The Method Is the Main Character: A Conversation with Isaac Butler




ISAAC BUTLER IS the co-author (with Dan Kois) of The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America, which NPR named one of the best books of 2018. His writing has appeared in New York, The Guardian, American Theatre, and other publications. He has also written for Slate, where he created and hosted Lend Me Your Ears, a podcast about Shakespeare and politics, and currently co-hosts Working, a podcast about the creative process. His work as a director has been seen on stages throughout the United States. He is the co-creator, with Darcy James Argue and Peter Nigrini, of Real Enemies, a multimedia exploration of conspiracy theories in the American psyche, which was named one of the best live events of 2015 by The New York Times and has been adapted into a feature-length film. Butler teaches theater history and performance at The New School and elsewhere, and lives in Brooklyn. His new book, The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act, was published to critical acclaim earlier this year.

The Method is a biography of the acting system that originated in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, and eventually completely changed acting in the United States, across theater, television, and film, through teachers such as Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler, and the New York City acting school The Actors Studio. Butler weaves together personalities, the theater, Hollywood, and world-changing historical events into, as Alexandra Schwartz put it in The New Yorker, “an entertaining, maximally informative” narrative. While there is more in the book than could possibly be discussed in an hour, we sat down a few weeks after the book’s publication in February at Isaac’s kitchen table to talk about how the life of an acting technique is also the story of the 20th century.

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LAUREN GOLDENBERG: The Method is many things. Your book covers a lot of ground, including the fact that this is a story of many egos and personalities. So, I wanted to start at the beginning, perhaps with the most significant ego and character of them all, and ask, who is Stanislavski and what led him to “the system”?

ISAAC BUTLER: Konstantin Stanislavski, whose real name was Konstantin Sergeyevich Alexiev, was a Russian actor and director and producer and theorist. He also was a wealthy merchant industrialist, and scion of an important family. He was like if John Rockefeller was also Steven Spielberg, kind of. He was an already important and popular actor in Moscow when he co-founded, with a man named Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, the Moscow Art Theatre.

The Moscow Art Theatre was founded to essentially lead a revolution that would elevate the standards of theater in Moscow, and Russia in general, and make it a high art worthy of the important plays they were doing. It was founded in the late 1890s and was a surprisingly huge success. A few years into the life of that theater, in 1905, 1906, Stanislavski had one of any number of crises he had throughout his life. This one happened when he was acting, playing Stockman in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People in Europe on tour, so it’s called the Stockman crisis, and he delivered what to him was a mechanical, lifeless performance. The inspiration was just gone, he had a cold spell, actors have this all the time. From that crisis, he decided to try to create a series of techniques that would prevent that from happening ever again, so that you would be able to give an inspired performance on demand. That gave birth to “the system,” which was the first, I think, at least in the West, system of acting technique that focused on the actor’s interior mechanism, that believed that the interior creative life of the actor could in fact be trained and developed through exercises. He spent the entire rest of his life working on that system, revising it constantly. He styled it, as I’m sure you will when this appears in print, all in lowercase, with quotation marks around it, because he never wanted it to be finished or codified. 

And his attempts to write it down don’t really help in the codification.

No, his attempts to write it down don’t help at all, in part because Stanislavski’s just not a very good writer. People in Russia thought that at the time, and his translators have always been bewildered by how you do this. He would use multiple terms for the same idea, or for very different gradations of the same idea that I think would be imperceptible to you or me.

Can you talk a little bit about how the events that Stanislavski lived through impacted him and eventually forced “the system” out of Russia?

Stanislavski is born two years after the serfs are liberated, and he dies under Stalin. He dies in his home, he does not die in the Gulag, unlike some of his protégées. So, that’s an incredible amount of upheaval for him to survive. The Moscow Art Theatre is founded almost at the twilight of the Romanovs. It survives the 1905 failed revolution, the 1917 successful revolution, Lenin, the Russian Civil War. Under Stalin, “the system” becomes the basis of all Russian acting instruction. It is a bonkers thing to have survived all of that, which is one of the reasons why in the book I make the argument that Stanislavski’s public persona — his admirers called him the big infant — was like, Oh, I’m this childish, naïve genius. I don’t understand politics. I don’t think art really has a political role. What is politics? It just seems like that had to have been fake. No one has any evidence one way or the other, but how do you survive all of that just based on like, Oh, politics, what is this?

In terms of “the system,” it has to survive under this political pressure. So, a few things happen that are really relevant to the story of the Method. One is that Stanislavski is constantly revising “the system” even before Stalin. After the revolution and the proletarian culture movement, and particularly after Stalin takes over, Stanislavski has to start figuring out how to phrase these ideas in ways that jibe with Soviet orthodoxy. The basis for a lot of the psychological underpinnings in “the system” is the French psychologist Théodule-Armand Ribot. That just becomes bourgeois horseshit under Stalin, it’s like you’re not really allowed to talk about that. So suddenly, Stanislavski has to rephrase all these ideas in Pavlovian terms. He has to rename affective memory, which is a key aspect of “the system,” emotion memory, because affective memory is a term that comes from Ribot. There’s all sorts of stuff like that and it affects the content of “the system” and how that system can be discussed. But it’s also the reason why it comes to the United States at all, and why it becomes the Method. How that happens is because of one of Stanislavski’s protégées, Richard Boleslavsky, and his wife flee Russia during the Civil War. They wind up in the United States, right as the Moscow Art Theatre goes on tour during the Russian Civil War, which they do because it’s getting politically hot in Moscow and they’re broke. There’s such a demand for the Moscow Art Theatre’s ideas and techniques that Boleslavsky starts a school in New York based on them, and that school trains, among others, Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Harold Clurman.

One other thing before we move on that I was interested in about Stanislavski is that, from the beginning of the book, there’s a lot of religious language both in how the theater is discussed and in how the people involved discuss their work. Could you talk about this kind of religiosity of the theater, and also about Stanislavski, his own Russian Orthodox faith, and how that played into all this?

Some of that comes from me as a writer. The reason why is that I saw that there was a lot of rhyming, shall we say, between the weird way that Stanislavski’s ideas are transmitted, and then fought over, and the first century of Christianity. The first class I ever took that taught me how to do history was a class on the historical Jesus, so my ideas about being a historian and my ideas about early Christianity are deeply entwined. And that happened to work really well for this story. I thought that they did talk about theater in a religious way. And there are religious ideas there. I thought peppering it with religious language helps make that kind of feeling clear, without me ever having to say, Oh, it’s like Christ and St. Paul.

This is a somewhat controversial position within the world of Stanislavski studies, but having read up on it, I believe the argument that Stanislavski was actually a pretty deeply religious person. And there’s some evidence that he might have remained so even after the revolution. He apparently had a bureau with icons painted on the inside of it, so that when it was closed, you couldn’t see them. But the Moscow Art Theatre’s first rehearsal was consecrated by a Russian Orthodox priest. Stanislavski uses a lot of concepts, even direct terms, from Russian Orthodox Christianity, in his writing and thinking about acting, and some of that has been disguised throughout the 20th century in the States because of how his work was translated. His first translator used lots of different terms for his ideas, and they often were more secular terms. But Stanislavski talks about the soul all the time, and there’s plenty of evidence that he means like, the soul — it’s not a metaphor. And when he talks about spirit, he’s talking about the Russian Orthodox idea of spirit, which is the part of us that yearns for God. It’s what God breathes into Adam, to make the clay come to life. A key idea for Stanislavski is the triangle between the mind, the will, and the feelings, and those all have roughly analogous Russian Orthodox ideas. He uses this term ya yesm, which is a Church Slavonic term that has to do with our oneness with God, but he uses it for the oneness between actor and character. But even setting all that aside, they talked about themselves as having a holy purpose. They believed that the theater was a sacred thing that had a sacred role in society, that actors were absolutely central to that role. Stanislavski treated misbehavior in rehearsal like sacrilege.

I’m going to jump to something I was going to ask later, because I feel like this makes it very interesting that once the Method comes to the United States —

It becomes Jewish!

Yes!

It’s the most Jewish thing! Isn’t it fascinating that there’s this thing that’s thought up by a deeply Christian man based somewhat on the ideas of Ribot, and then it comes over to the United States and it becomes Freudian and Jewish? It’s like this goyishe psychology and Jewish psychology. It’s a really weird thing that happens to it, but it absolutely becomes adopted. I mean, the Group Theatre is WASPs, old money WASPs, and Jews. And most of the prominent teachers of Stanislavski’s ideas in the United States of the second generation, the students of Boleslavsky, Maria Ouspenskaya, are Jews. It’s wild. Secular Jews. But Jews.

This story is also so much about geography and language and assimilation. At first, this is such a Russian story. And then it becomes a very New York story. And then it kind of becomes a Hollywood story. But really, it is a New York story. And once you begin to meet the second generation of people who take this on, you begin to see that especially when you get to Strasberg and Adler.

It is, in some ways, a story about Jewish immigration and assimilation. Stella was born in the United States. Her father was Jacob Adler, one of the great actor impresarios of the Yiddish theater. When Stanislavski came to New York, he actually went to meet Jacob Adler, because he was one of the greatest actors in the world. Lee Strasberg comes from a very different background, he was actually born in a shtetl and immigrated to the United States as a very small child. His parents were poor. Stella’s parents were rich because of the theater. Stella had two governesses, a German one and a French one. She traveled to Paris for the latest fashions every year. Strasberg was the son of a pants presser and grew up on the Lower East Side. His original name was Israel “Srulke” Strassberg, his brother’s name was Zalmon. Harold Clurman, the third point in that triangle, ascends into the middle class as a child because his father is a doctor. He starts off living literally a block over from Strasberg and then eventually moves to a house in the Bronx as his father makes more and more money as a doctor. They have the money to send him to the Sorbonne with his cousin Aaron Copland, which is how he sees the Moscow Art Theatre perform in Paris.

I was thinking about the way theater transforms over the early 20th century. The Group Theatre’s way of reimagining theatrical production — the ability of theater to move around, for them to simplify sets and create things — is not unlike Jewish religious services. Is the theater kind of like forming a minyan?

It is a little bit because you have to have the right number of people together to make the thing. I like that analogy, that’s great.

Throughout the trajectory of this technique, there is a constant reaction between what is happening in theater or what is happening in the Method specifically, and what’s going on in the world. Could you pick another world event that happens in the 20th century that really impacts the Method?

HUAC [the House Un-American Activities Committee] is probably the biggest, but at the same time, I do think the story of the Method in the second half of the 20th century is the story of America at that time. I’m always trying to play those two stories off each other and show how they influenced each other. Probably the most fanciful argument I make in the book, but I believe it, is that, by the time we get to electing Kennedy, we are electing our nation’s leading man, the television revolution has completely happened. It is transforming America’s idea of itself. And we are looking for a leading man to play the role of president and that is true from Kennedy on, the Method has shaped our idea of who’s an appropriate leading man for our nation. When Kennedy is elected, and when they’re going to make a movie of his wartime service, he wants Warren Beatty — who studied with Stella Adler — to play him, and Warren Beatty turns him down. The Method is affecting the idea of who gets to be a president. Just like it completely affects the idea of who gets to be a sex symbol by the ’70s because without the Method Dustin Hoffman isn’t a sex symbol, Al Pacino isn’t — they’re too ethnic, they’re too short, they’re too any number of things.

Anyway, given the fact that the Method comes from Russia, that it is based on ideas that are Russian, and the fact that it comes out of the Group Theatre, which was a leftist theater and had within it a communist cell, and that Clifford Odets, one of the most important left-wing artists in any form during the 1930s, came out of the Group, it was inevitable that, once HUAC decided to go after Hollywood and the entertainment industry, it was going to get hoovered up into all that. Stella Adler was listed in Red Channels, the infamous pamphlet that listed everyone in Hollywood and their communist affiliations. It’s probably why she never acted in film again. She didn’t really want to, but had she even wanted to, she wouldn’t have been able to. And so, people are getting blacklisted. Three members of the Group die of heart attacks while under investigation by HUAC.

So tragic.

Yeah. And, of course, one of the key members of the Group, one of the members of that communist cell, who is also the co-founder of the Actors Studio, is Elia Kazan. When he names names, it has enormous impact on the Actors Studio. Among other things, the Actors Studio, which Strasberg has taken over as the artistic director though Kazan is still involved, becomes very expressly apolitical during that moment. Even though there’s a lot of left-wing content to the Method itself, it becomes at least overtly apolitical in the same way Stanislavski was, and that’s sort of how they survive it, they wait it out. By the late 1950s, the blacklist is sort of over. But it was a big deal.

I have a few questions related to this. Going back to this idea of the story of the Method being the story of America, and also their own relationships to race and ethnicity, could you talk a little bit about the Group’s relationship to African American artists at the same time? Also, I was not expecting to come across James Baldwin in this book, but he appears!

Baldwin and Kazan were close friends. Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry and a number of other black writers were affiliated with the Actors Studio Writers Unit. It is one of the stains on the Group’s history that the Group Theatre, which was founded to be the most American theater in America, they were going to give birth to a new American voice in writing and acting and all this stuff — they just did not know what to do with black people. They didn’t, and their very first show has several African American roles in it. While they cast black actors in it, the actors were not allowed to take workshops with the rest of the Group because they weren’t permanent Group members. I assume it’s also because they were black. And so, they didn’t. They weren’t in the workshops that gave birth to the Method, even though they were in that first play, they didn’t take part in them. And they weren’t part of the Group’s social life.

Bobby Lewis, who’s a member of the Group and becomes an important acting teacher in his own right, was actually friends with one of those actors, Ruth McClendon, who’s a very important African American actress of that time. He’s one of the few members of the Group that ever writes anything about it being outrageous that they did this. They were creatures of their time, to some extent, and there were other white theater-makers at that time who made different decisions, it is not just presentist bias that condemns them. Orson Welles was working with black actors, there were left-wing theaters that were integrated. So, I think that some criticism is warranted there. And then when you get to the Actors Studio, it’s sort of the story of America, the liberal color-blind institution that doesn’t have a lot of black people involved. And what does that mean? How much of that is bias? There are important black actors who are part of that institution, Sidney Poitier is a member. Again, James Baldwin’s involved, Earle Hyman, who goes on to be, among other things, Grandpa Huxtable, is part of the Actors Studio. By the time they produce James Baldwin’s fascinating play Blues for Mister Charlie, most of the black cast members of that show are not Actors Studio members, but lots of the white cast members are. And it causes some problems for them, particularly when the play is not well received in London and Lee Strasberg mentions in a press conference that a lot of the actors aren’t members of the Actors Studio as a way of sort of explaining why maybe the production wasn’t that good.

Yes, which maybe gives a hint as to the character and personality of Lee Strasberg.

He’s a complicated guy. I mean, it’s weird, when you read through the history and accounts of him, even people who loved him like a father were like, Oh also, he was an incredibly difficult and unpleasant person. One of the weird things about tracing this history is how much more interpersonal conflict people were mostly comfortable with. The Group Theatre, they just screamed at each other for a decade. Yet they were in a theater company together, they lived together. I couldn’t imagine doing this myself. I’m not trying to be like, Kids these days. I’m 42. I would never be in a company for 10 years where you despised half the people and you screamed at each other all the time.

Strasberg had few social graces, in part because he didn’t believe in them, it seems like. There’s an interview he gave to his biographer where he says something like, I don’t understand why people say hello and goodbye. He didn’t sugarcoat things. It seems like he was sort of incapable of lying, even in a way that was just pleasant social lubrication. He was very harsh in his critiques of people — he would yell at people immediately if he disagreed with them. Even his devotees would kind of be like, Yeah, that’s what he was like. So, one of the things that happened throughout his history was that he had huge fallings out with people. Sometimes they would reconcile, sometimes they wouldn’t. One of them was actually Baldwin, as a result of that press conference and Baldwin’s problems with the rehearsal process with Blues for Mister Charlie. There’s actually a late Baldwin novel that not that many people read, called Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, that has a very thinly disguised Lee Strasberg as a character named Saul San-Marquand, and it is not a polite portrait.

That gets to something else I wanted to talk about a little bit. The history of the Method is a story of egos, but it’s also a story of schisms. Could you talk a little bit about the big one in the 20th century, which is Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg?

Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler hated each other, they hated each other before the schism. Stella Adler was a female lead in many Group Theatre productions, all of which Strasberg directed. She was also Harold Clurman’s on-again, off-again lover, and Clurman, who co-ran the theater with Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford, would often face the accusation that he would, shall we say, skew the group stuff to benefit Stella. Who knows, that seems misogynist, I don’t want to say that that was true, but many people felt that was true. Stella was a genius in her own right. She had been a professional actress since the age of five, with her family’s company. She was like an aristocrat, and she did not necessarily think that Strasberg had a lot to teach her. A lot of the people in the Group, including Lee, had far less experience than she did. He’s this pisher from the shtetl, like why is she gonna listen to him? Meanwhile, Lee is like, she has this tacky Yiddish theater schmaltzy acting, he called it schmaltzy acting at one point, and he needed her to do realistic acting. She had a grand persona, and he had no time for that. So, it was like cats and dogs from the get-go. But a lot of their fights were about the content of Lee’s teaching, the volume on those got turned up by the other stuff.

Strasberg’s real emphasis was on the actor’s psychology and emotion. One of Stanislavski’s great breakthroughs was that the actor is both an artist and the artist’s material, which not everyone believed. Still, not everyone believes that. They’re the painter, they’re also the paint. It’s one of the few art forms where that’s true. Strasberg always talks about colors, I wanted them to have the most color. He’s trying to help the actor dig into themselves so that when they pull that palette out, it’s as complicated and beautiful as possible. A lot of the ways he did that was to dig into the actor’s self, into their emotions and into their memories. And from the get-go, Stella thought this was nonsense, that it was a sickness, and that Strasberg was a sick man inflicting his sickness on other people; that he was dictatorial and prone to rages did not help.

A few years into the Group’s life, they have a smash hit with this play called Men in White. Enough money gets generated from this that to celebrate, Strasberg, Clurman, and Adler all go to Moscow to see theater. And on their way back from Moscow, Clurman and Stella holiday in Paris. Stella meets Stanislavski there, and she translates into French a scene from a play that Strasberg had directed her in that she was having trouble with, and they start working on it. A few weeks later, she comes back to the United States, and she marches into a Group Theatre meeting. She says Strasberg has gotten everything wrong about “the system.” I know, she says, because Stanislavski told me so. “The system” is not about emotion. It’s about action and textual analysis and imagination. She delivers this whole lecture on “the system” and it causes a rift that lasts for the rest of their lives. This is 1934, 1935. This rift lasts until Strasberg’s death in 1982. What’s fascinating is Strasberg becomes the much more prominent acting teacher. But Stella’s ideas of script analysis and how you approach text are the foundation of American acting, directing, and playwriting pedagogy in the 20th century.

I know you’ve talked a lot about Brando elsewhere, and there are endless things we can say about Brando, but —

Like how hot he is.

Like how hot he is, yes, but also that, even though one thinks of him as, like, the Method first and foremost, he doesn’t come of Strasberg, he comes of Stella Adler.

It’s interesting because the actor who predates him, John Garfield, is the first Method movie star and he comes earlier, in 1938. He makes his first movie and becomes famous. But we don’t talk about Garfield, who’s an amazing actor I could just go on and on and on about. Brando becomes affiliated with the Method through a weird series of coincidences. Part of it is that the actor Brando was so influential that the actors who come after him, many of whom are Method actors, call themselves Method actors, ally themselves openly with Strasberg, are also stylistically imitating him. There’s American male movie acting before Brando, and after Brando, everyone has at least a fragment of Brando in them, sometimes more, up through Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, and then that becomes the lodestar.

Brando studied with Stella Adler. He did not like Strasberg, and he was furious that Strasberg claimed him as sort of a protégé, that he was affiliated with the Actors Studio. Now, there’s also this weird stuff like Brando would still do fundraisers for the Actors Studio. He was still involved in its social life. He dated Marilyn Monroe and she was part of the Actors Studio. So, you can see why people got confused about it. It’s not always his fault but he’s not actually a Method actor. But he pioneered the style that became affiliated with the Method.

This leads me to something else in the book. You talk about how the Method is now mostly associated with men. Could you speak a bit about the women who used it and were of that scene? I had no idea that Anne Bancroft and Diane Keaton were part of that world, too.

Diane Keaton did not study with Lee Strasberg. Eventually, Strasberg just starts giving people membership to the Actors Studio once they become important, so they’re members. De Niro’s a member of the Actors Studio, but he didn’t like Strasberg’s techniques. He’s not a Method actor really, he’s a Stella Adler person. So, it gets a little confusing as to who is and who is not. But Diane Keaton studied with Strasberg’s other rival who comes out of the Group, Sanford Meisner. Meisner and Adler were very close friends and they both despised Strasberg, they would talk about it very openly. But yes, there’s lots of women who come out of this tradition, especially once you broaden the tradition to include Adler’s and Meisner’s students.

Ellen Burstyn is, I think, still currently the co-artistic director or co-president of the Actors Studio, she’s the one who took it over after Strasberg died. She’s unbelievably devoted to him. She is probably among the most important living Method actors, people don’t call her a Method actor for whatever reason. Shelley Winters studied with both Adler and Strasberg. Anne Bancroft presented work at the Actors Studio so often that someone groused they should rename it the Goddamn Anne Bancroft Studio. There’s a lot of those people. Women, though, don’t perform in a stylistic way that is similar to Brando. The person who gets called the female Brando is the great actor Kim Stanley, who only made six movies, most of her career if you want to see it you have to go to a museum and watch old live TV drama episodes and grainy video. Kim Stanley was called the female Brando both because she’s the greatest actress of that generation and because of her mischievous antics, compulsions with alcohol (in Brando’s case, it was sex and food), her self-destructive behavior and how difficult it was to work with her. That’s sort of why she gets called the female Brando, she’s not walking around going like, [does a Brando impression] Oh, you know, like … You’ll have to put in brackets “[does a terrible Brando].”

How can you tell which actor studied with which teacher?

One of the fun things I do in the book is anytime a person comes up related to a story, I then just mention very briefly who they studied with. With Lee Strasberg, there’s often something withheld. There’s a sort of private torment. There’s a lot of emphasis on the subtext. Though she did not study with Lee Strasberg, she’s a British actor who got her start as a sketch comedy person, if you look at Olivia Colman and The Lost Daughter, what she is doing, stylistically, that performance would not exist without what Strasberg was doing in the middle of the 20th century. To take a more popular movie, watch Al Pacino in The Godfather. It’s textbook Strasberg, you don’t know what’s going on. Look at how much he’s hiding, how mysterious that character is, and how much of it is you watching him thinking and watching him figure things out, mysteriously. That’s a really perfect example. Adler students, with Brando and De Niro, you can see it’s really about mastering the character’s behavior. With Meisner, there’s a real sense that there’s a core part of the actor that is a nonnegotiable part of their performance that gets sort of heightened and becomes this kind of battery of energy. It’s not that they’re always playing the same part or always playing themselves, but there’s a core thing they do that they always do. Diane Keaton is the perfect example of this.

You start the book with a failed and then reimagined production of The Seagull and then you segue into movies and TV. Something that I loved about the book was that, yes, The Godfather is an extremely famous and convenient example of the Method because so many people have seen it, but there are others that are lesser known. What are some other examples of the Method and how it evolves over time?

I do try to pick that trail in the book. If you watch a movie like Four Daughters, it’s not good, but it’s really fun — it’s a studio-system movie where every actor is totally typecast because that’s what the system relied on. When John Garfield shows up, both the character and the actor are more authentic than everyone else, because he’s not playing a type. He’s just playing the character. You have this sort of staid, suburban comedy, and then in walks this genius-level performance. That’s a really great example of the change in style. Then you fast forward to A Streetcar Named Desire, and you can see how much further we’ve gone because Karl Malden is at the Actors Studio, Kim Hunter is at the Actors Studio, Brando comes out of that. When he appears onscreen, you’re just like, Jesus Christ, what is happening, like you can tell, even from the vantage point of today, that something’s going on.

By the late ’50s, every actor is trying to do that. In the ’60s, the Method becomes much more associated with leading men. In part because, as a nation, we’re sort of leaving neurosis behind for Camelot. Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Steve McQueen, to give three examples. They have their real moment in the sun in the ’60s. If you watch Hud, you can just see what Paul Newman is doing in that movie where it’s a totemic performance and he’s like a mountain. Then, you move on from that into the New Hollywood moment, which starts with The Graduate. All Method people. Mike Nichols studied with Lee Strasberg. Dustin Hoffman studied with Lee Strasberg, Anne Bancroft is a member of the Actors Studio. That movie wouldn’t [and] couldn’t exist without the Method. That and Bonnie and Clyde opened the floodgates. By 1979, nine of the 10 best acting nominees of the four categories are Actors Studio members. The one who isn’t, who wins, is Meryl Streep. She is the incredibly influential mercurial genius whose method is difficult to pin down, who defies the Method and makes it very clear that you can give a lived-in, naturalistic, passionate, real performance without any of that stuff because she didn’t like it. Kramer vs. Kramer is really instructive in that, because Dustin Hoffman is a capital-M Method capital-A Actor, and Meryl Streep is not, there was a lot of on-set conflict. Most devastatingly, before her famous testimony scene, her monologue at the court, because he wanted her to be sufficiently upset, he came up to her and started taunting her about the recent death of her partner, John Cazale, so that she would be realistically in tears.

After Kramer, once we enter the ’80s, it all starts to break apart, the teachers start dying. The ’80s are actually a wonderful period of diversity in acting styles and approaches. The Method goes all over the place, it becomes too difficult to track, but in a way, one of the last really, really important movies of this whole movement is Reds.

Right, I know! I wanted to ask about Reds because some of the actual history in The Method also provides plot points for Reds.

Can I tell you how much it killed me to have to cut Reds out of this book? There wasn’t enough room for it. I got to the part where I was gonna write about it as the last hurrah of mainstream Method filmmaking. It’s not the end of the Method. People still practice it. Bradley Cooper is an Actors Studio MFA alum. He learned that stuff, it’s absolutely influential in the movie he made with Tisch graduate and Strasberg devotee Lady Gaga. His version of A Star Is Born is a good Method movie. But Reds is the last hurrah of New Hollywood because it was greenlit before it died, but made afterward. It’s one of the last great historical epics that Hollywood ever made. It’s written and directed by one of Stella Adler’s most famous students, Warren Beatty. It stars Beatty and Diane Keaton. Playing Eugene O’Neill is Jack Nicholson, he was a Method actor. He was trained by Martin Landau, was deeply enmeshed in that. If you read Nicholson’s early interviews, he’s clearly someone who’s very smart and sort of a lay scholar of acting theory. Maureen Stapleton, original Actors Studio member in an incredible and Oscar-winning performance, plays Emma Goldman. The history they’re talking about, they’re talking about the Provincetown players with O’Neill, who are very important to why people are so hungry for Moscow Art Theatre camps in the United States. Part of it takes place during and immediately after the Revolution. Lenin is a character. Its connection to all of that material is truly astounding. It absolutely killed me. But there just wasn’t room for it, ultimately. Because, at that point, 1982 I think is when Reds comes out, that’s when Strasberg dies. And so, the book needs to be doing something else at that point.

My last question is, what did you learn in writing this book?

The first third of the book was really discovering stuff that I didn’t know, and the next two-thirds of the book was really deepening my knowledge of and learning things that I had been taught incorrectly or not as well. A lot of the excitement of discovery is baked into that first third about Russia and Stanislavski. I first read Richard Boleslavsky when I was 13. I had no idea about the life he led, which was a wild, wild life.

The story of his escape from Moscow is bonkers. That part in his biography, I was fist bumping! Yes, yes, this is gonna be so good when I get to tell this part! But eventually, I was like, Wait, that’s not important to the story of the Method. And the Method is the main character.

¤

Lauren Goldenberg is deputy director at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. A former book scout and bookseller, she is also a member of the board of Jewish Currents.

 

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