilliant actors use the method. And a lot of brilliant actor don’t. It’s a matter of finding what works.

There are others who adopt a less strenuous approach...

On the other hand, Bale seems to genuinely treat this sort of transformation as a part of his job. It doesn’t seem cynical, it seems like a legitimate approach to a craft. He may lose weight for Oscar-friendly roles, but he also puts on his own bodymass in muscles to play Batman (hardly a role that is going to garner him the respect of Oscar voters). Indeed, he misinterpreted Nolan’s instruction to get “bigger” for Batman Begins and showed up over weight, and then sculpted himself into the heavily muscled billionaire playboy. Most of the other actors, from Keaton to Clooney, have been content to let the costume do all the work in physicality.

I only really have a problem with it where an actor who wouldn’t normally use the approach decides to “give it a go” for a prestige drama. If they are so convinced that this approach will allow them to give better performance, why don’t they use that all the time? If they’ve already found an approach that works for them, why are they changing? Either this approach makes their performance better (in which case they should consistently use it) or it doesn’t work for them (in which case there’s no point in switching to it for a given film). It just seems cynical and fake if it isn’t applied consistently as part of an actor’s approach to the art.

I'll leave you to wonder how he prepared for that role...

You could argue that make-up or computer effects could bring about all these effects, without requiring actors to inflate or deflate themselves. After all, in each of Bale’s roles the effect of his weight change is emphasised by hair and make-up changes. I can’t argue that Matt Damon putting on weight in The Informant! would be any more or less effective than putting a pillow under his shirt. I can understand if it makes him feel more comfortable in the role – and, if that draws a better performance or gives him more confidence, then who am I to judge? It’s notoriously difficult to act through prosthetics (though Ron Pearlman has continually demonstrated it’s not impossible), so working with your own body is perhaps a safer tool for an actor.

So, does it make a performance “better”? I think it’s impossible to quantify. I’m never going to see Christian Bale act out The Machinist with a regular body size, so I can’t compare his performance to anything – I can’t say he was “better” or “worse” for losing the weight. There are great actors who use this approach and great actors who don’t. There are times when this sort of physical transformation seems perfect, and other times when I’m not sure I even notice it. Truth be told, I don’t think it’s even possible separate this sort of change from the rest of a performance.

So, I guess, in the end I am arguing that it doesn’t really matter one way or the other. It’s about what works best for a given actor and what helps them give the best performance in a given film. What matters about Bale’s performance (and most of his performances) isn’t the preparation he does, but the fact that he is consistently impressive and incredible.

9 Responses

  1. Bale isn’t a method actor. Method acting is using your own personal experiences to relate to the character.  Bale doesn’t do that – he’s not using personal experiences, he flat out turns himself into someone else for months at a time.

    • I concede I’m not an expert, hence the preamble and the definition. I just thought it made more sense to make the point that what he does is called “method acting” (even though it’s far outside the classical discipline), and so (without a better label) it seems appropriate to mark the title as controversial, but then discuss what he is he does. I probably could have labelled the post “extreme preparation”, but I did want to look at what the method actually is (because it fascinates me) and discuss a bit about different styles.

      I think you’re right about the key difference – the traditional method is to find areas in common between actor and subject and channel those emotions (“if I were that character in that situation, how would I act?”) rather than Bale’s approach which seems to be to transform himself into the character (“I am the character in that situation, how do I act?”)

      • Perhaps I came off a bit rude. I apologize if I did.

        It’s funny how some actors like Al Pacino believe that method acting doesn’t exist for the same reasons you stated (namely it’s indefinable nature).

        Great write-up anyhow. I’m not as excited for this project (despite being a massive Bale fan) because I don’t think Anderson is much of a director (although I liked The Machinist), it seems like too-familiar territory for Bale and, quite frankly, he’s better than these projects.

        A great idea for an article would be the responsibility of directors in the health of their actors. There’s still significant debate over whether Anderson was exploitative and whether he should have monitored Bale’s weight loss more closely.

      • Nah, don’t worry. I did add a bit more text to clarify that Bale isn’t really method. You know what you’re talking about it – so criticism is always welcome. I kinda started this article as that sort of thing – are there health risks? – but it kinda evolved into just a general look at physical tranformation as a “gimmick”. I’ve been wanting to write that article for a while, and Bale’s comments just kinda pushed it a particular direction.

  2. i think he misses the point slightly too. fair enough for him to attack someone who calls it a ‘gimmick’, which it clearly isnt – its his way of becoming the character and good luck to him. but he cant seriously think he cant lose weight for a series or roles and then not have it commented on. but to be honest, none of that bothers me, he’s great on screen and thats what matters

    • Yep, I don’t mind, as long as I get a great performance. I think it helps Bale, and he’s phenomenal, so I have no problem. I am, however, cynical of a handful of other performers who seem to be courting newspaper headlines and awards prestige by doing it.

      As you said, it’s the movie itself that counts.

  3. Christian Bale — awesome actor. Really puts himself to Work striving to make not just a film that sells because he’s in it but because it’s an awesome movie. This has made him irritable at himself then he took it out on a lighting guy– all heard – what a meanie CB Is. He apologized. I say while that’s nice of him to do, we judged him for being upset at work in a nutshell. And no none of us have bad days at work. The weight loss and gain he has been flip flopping back and forth in movies, I really don’t think it’s the best thing to put your body through. We aren’t Talkin 10_15 lbs. Like 40 lbs down, then let’s get ready to film batman. Get that 40 back. Okay now you play a crack addicted ex-fighter, can’t look like batman now can he? And I hear his latest movie, you got it. Requires weight loss. Which would be fine except he admitted the only way to get that thin I starve myself. Take vitamins but do not eat. I wish he’d stay away from roles where he’s gotta be thin. You know there’s lots of movies he can do in his normal healthy buff body. He’s hot boy! Okay shutting up:)

  4. Well done mate on the article. Very well written, intriguing and thought- provoking.
    Bale is a great example you have used for this.
    But like you said, people (specifically journalists) should never categorize an actor’s style of acting.
    Bale never took any Stanislavski or Adler classes. His “process” of making his characters come to life just so happens to be a little bit like “method acting”. It’s whatever comes natural to you.

    Although I believe “method” is an effective way for devising very extraordinary characters such as a crazy skinny guy or the complete opposite- a crazy buff guy dressed as a bat!

    But would you do “extensive research” to play a role in your local soap opera?

    Good article.

    • Thanks Tom. Although credit for this really lies with my better half. A drama graduate, she got sick of me using the word “method” to describe what Bale does, so I figured I’d just do a bit of digging and hopefully come up with a result – hopefully my research isn’t too embarrassing.

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