The silver screen has seen its fair share of dialed-in performances blatantly done just for a bumper paycheck. By contrast, though, some more committed movie actors seemingly go above and beyond the call of duty, opting to lose themselves completely in the characters that they play on screen, even after the day’s filming ends. Adopting this dedicated approach to their craft may help an actor to better channel emotions and mannerisms otherwise foreign to them, and to give an incredible – even Oscar-winning – turn as a consequence. Whether the toll sometimes paid on both their minds and bodies is worth it is up for debate but, as the following ten examples show, there’s considerable method in these actors’ madness – not least because it creates some truly tour-de-force performances.
10. Jim Carrey – Man on the Moon (1999)
Jim Carrey got so into his role of Andy Kaufman while shooting 1999 biopic Man on the Moon that it was apparently hard to tell where he ended and the oddball entertainer began. Indeed, Carrey remained in the role of Kaufman or Kaufman’s character Tony Clifton around the clock – and only answered to “Andy” or “Mr. Kaufman” on set. Furthermore, Carrey even insisted that wrestler Jerry Lawler give him a piledriver to realistically recreate one of Kaufman and Lawler’s renowned on-screen clashes. When his request was denied Carrey reportedly flipped, spitting in Lawler’s face and goading the wrestler into giving him what he wanted. Carrey’s intense and sometimes exhausting performance in the Miloš Forman-directed movie did eventually earn him a Golden Globe award. However, when speaking to BuzzFeed in 2013, co-star Paul Giamatti revealed that Carrey’s actions did make the shoot “a very strange experience.”
9. Philip Seymour Hoffman – Capote (2005)
In 2006 director Bennett Miller explained to The Telegraph that working alongside Philip Seymour Hoffman was the most difficult aspect of shooting 2005 biopic Capote. “Phil is just brutal on himself,” he told the British newspaper. “He was unforgiving, challenging, unrelenting.” The movie was captured in just over five weeks in Winnipeg, southern Canada, with Hoffman spending most of the time in character as writer Truman Capote. Hoffman told The Guardian in 2006 that this was a practical decision, saying, “The way my mouth works is completely differently from his mouth. It’s hard just to drop and pick up again.” In the end, though, Hoffman’s discipline paid off – his portrayal of Capote earned him an Oscar, a BAFTA, a Screen Actors Guild Award and a Golden Globe.
8. Viggo Mortensen – The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)
Viggo Mortensen was so intent on making his character Aragorn entirely convincing in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movie adaptations that he often carried his sword with him even when the cameras weren’t rolling. At one point off set, weapon in tow, he was even questioned by a policeman. “I lost myself completely in the role,” the actor revealed to Empire magazine in 2004. “I am a man who likes to withdraw into solitude and take long hikes in the woods and mountains. So was Aragorn. We fitted perfectly together.” Mortensen also trekked to far-off scene locations in full Aragorn garb in order to appear realistically weathered, telling The Independent in 2001 that he also “thought of the New Zealand landscape as one of [his] acting partners.”
7. Joaquin Phoenix – The Master (2012)
For Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 drama The Master, Joaquin Phoenix delivered an Oscar-nominated performance as damaged World War II vet Freddie Quell. The actor has proved reluctant to admit his total immersion in the role, explaining to The New York Times in 2012 that he “hate[s] hearing [the phrase] ‘staying in character.’” Still, Phoenix nevertheless divulged that his character “was so extreme” that he “couldn’t physically release” himself from it. And some unusual research also went on off camera; for one scene where Quell is locked in a jail cell, Phoenix studied videos of caged wild animals to effectively portray his character’s instinct-driven rage. As a result, the star let loose on set to such an extent that he ended up inadvertently breaking the cell’s toilet.
6. Christian Bale – Terminator Salvation (2009)
Despite having insisted that he is not a method actor, Academy Award winner Christian Bale is notorious for the intense, immersive approach that he brings to his characters. For example, Bale dropped roughly 63 pounds for 2004 thriller The Machinist; when playing an American, furthermore, the British star has been known to retain a U.S accent throughout the filming period and even during subsequent press interviews. Indeed, the actor made headlines in 2009 when his explosive on-set verbal assault on Terminator Salvation cinematographer Shane Hurlbut was leaked online. Incredibly, Bale doesn’t break character during the entire four-minute clip, delivering his foul-mouthed attack in a frighteningly intense American accent. Bale attributed the incident to misplaced passion and the “craziness” of the role that he was playing in the McG-directed 2009 action movie. “I’m half John Connor, I’m half Christian there,” he later explained.
5. Val Kilmer – The Doors (1991)
Val Kilmer was so convincing as Jim Morrison in 1991 biopic The Doors that even the late rock icon’s real-life band mates couldn’t tell the difference between Kilmer’s voice and the real thing. Kilmer’s commitment began almost 12 months before shooting, during which time he was seen wearing Morrison’s attire and hitting the Doors frontman’s Sunset Strip hangouts. He also spent half a year learning 50 of The Doors’ songs, even though only 15 made the final cut. Meanwhile, according to one extra Kilmer channeled Morrison at all times while on stage, “even when conferring with director Oliver Stone… or first assistant director Joseph Reidy between takes.” Kilmer allegedly also made everyone address him as “Jim” throughout production.
4. Robert De Niro – Raging Bull (1980)
Early in his career, Robert De Niro became infamous for his commitment to his roles. For instance, to play troubled Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 neo-noir classic Taxi Driver, De Niro spent weeks working half-a-day shifts as a licensed New York City cab driver, as well as spending his spare time researching mental health issues. He was equally meticulous preparing for his Oscar-winning role as retired boxer Jake LaMotta in Scorsese’s acclaimed 1980 biopic Raging Bull. “De Niro was always in character, and he was very, very intense,” explained first assistant director Allan Wertheim in Andrew J. Rausch’s book, The Films of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. For the part, De Niro transformed himself physically, first beefing up to a muscular 160 pounds and then adding another 60 pounds to portray an older, overweight LaMotta.
3. Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight (2008)
Heath Ledger shut himself away for almost a month to prepare for his eventually Oscar-winning turn as The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 Batman sequel The Dark Knight. The late actor also created a creepy-looking journal and played around with nailing the character’s speech. “Heath Ledger completely immersed himself. He stayed in character,” co-star Christian Bale told ReelComix. “When he was The Joker, he was The Joker throughout.” Meanwhile, it has been suggested that Ledger became unhealthily preoccupied with the role. “If you tried to communicate with him normally instead of The Joker, he would just ignore you,” a source explained to Fox News. “Towards the end of filming, he was warned by people that he had gone too far.”
2. Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
In a mini documentary released by Focus Features in 2014, Jared Leto reveals that he “fell in love the first time that [he] read the script” of 2013 biopic Dallas Buyers Club. He goes on to remark that he “had to play” the character of transgender woman Rayon in the critically acclaimed movie – and it was a role into which Leto threw himself with considerable gusto. As well as going through a painstaking makeover which saw him wax off all his body hair and drop some serious weight, Leto also didn’t switch Rayon off for the almost-month-long shoot, according to his colleagues. “I met Rayon; I don’t know Leto,” explained director Jean-Marc Vallée. Co-star Matthew McConaughey related a similar story, saying, “Every day when I go to work and work with him I was working with Rayon.” Leto’s dedication earned him the 2013 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
1. Daniel Day-Lewis – My Left Foot (1989)
Daniel Day-Lewis’ sometimes extreme commitment to his craft has likely helped him on the way to a record-breaking three Academy Awards for Best Actor. Indeed, Day-Lewis is famous for the measures that he takes to achieve total immersion in his characters – measures which include anything from learning Czech to mastering canoe construction. His first Oscar came courtesy of his role as disabled Irish artist and writer Christy Brown in Jim Sheridan’s 1989 film My Left Foot. During shooting, Day-Lewis stayed in his wheelchair when the cameras stopped, insisted that others fed him and often refused to break character – even when his agent arrived on set. He also ended up with two broken ribs from hunching over for so long. “It was madness,” said co-star Kirsten Sheridan of Day-Lewis’ meticulous commitment to the role.