"THE METHOD" LEGACY: Foundations; Phantom Day-Lewis & BOVTS - Part I / by Laurence Fuller

The key to all this lies in the Verto of words.

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Last Sunday after the ceremony, sitting in the Roosevelt after party sipping a gin cocktail after the show, where the first Oscars were held, I contemplated on the proceedings and the history of acting in film which has led us here. It seemed inappropriate to write or publish this in anticipation of the Oscars, because I didn't think he would win this year, he didn't think he would win this year "it's been great just to sit back and watch Gary collect his dues", I felt as many did it would be Gary for Darkest Hour. So this piece is something of a reflection of what we have lost, and the mantle now left to young leading men, like Timothée Chalamet, or those unknowns challenging the guard with independent films as Day-Lewis once did with My Beautiful Launderette or My Left Foot.

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The ceremony itself was a good one, a great message and well navigated by Jimmy Kimmel. My own personal bent is usually focused on the Best Actor category; brilliant to see Gary Oldman up there after all these years of coming so close and it was not just a long overdue award he was well and truly the best performance last year. Though the other nominees Timothy Chalamet’s vulnerability and honesty in Call Me By Your Name, Daniel Kaluuya representing a new and exciting wave in Hollywood with Get Out, Denzel with an astonishing performance in Roman J Israel, Esq. It was a really strong year for this category, and it made me want to write a piece in the aftermath, a bit about the performances, but mostly about the legacy of “Method Acting” in the wake of Daniel Day-Lewis’ last performance. He’s always been a hero of mine and until now have followed in many of his footsteps, often unintentionally. Now that he has left the footlights, I wanted to look at his journey, what mysteries can we now uncover in his absence?

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Cecil Day-Lewis was a radical poet in 1930s England. His son became “the greatest actor” of all time, whose mysterious and contentious approach to the craft first made headlines around the world when he ran off stage at the National Theatre’s performance of Hamlet, haunted by the ghost of his father and unable to continue. This is event is often brought up when discussing the actor’s career, but not enough considered, often it precedes comments about what a mental case he is, instead of discovering the psychological motivations of possibly the most fascinating figure in the history of acting. The key to this story lies in Oedipus and the Verto of words.

Cecil was a dedicated literary man, often steeped in books, combining Romanticism with early and 1930s strict British Marxism, before the fall of Socialism in England. This form of literary dogmatism. The expression of all his father’s thought and feeling went into and came out in the form of words on a piece of paper. Words took his attention and philosophy his commitment.

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All this broiling tension lead to the fundamentals of the rise of an artistic rebel. Day-Lewis' first defiance taking shape in a different craft to that of his father's, putting down the pen to take up the chisel with carpentry, the fine arts and crafts. But the theatre called, Method acting can be said to be the one form of philosophy which is subversive to language, and also the reason Daniel Day-Lewis was an outcast amongst the British establishment of the time. At its core Method Acting honors the instincts, the memories, the mind, the human being, that is the actor, it is compassionate to their spirit and the spirit of the audience. Allowing a living breathing human to exist on the stage or in front of the camera and for other human beings to perceive it, as appose to a page to be read or a concept to be reproduced.  If I ever got too in my intellectual about a scene, my mentor in LA Ivana Chubbuck would say to me "Laurence, words are 2D, life is 3D”.

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“Irreverence simply means honoring your real feelings and impulses rather than servicing the material conceptually. If in a scene you know that the emotional obligation is to feel a certain way but at that moment in the rehearsal your choice is affecting you differently, then you must express that which is real rather than that which isn’t, even though you know that what is real at the moment does not fulfill the requirement of the material… Irreverence simply means honoring your real feelings and impulses rather than servicing the material conceptually. If in a scene you know that the emotional obligation is to feel a certain way but at that moment in the rehearsal your choice is affecting you differently, then you must express that which is real rather than that which isn’t, even though you know that what is real at the moment does not fulfill the requirement of the material.” - Eric Morris

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If it is a Method at all, it is a method to break to rules, a way out of stagnant thinking and rigid ways of being, into a lucidity, a more natural state. I’ve never felt more at peace than when inside of a character, never more at home than within a story, it exists as a sort of protection where I can be truly myself, and it is only Method Acting which I have found allows me this freedom. And it was Daniel Day-Lewis who first showed me this was possible through his performances. 

I was 14 when Gangs Of New York came out, people have different opinions about the film as a whole, but what Day-Lewis did with Bill The Butcher, changed the course of my entire life. After I came out the cinema I immediately started reading the myths and stories about this man, remaining in character the shoot of the film and this illusive philosophy called The Method, which serious actors took on wholly and seemingly was only accessible to the greatest actors. I read every book I could find on the subject starting with Stanislavski's My Life In Art, finding a rich history of the craft which had preceeded me.

 Strasberg at the Actors Studio

Strasberg at the Actors Studio

Ironically I don’t think there’s more that can be said about Daniel Day-Lewis’ performances that can be read in the books of Stanislavsky, Strasberg, Adler or Sigmund Freud. But that his commitment to these ideals is a full one, which is really the rare thing, and that is an easy idea to put down in writing but the personal experience that he must inevitably go through over the course of a year in time, looks completely different than it does when it comes out in print. 

There are two factors that play into this, one is the complete Mystification of what it means to be a "Method Actor". The other is that words can only take us so far in the discovery of a character, experience and experimentation are the real chariots which gallop us through the craft, which imagination can only design for us.

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“In spite of myself, it must be true in a way that I retain some of the British tradition, I’m not sure. But really whats more significant to me in a conscious way, Stanislavsky and the Method has always made more sense, because it begins with the interior. And all the work, all the principal work that needs to be done is on the interior life of the character, both in terms of emotion and in thought. I just find that more interesting. The British tradition of starting from the outside and working your way in just never really made sense to me and most work that comes from that tradition has little interest for me.” - Daniel Day-Lewis

Day-Lewis does nothing to aid the confusion, as he so rarely speaks with any literal explanation of what he does in public. It seems he doesn’t consider it within the job description to expound on the craft of acting, or to detail an approach, and I think he’s right about that. He’s not an acting coach, he’s a leading man, would knowing the exact thoughts passing his mind in every frame of the film enhance your viewing of it? Probably not. The cinema after all is a projection of man’s dreams. Day-Lewis considers his audience after the fact, but in his devotion to the part, he considers them infinitely more than the actor who winks to his audience. He wishes to be subjective in the creation of the performance and then compassionate to his audience receiving that story. I understand his choice for ambiguity, I’m sure he’s also disappointed to see what is often a year of his life in preparation for a character reduced to a sentence or two in a tabloid headline. “Daniel Day-Lewis weaves 10,000 dresses in preparation for his latest film”. I've also found it to be troublesome to develop the necessary language, as so much is a preverbal.

The problems with talking about Method Acting within a cultural context objectifies something which is not or should not be a statement, but a utility. Why Method Acting differs from other philosophies, such as aesthetics (though I do believe aesthetics can be very helpful and an untapped resource within the medium, but taken as a part of it), or politics which although have a utility are mostly about things outside of ourselves. Acting has an (athletic) component which is rooted in the directness of performance. There is nothing theoretical about acting, or the (act of acting) because it is a constant (re-establishing or reenforcing) of the present moment, and all that presence it enforces. 

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One distinct problem that comes about is that preparation must be for the most part isolated, however guided by the director. Some directors who are greener, may not understand this and try to interfere too much, we just have to pick and choose what to take from what they're giving us. 

BOVTS

 Rudi Shelly

Rudi Shelly

“I was at a drama school, a wonderful school, Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. The teacher who had the most influence on me was a man called Rudi Shelley who has since passed away, his teaching was all Stanislavsky based, and Stanislavsky made sense to me. All these systems and things, are really just guidelines, because anyone who learns under any system, finally distills what they’ve learned to something that’s entirely personal and that would apply to the method as well. Stanislavsky was a philosopher of the theatre, pre-theatre, so The Method in a way, was a natural descendant.” - Daniel Day-Lewis

Last September I received a grant to go back to England to undertake some research for the screenplay I'm writing about my late father, the art critic Peter Fuller. While I was there I couldn't resist the temptation to see what has happened to the old oak tree in the front garden, the dance studio, embarrassingly surrounded in glass walls, or the sage like teachers who pushed me through the first true challenges in my craft. 

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Pulling into the parking lot I immediately recognized Jonathan Howell the movement teacher, jutting out to see what unexpected visitor had arrived. This time he was sans rapier and sword, which I was so used to seeing him wield at unsuspecting students with "Deep Joy", a phrase every actor carries with them after graduating his class. As I walked into the main entrance of Bristol Old Vic, it was completely different, which at another other institution you’d expect such renovations after ten years, but this place had been preserved since its Victorian design since its 1946 inception, as one of the world’s oldest drama schools. I remember them raising funds for the refurbishments they planned to build while I was there and attending the 60th Anniversary Gala. A blue bridge like room connected the once two separate Victorian buildings. Glass doors welcomed the students to a new kind of temple where their imaginations, hopes, values and artistic skills were placed in front of the alter of classical theatre and left to its ghosts to preside.

Jonathan greeted me with a beaming smile, almost as if he were expecting my visit, I felt at home suddenly, as we spent the next hour recounting the adventures and people we'd encountered nearly ten years before. I was lead into the faculty room where Pam Rudge my former signing teacher leapt from her seat shouting "Laurence" and gave me a kiss on the cheek.

I sat next to the new head of what was my course, the "Overseas Course", though I was born in England, having grown up in Australia I was considered an international student. I was on the international course with the view that I was eventually US bound. Being half British and half Australian, though born in the UK, I was still considered an Australian by the Brits and a Brit by the Australians, so America was my only choice. This foreign entity within me gave me trouble throughout my time applying for drama schools and in the industry in the UK. But I was America bound in the end anyway so it wasn't going to get in my way, I was headed for independent film to find the next Scorsese, and I let my intentions be known amongst my teachers. In particular the then head of the Overseas course at the time Bonnie Hurren.

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The first day that I met Bonnie I was several hours early for the audition day, I'd lost the letter with the details on it and thought I should go in first thing in the morning just in case, I was waiting in the lobby of the old Victorian building that would be the home for my course that year, she walked down the creek wooden stairs completely in her own world thinking of time passed, relationships never fulfilled, desires misaligned, a fellow course member would later say to me she thought that Bonnie spent a lot of her time crying in private, I never knew why he thought this, there was a shrill exuberance to her and an unshakable grace, that I suppose in reflection masked a deep unrequitedness. In my eyes she was a strong figure that knew the secrets to it all if only she would reveal them to me. She was a very tall and slender woman her movements were always graceful and completely synched up with the rest of her mind and voice. Not unlike Lesley Manville portrayal of Cyril in Phantom Thread. Bonnie was used to a very tidy routine when it came to the running of her course, we were there to learn excellence in our craft, nothing else would be tolerated. As she walked down the stairs I interrupted her thoughts with a confident introduction, impelled purely by the same determination which has seen me through to this point. She was startled, yet I could tell happily so, she told me I was too early and that I should go over the road across the park to get some hot chocolate at her favorite cafe, I did and it was delicious.

Though my audition piece to gain acceptance in BOVTS was not as you would have imagined up until this point, To Be Or Not To Be, it was Now Is The Winter Of Our Discontent from the opening monologue of Richard III. A choice which Bonnie later berated me for, but at the time seemed intrigued enough to talk me out of my placement I had received at the Oxford School Of Drama. There was some connection we'd formed that morning which only intensified the following year, and began the seed of a deep Method rebellion within me that has never died.

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Often during that time I would sit on the steps of the building and imagine what Day-Lewis' time here must have been like, the teachers often talked about him, about performances he gave which foreshadowed the greatness to come. The intensity he had about everything, he'd often stop by on his motor cycle to visit them. I tried to imagine what he had learned from his time there.

Day Lewis said in a recent interview for Phantom Thread that his attraction to the Method really came about because it was about from constructing the interior of the character and all things coming from that. His first teacher in this way of working was Rudi Shelly, who decades after his passing was still talked about daily through the halls of the BOVTS. His other former students including Anthony Hopkins and Jeremy Irons. Constructed a point of view which combined the British tradition in theatre with the more contemporary Stanislavsky based way of working, a legacy which has been lasting in those Victorian rehearsal rooms. 

The American way and the British way are often put in opposition to each other, but in recent years I've discovered how deeply Romantic Method Acting truly is. Lee Strasberg the founder of American Method Acting was first inspired in his search by the leading drama critics of his day. In the preface to Strasberg's autobiography "A Dream Of Passion" Evangeline Morphos says Strasberg is in line with the great Romantics. This has to do with the Proustian notions of the senses and of memories. Strasberg’s most famous exercise of course being “Sense Memory”.

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Lee Strasberg

“In spite of myself, it must be true in a way that I retain some of the British tradition, I’m not sure. But really whats more significant to me in a conscious way, Stanislavsky and the Method has always made more sense, because it begins with the interior. And all the work, all the principal work that needs to be done is on the interior life of the character, both in terms of emotion and in thought. I just find that more interesting. The British tradition of starting from the outside and working your way in just never really made sense to me and most work that comes from that tradition has little interest for me.” - Daniel Day-Lewis

What I was to find most at BOVTS was a place of fine tuning the instrument and of skills acquisitions, which had foremost to do with delivery, fines of physical and vocal skills needed for transformation and for discipline. Though that magic mysterious word "Method" was so contentiously danced around, as if it's very mention would erupt in a frenzy of confusion, emotional breakdowns, walkouts and fist fights. Inevitably it did come up.

The key to all this lies in the Verto of words.

Part II coming next week.