Lloyd Evans

Benedict Cumberbatch and the truth about method acting

Benedict Cumberbatch and the truth about method acting
Image: Getty
Text settings

What’s up with Kirsten Dunst and Benedict Cumberbatch? It’s rumoured that the pair refused to speak to each other on the set of their new movie, The Power of the Dog, because Cumberbatch had embraced ‘method acting’ and his character hated her character. To protect the truth of his interpretation, he deliberately snubbed his co-star throughout the shoot. Is that true? Something about it doesn’t feel right.

Any thesp who follows ‘the method’ is likely to infuriate their colleagues. HBO’s hit series ‘Succession’ has generated rumours about Jeremy Strong who plays Kendall Roy. Strong, in the words of his fellow thesps, is ‘complicated’ to work with. He identifies so closely with his character that he adopts Kendall’s mood for days on end. If Kendall is happy, Strong is happy. If Kendall is suffering, Strong sulks and mopes. And he immerses himself so deeply in the role that he reacts badly when the words ‘rehearsal or ‘scene’ are mentioned. To him, the dramatic action is actually happening in real life. But these foibles are not indulged by his comrades. Keiran Culkin, who plays Roman Roy, has taken to sabotaging Strong’s efforts on set. ‘This is a SCENE,’ exclaims Culkin, as they prepare to perform. ‘And in this SCENE I’m going to rehearse because it’s a f***king TV SHOW!’

So much for solidarity between actors.

The show’s star, Brian Cox, harbours doubts about performers who treat the job as a ‘religious experience.’ They should ‘give themselves a break,’ he suggests. And he believes that Strong was unduly influenced by a spell working as an assistant to Daniel Day-Lewis. ‘A lot of those habits he’s developed from Dan,’ said Cox.

Day-Lewis is the uncrowned king of method acting. To prepare for his 1997 movie, 'The Boxer', he sparred with former world featherweight champion, Barry McGuigan, and suffered a bruised spine and a broken nose. It’s unclear whether the fracture was an accident or a key part of his tuition. In the 1993 drama, ‘In The Name of the Father’, he played Gerry Conlon who was wrongly convicted of an IRA bombing. Day-Lewis volunteered to be interrogated by real-life police officers for three days and nights. And he subsisted on prison rations until he’d lost 30 pounds.

This crash-diet was surpassed by Christian Bale who played ‘a walking skeleton’ in ‘The Machinist’ in 2004. He lost 65 pounds by living on cigarettes, whisky, black coffee and the occasional apple. In 2018 he went in the other direction and bulked up to play Dick Cheney in ‘Vice’, a movie about George W Bush’s deputy. These feats of starvation and bingeing serve more than one purpose. For a start, Bale was obviously the wrong choice for the role of Cheney. He’s too handsome, too tall and too slim. And he’s British as well. But that’s just it. Getting the least likely candidate creates gossip and controversy. Bale played along with the charade and spent months eating burgers and ice cream instead of pushing weights in the gym. It would have been perfectly easy to strap a silicon beer-gut to his midriff at the start of each day’s filming but he preferred to balloon up because he knew that underdoing a physical transformation would enhance his mystique as an actor. And it worked as a publicity stunt too. Bale’s willingness to slob out and scoff doughnuts ‘for the sake of his art,’ turned into a major talking-point. Everyone got chatting about a movie that may otherwise have been overlooked. So Bale won both ways. He created a heap of free publicity and he acquired extra personal kudos as a practitioner of his sacred craft. Nice work.

This probably explains the alleged stand-off between Cumberbatch and Dunst. The two actors may not be the best of friends but they’re unlikely to be bitter enemies either. And a canny marketing guru may have turned their indifference into a publicity angle and invented the story that Cumberbatch gave Dunst the cold shoulder in order to honour ‘the method.’ And the ploy paid off. Here’s me talking about it, after all. The movie itself is another matter. A surfeit of back-stage gossip may indicate that a picture isn’t strong enough to draw a crowd on its own merits. You have been warned.