Once upon a time, all actors did to prepare for a role was to don a suit or slip into a dress and step in front of the camera ready to go. Look at Jimmy Stewart, for example; it was pretty rare to see him look anything other than absolute perfection with nary a hair out of place. Sure, actors used to wear elaborate costumes or cake themselves in make-up for a role, but all that is just window dressing; the person underneath is still the same.
However, gradually over the years there’s been a growing trend for actors to go the extra mile for a role, whether that be physically or mentally. There’s no doubting the commitment, but is there a danger that those actors who do push themselves to their limits are going too far? Or should the fact that they get paid absurd amounts of money dictate that they should do whatever necessary for the role?
It’s difficult to pinpoint when this trend began, but Marlon Brando could be partly responsible. Brando was one of the first to bring method acting to popular cinema after studying under Stella Adler at her Studio of Acting in New York City. This form of acting required an actor to completely immerse themselves in the role, even when the cameras weren’t rolling. This Stanislavskian approach was considered to be a much more realistic form of acting and has since been adopted by some of Hollywood’s most revered actors. Brando never really changed his appearance all that much during these years but the attitudes towards what was required for a role had definitely changed.
One of the first high profile instances of an actor physically transforming himself into a characters was a certain Robert De Niro, a staunch proponent of the Method style, when he gained 31lbs to play an overweight Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull in 1980. Filming was shut down for around four months whilst De Niro ate his way around Italy and France to gain the weight. He also trained as a boxer, winning two out of three fights in which he entered.