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How did the 20th century learn to act? 'The Method'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Brando, Kazan, the film of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," 1951, The Method - a lot of luminous names were students of The Method in acting - with Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and the Actors Studio, Brando, Al Pacino, Ellen Burstyn, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Fonda, to name just a few. What is The Method? What impact has it had on the way we see so many of the works that move us? Isaac Butler's new book is "The Method: How The Twentieth Century Learned To Act."

And Isaac Butler, the critic, director, former actor and host of Slate's "Working" podcast joins us from - why am I not surprised it's Brooklyn? Thanks so much for being with us, Isaac.

ISAAC BUTLER: Thank you so much for having me, Scott.

SIMON: We think of The Method as actors going inside, using their own memories to depict emotions of the characters they play. But help us understand the whole origin story here that goes back to, of course, Stanislavski and the Moscow Art Theater.

BUTLER: Yeah. So, you know, prior to Stanislavski and the Moscow Art Theater, good acting usually did not involve going deep inside yourself. It was about learning a highly conventionalized series of gestures, facial expressions, intonations, ways of performing a part. And over the course of his career, Konstantin Stanislavski, who was an actor himself, as well as a director and teacher and theorist, really transformed our ideas of what good acting was into something that involved the truth - portraying the truth in your character and going within yourself to find that truth.

SIMON: The phrase is perezhivanie.

BUTLER: Perezhivanie - yes. That is a Russian word that roughly means - of course, there's no exact translation - but it means experiencing or re-experiencing. It is not the moment where the actor fully becomes the character. Stanislavski believed both that that wasn't really possible and that was probably a sign of mental illness if you did it. But it is sort of the moment where the actor and the character meet. They merge into this sort of joint entity, and the actor begins to really enter imaginatively into the world of the character and experience the things the character is experiencing.

SIMON: Did The Method come to America when the Russian Revolution occurred and people came for them?

BUTLER: Yeah. I mean, the Russian Revolution certainly helped. One of Stanislavski's disciples, I suppose, was a man named Richard Boleslavsky, who had served as an officer in World War I and was a white, which is to mean an anti-communist after the fall of the czar. Moscow became an increasingly uncomfortable place for him to be. And so he fled the country. And he eventually wound up in the United States, in New York City. And he happened to be in New York City at the exact moment that the Moscow Art Theater went on tour of the United States. And it just so happened that they needed someone to explain these ideas to the American people. And Richard Boleslavsky turned out to be that person.

SIMON: Give us one of the exercises that are often part of The Method.

BUTLER: Maybe I can give you one of the most controversial ones, right? And that's the affective memory exercise. And the way this works is that you would attempt to essentially trigger yourself. You're going to recall a memory from your past that has a strong emotion attached to it to have that emotion on demand. And the way you recall that memory is to remember the sensory details of it. So you might remember, you know, the loss of a loved one in a hospital room, you know? So you might recall the sound - the beeping sound that the heart monitor made - or that kind of smell that hospital rooms have - that antiseptic smell. And you would use these sensory details until suddenly you began feeling the things that you felt then. And if you can do that reliably and learn to control it, you can then use those emotions to give a sense of reality to your performances.

SIMON: Marlon Brando - great actor, great big pain in the butt for a lot of his co-stars, wasn't he?

BUTLER: (Laughter) Yes. A mercurial trickster would, I think, be the most flattering way to describe him, right?

SIMON: Well, you write so beautifully of the defining differences he had in "Streetcar Named Desire" with his co-star in the stage version, Jessica Tandy.

BUTLER: Yes. Jessica Tandy called him a psychopathic bastard. Jessica...

SIMON: Oh, that's just showbiz.

BUTLER: (Laughter).

SIMON: But go ahead - yeah.

BUTLER: You know, Jessica Tandy was a British-trained actress. She had worked with John Gielgud. She had worked with Laurence Olivier. She was a consummate professional who believed, you know, you did your part. You figured out how you were going to do it. You did it very precisely. And you did it the same every night. That was part of what you owed your cast members. Actually, most actors today would kind of agree with that. But that's just not how Brando was ever going to work, you know? Brando's whole thing was that he was living in the moment, and he was going to do exactly what came to him in that moment, and you had to just adjust to that. And his cast members had a lot of trouble with it.

SIMON: I've got to raise something with you. I have interviewed many accomplished big-name British actors over the years who think The Method is - I don't know how to say it politely - hooey.

BUTLER: Yeah.

SIMON: Dame Glenda Jackson - we interviewed her. She said, (imitating British accent) no, you say the words so people can understand them. That's the bloody job.

And I've interviewed directors who notably hire British actors to play American roles. And they say it's because they come to the set, know their lines and don't go into psychotherapy to play the car salesman.

BUTLER: Yeah. I completely understand it, frankly. I mean, I think part of the complexity of this story is that it's responsible for, you know, amazingly brilliant performances and really terrible behavior. You know, both of those things kind of flow out of this. There are lots of people who we don't think of necessarily as method actors who you also don't hear a lot of complaints about. You know, I would put Ellen Burstyn up against Glenda Jackson any day, for example. Ellen Burstyn is, you know, one of the great champions of The Method, studied at the Actors Studio, has run the Actors Studio after Lee Strasburg's death.

If any of those teachers were still alive today, they would say to you, well, of course you have to show up on set and know your lines and not need psychotherapy and take care of yourself and not abuse your cast members. You shouldn't use this stuff as an excuse to do that. And I believe that. So to return to your point about British actors - British actors today stylistically actually owe a great deal to the post-Method American actors. The - you know, a British actor on camera today is a lot more similar to Dustin Hoffman in the '70s than they are to Laurence Olivier in the '40s.

SIMON: Isaac Butler's book, "The Method: How The Twentieth Century Learned To Act" - thank you for going deep inside yourself on this interview.

BUTLER: Thank you so much. Yes. I'm going to go recover now.

SIMON: (Laughter). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.