Method in Acting and Science: Why there is no such thing

Growing up in China, with the state television often showing boring programs, I was hooked to our cherished VCR and movies. My favorite actors growing up were Al Pacino and Robert Deniro (no surprises there).

It was only later on that I discovered while doing my PhD in the Netherlands, that actors like Pacino and Deniro were brothers, fathered by one Marlon Brando :). I hadn’t, till then, seen any of his older films and was under the superficial impression that it was The Godfather that was his finest portrayal. By chance, not to mention the miracle of the Internet and one of its most popular applications, the popular BitTorrent protocol, I downloaded Brando’s earliest movies and started watching them in chronological order. Through a myriad of scenes of these impressive groundbreaking films, I was amazed at the way in which Brando paints the screen with the poetic movement of his hands, the touching blinking winks of his eyes, the gentle tone of his voice, and the overall artistry of his acting instrument: his body and his spirit. It was a ride of constant amazement, joy and, surprisingly, humor. I found myself laughing at the emotions that he was able to convey in the most mundane and inconsequential scenes. I giggled in amazement that someone could do such things in a medium that till then, despite having seen loads of movies and admired lots of actors, I had never thought could provide such depth and artistry.

And I wondered: what made it possible? How was he able to do that? Sure, he was a genius but I also knew that he had been ‘method trained’. So I took the natural path towards finding about Stanislavski, Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg and others. I imbibed acting books, tried method acting at home in front of the mirror, rehearsed scenes from movies, and even, on occasion, used my method acting “skills” in everyday life :P. I remember being fascinated with the great emphasis that Stanislavski placed on having a loose body. Following his advice, I tried lying on my bed, as would a ‘cat’, with every body part totally relaxed. I realized that without my knowing, my toes would often be very tense. Relaxing them made me feel mentally relaxed as well.

At the same time, since I was studying science, I naturally got interested in the scientific ‘method’. I read up on Popper and other philosophers. What Popper said about ‘Falsification’ as the ‘method’ that scientists use seemed just right. I quoted him quite smugly and somewhat unthinkingly in discussion and debates with my colleagues. Apart from method, I found myself drawing other parallels between acting and science generally. When I heard Mickey Rourke talk about training to be an actor and practicing his craft for years like a ‘monk’, I envied him and realized that this was exactly what I had been guilty of not doing. The inspiration had been there but I was not putting in the long yards into my research.

However, as I read up more on the ‘scientific method’, I started running into blind alleys. For example, the first casualty was my Popperian idol. I realized that if science were to work on falsification principles, there would be virtually no science at all. For instance, objects not flying off the surface of the earth was a clear piece of falsifying evidence that Galileo’s hypothesis of a rotating earth was ‘wrong’. There are numerous other such examples as well. Similarly, I felt that other prescriptive recipes or algorithms or methodologies of science, could also be criticized and did not quite reveal how scientists went about doing their jobs.

At the same time, my reading on acting revealed to me that the method of Lee Strasberg (who had taught Al Pacino) was considered by Stella Adler (who had taught Brando and Deniro!) to be faulty at best, fraudulent at worst! Specially under attack was Strasberg’s use of ‘sense memory’, in which an actor uses memories from her past to emote. See the clip below in which Dennis Hopper demonstrates the use of ‘sense memory’ quite brilliantly:

On the other hand, in Deniro’s words, Stella’s method consisted more of using imagination to get into the character rather than the actor getting into her own “neurosis” (Deniro’s exact word :P). I found out that there had been bitter polemics on the subject bringing into sharp focus the question as to what actually constituted method acting, with all sides claiming to be the true heirs of Stanislavski. And finally, there were ‘non-method’ actors like Lawrence Olivier who felt that every actor had his or her own method.

The situation quite naturally became such that no matter how hard I tried, I could not coherently describe either of the two (acting and science) methods, apart from platitudes such as ‘trying to find the truth by abstracting away the clutter’ etc. Luckily, I found some peace, when at roughly around the same time, I heard two people I greatly admired in acting and science say the exact same thing about method. Al Pacino talking about Brando and method acting, and Chomsky responding to a question on the scientific method, said: “There is no such thing!” There it was at last; something that should be have been clear from the get-go: There is no algorithm, there is no recipe, in short there is no general method. The best we have are broad guidelines.

Chomsky went on to add something, which I am sure Pacino would endorse:   “(There is no such thing) and the best you can hope for is to get a good mentor and do your apprenticeship”. I am thankful that I got David Hales in science; as for acting, I have no plans of pursuing that line, though I greatly appreciate the work put in by great actors, and I am still fond of drawing parallels between the two fields, e.g. emphasis on abstracting away the clutter and trying to discover the truth!

10 responses to “Method in Acting and Science: Why there is no such thing”

  1. I’d say that if it works it goes. I mean, if you cure cancer by non standard procedures I don’t see anyone complaining “that’s not science” even if they think it should haven been done differently. As for acting or any other artistic endeavors just the same; results rule.

  2. There is no such thing, because two well-respected persons said so.

    1. Hey Tamas, About time! 🙂 As you well know (and are deliberately pretending not to :-)) this was not the message of the post. It was related to all the difficulties in defining a prescriptive method that I encountered myself. I am guessing these “two well-respected persons” also encountered the same my friendaa 🙂

  3. … and what about posing?

    1. I think posing might well be innate 😉

  4. Hey, thanks for enlightening me more about three of my favorite actors. All so intense. Though I must say that the term method acting can sometimes put a person off, making it all seem robotic. So I am really relieved to know that there is no such thing.

  5. This is a very good post – it made me think about things that I had never seen put together before – acting and science.

    Francisco above makes a good point – what works works. The problem is that this is either a tautology or teleological (or both). What I mean is, sure nobody argues with stuff that works. But the question is, is there any method that might help us get to things that work before we know they work. Otherwise we’re just doing random stuff and hoping. I don’t think people do only random stuff and hope (though that is perhaps more of what we do than we care to admit – consider gambling on a lottery). Hence the question remains: what kinds of methods might help us to achieve certain goals (be it acting, science or even spiritual matters). I think that given that people can learn from others there must be something they are doing. Perhaps it’s just that it can not be expressed as an algorithm or even cleanly in language. Maybe that is what is why you have a line from Socrates to Plato to Aristotle.

    However, Tamas’ first comment (above) can be seen as more profound than perhaps you give credit because one could interpret what he says as “if it is all about learning from others that came before then isn’t this potentially a justification of appeal to authority?”.

    I think we might be back to problem of induction here. We can read your older to post to see what you think about that.

    Maybe anything that can be easily written down or turned into an algorithm isn’t really worth learning in the direct sense anyway – i.e. you can get it from a book or a website by definition.

    Maybe we are all just simply confused.

    1. What a nice thoughtful comment…
      On a related but different note, about “appeal to authority”, one should reap the benefits of having a good mentor, but one should not shy in arguing (often ferociously? 🙂 ) with him/her 😉 (Though I have cut down on the ferocious part now :))
      Nullius addictus jurare in verba magistri –> “I am not bound to swear allegiance to the words of any master.”

  6. […] futile as the question, “What is the scientific method” (something that I talked about here) Anyway, on the 9th of March, we were greeted with the burning of a Christian neighborhood in […]

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