Q&A with Imagining the Method author Justin Rawlins

Q&A with Imagining the Method author Justin Rawlins

Only one performance style has dominated the lexicon of the casual moviegoer: “Method acting.” The first reception-based analysis of film acting, Imagining the Method investigates how popular understandings of the so-called Method—what its author Justin Rawlins calls “methodness”—created an exclusive brand for white, male actors while associating such actors with rebellion and marginalization. Drawing on extensive archival research, the book maps the forces giving shape to methodness and policing its boundaries.

Altogether, Justin Rawlins offers a revisionist history of the Method that shines a light on the cultural politics of methodness and the still-dominant assumptions about race, gender, and screen actors and acting that inform how we talk about performance and performers. We asked Dr. Rawlins some questions about his book, out now and 30% off with free domestic shipping during the annual meeting of the Popular Culture Association!

Your book is the first to argue for a new term—”methodness”—to understand the reception of “Method” actors and acting. Why is this term needed and why do you think academics and non-academics are still focused on trying to sort out what Method acting is and what it isn’t?

The urge to parse different acting philosophies/techniques is understandable and indeed necessary, especially in the case of “Method” acting where the term has (despite attempted clarifications from scholars and practitioners) been popularly used for decades as a catchall for a range of approaches to stage and screen acting. I was very much aware of these long-simmering debates as I began work on this book. I realized that I needed to carve out a space to explore the way we talk about the Method rather than the Method itself. I needed a term 1) that acknowledged some connection to actual characteristics, people, and institutions aligned with Method acting/actors and 2) that established the discourse about the Method as its own distinct thing that has taken on a life that in many ways has superseded actual features of the Method. Methodness, I felt, accomplished both needs and consequently permitted me the freedom to tangle with “Method” as a discursively constituted, and often charged, body of meaning while being clear that I was not making an argument about what Method acting really is. At the same time, I do believe that methodness and the research that surrounds it complements those important efforts to clarify and distinguish different acting philosophies and techniques; taken together, all this work helps us get closer to a more comprehensive understanding of performance in all its dimensions on stage and screen as well as (my book argues) those spaces between (such as social media!) where we make sense of acting.

High profile actors who employ Method acting often generate buzz in Hollywood. For example: Brian Cox’s criticism of his Succession costar Jeremy Strong, Jared Leto’s “commitment” scandals, Christian Bale’s “transformation” stories, and accounts of Daniel Day-Lewis always being in character on set. How have debates about Method performers changed over time? What role does gossip play in the assumptions and discourses that underpin these debates?

There are certainly differences in some of the details of “Method”-related debates over the years. The terms change: sometimes “Method” is explicitly named, other times euphemisms like “unwashed,” “unmannered,” and “unconventional” (these three came from gossip maven Louella Parsons) are used. More recently, discourse about “transformation” and “commitment” has prevailed upon our popular conversations, often over mentions of “Method.” At the same time, there is also continuity in the shared imagining of what method acting/actors are, what I call “methodness,” that repeatedly informs these debates across otherwise different periods. It should be said that methodness is also routinely visible in the news cycle because it lends itself quite well to gossip and to sensationalist headlines because it appeals to a sense of the extraordinary and the transgressive. In the cases of Strong, Leto, and Bale, their reported commitments to their roles (by staying in character on set and off, by the intensity of their psychological commitment to the parts, by their physical transformations of their bodies, etc.) mark them off as different. When their peers, such as Strong’s Succession costar Cox, say things to the press like “I just worry about what [Strong] does to himself…in order to prepare,” that validates this popularly held notion of methodness and lends credence to the gossip. That sort of purported behavior—as well as the reaction to it—stands in for a shared understanding of the Method even as the term may be sparingly used. It evokes strong, often polarized responses from audiences that, even when people may disagree, mutually reinforce a received idea of the Method (methodness).

The performers we just mentioned are all white and male. How does our cultural reception and understanding of methodness exceptionalize white male performers to the exclusion of everyone else?

Much of this prevailing reception that underwrites methodness is rooted in a confluence of systemic racial and gender biases that privilege white men’s labor, afford it greater value, and provide white male performers much more latitude for transgression and/or failure. This exceptionalism is predicated on the devaluation of the labor of women actors and performers of color, for whom there are significantly fewer opportunities and much less latitude than their white male counterparts. These disparities are baked into not only the culture industries but the frameworks through which we audiences make sense of things like screen performance. In the book I quote an apt encapsulation of this situation from the incredible actor Brian Tyree Henry, who says that the affordances (in transgression, for example) that accompany Method acting are not available to Black men. “If I walked into [the set of the television series Atlanta] with a real gun, selling drugs,” Henry observed, “they would fire my ass.”

Your book draws an extraordinary amount of archival research spanning from nineteenth-century protestant tent revivals and Chautauquas, to twenty-first century extraordinary body transformations and speculatively encoded virtual “method” actors. What were some of the most interesting artifacts you came across in your research?

There were so many fascinating artifacts, but I’ll narrow here to two. The Group Theatre’s 1931 collective diary of their first summer training was certainly one of them. You are watching these young individuals, many of whom would very soon go on to become paramount figures in teaching Americans how to act for stage and screen (people like Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, Lee Strasberg, etc.), trying to make sense of a shared approach to performance while also navigating the complex interpersonal dynamics of this spirited group of people. You watch them bicker and rave and love and gossip, and it is sometimes messy but also beautiful. The other artifact that comes to mind is the 3D scan images of Marlon Brando from the 1990s. The gentleman who owns those images and who collaborated with Brando in the pioneering effort to digitize the acting legend was so gracious in volunteering his time and perspective on these incredible images. They (meaning Brando as well) were really ahead of their time, and I think the scans show a very different perspective on this titanic stage and screen figure, literally and figuratively. It also points to the broader question I raise at the end of the book regarding how we will imagine Method acting and actors in the future.

The conclusion to your book looks to the phenomenon of AI performers encoded with engineers’ ideas about Method acting. Not only do we have the technology to “resurrect” James Dean, but projects employing “creative casting” of AI actors in leading roles are in production. What are the implications for performance with these evolving technologies, and how do scholars engage with “black box” rhetoric employed in discussions of digital performance?

Because my central concern in this book revolves around the historical meaning(s) that methodness has taken on in the interpretive landscape of US popular culture, I became very interested ultimately in what that accumulation of meaning signals for the present and future of this collectively imagined thing. More pointedly, I think, this history prompts us to think about how we come to know a thing and how the context(s) of that knowledge and everything that colors it underwrites both how we make sense of it as well as our own respective participation in its ongoing life as an idea. How, for example, will our received notions of method acting/actors—and the myriad biases entailed in those interpretations—function as inputs in the construction of artificial thespians? What does “Method” mean within these processes? How does the exceptionalism baked into the oft-romanticized inaccessibility of methodness morph under these new conditions when the performers themselves are artificial? I do not have the answers (yet), but these strike me as questions that are becoming increasingly urgent.

Justin Owen Rawlins is an assistant professor in the University of Tulsa’s Departments of Media Studies and Film Studies.