Culture Club: Body image, method acting and the case of Christian Bale
originally published on December 15, 2010, The National Post
In the age of Twitter, Facebook and myriad other office distractions, no one gathers around the water cooler any more to talk pop culture. With that in mind, the Post recently introduced its Culture Club, a Boy George-free effort to bring the water cooler experience online. In this space, Post reporters, artists and entertainment aficionados will debate the latest pop-culture concerns, from music to movies to celeb meltdowns.
This week’s Culture Clubbers:
• Nina Arsenault, performance artist, her autobiographical show The Silicone Diaries is playing at Montreal’s Théâtre LaChapelle
• Michael Riley, six-time Gemini award-winning actor, can be seen as Dr. Tom on Being Erica
• Chris Knight, chief film critic, National Post
This week, we’re discussing method acting, with a critical eye set on Christian Bale’s Golden Globe-nominated turn in The Fighter, opening Friday, in which he plays an ex-boxer turned addict. Arts reporter Ben Kaplan moderated the discussion. Bale lost 40 pounds for the role. How important is method acting in Hollywood’s computer age?
Chris: Certainly some degree of weight loss/gain is becoming the norm in Hollywood — if you look back at old war movies, Westerns and gladiator epics, you see some pretty unlikely body types. But Bale is off the scale (pun intended) when you consider how he muscled up for American Psycho (2000), grew gaunt for The Machinist (2004), was back in fighting form for Batman Begins (2005), skinny for Rescue Dawn (2006), rebounded for The Dark Knight (2008) — and now this latest loss for The Fighter. I don’t want to put Bale down for what must be a lot of work, but I question how necessary it is in an age of fat suits and digital effects. With computers, the camera can take away 10 pounds almost as easily as it can add it.
Nina: Obviously, body modification is part of Bale’s process. Emotional memory and states of being are stored in our muscle tissues, in our autonomic nervous systems. The actor wants to mine impulses that begin beneath conscious mind and allow that magic moment to be captured on film. Altering his body is clearly a strategy that Bale, as well as other actors like Charlize Theron and Daniel Day Lewis, have used to alter their own psychological make-up.
Michael: I recently came across an account of an actor in the 4th century who was performing in one of the Greek tragedies. The character had to come on stage with the ashes of her dead brother and “lament.” So this actor decided he would use the actual ashes of his own recently deceased son as part of his process. Great actors have always aspired to an identical search.
Ben: I remember interviewing Viggo Mortensen for The Lord of the Rings and, even during our interview, he was still in character. How hard is it to break from a role and Chris, can you think of a method performance gone too far?
Chris: I liked Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line, but I think he went over it for his on-and-off-screen performance as an actor losing his grip for the “documentary” I’m Still Here. All the is-he-or-isn’t-he talk soon took on the appearance of a big, annoying publicity stunt. Sacha Baron Cohen (Ali G, Borat, Bruno) can immerse himself in a role to hilarious effect, and even keep it up on the talk-show circuit, but knows when it’s time to come back to being himself.
Michael: Well, on the one hand, like any “hard day at the office,” there inevitably comes that “hang your hat” moment, when indeed it may take a cocktail (or two) to leave it all behind. And 16 or 18 hours on a set running at the RPM’S of a particular emotional state not your own, can be certainly something to wind down from. And for the most part, you do. You hang your hat. Or… his hat. However the particular occupational hazard of this “office,” is that living inside some other’s skin (or him inside of yours) can leave a kind of residual emotional/kinesthetic echo of sorts. And this echo may in fact never completely fade.
Chris: When I spoke to Sam Rockwell at TIFF about his role in Conviction, he told me he had been in therapy as an aid to his work: “I recommend therapy to all actors. You need to examine your own human behaviour before you’re able to imitate and reflect other people’s human behaviour up on the screen. It’s helpful to know yourself well enough to be able to play yourself like an instrument.”
Ben: Sometimes we read about Meryl Streep or Claire Danes in Temple Grandin, and they brag about being able to turn a difficult character on and off. Does that correspond to your own Methods?
Michael: The one “method” I’ve gotten the most mileage out of, is to take the character I am playing (once he is ready) out into the real world. To bounce him off actual people and see what kind of reactions he evokes. I did it for a brain injured character I once played in a film. It became clear to me that the emotional and psychological information that I could glean through how real people reacted to the character, provided me with far more grist for the mill than I could have ever discovered through sitting at home and inventing it in a vacuum. Christian Bale most likely rolls his eyes when asked about the weight gain/loss question.
Nina: After I performed the 2009 production of The Silicone Diaries, I felt that I was walking around with no skin, naked. I revealed as much as I knew. The show is autobiography, making it very personal by definition. In the 2010 production, however, I learned to have a “container” around the emotional experiences of the performance. The performance is just as truthful, but I am able to better understand how to compartmentalize those moments so they don’t cost me as much personally when I leave the theatre. It’s about knowing how to access an internal place, then knowing how to shut the door. Non-actors use similar strategies in their own lives quite naturally when performing different functions. The difference is the actor wants to learn how to do this around intense emotions.
Chris: I really responded to what you said about compartmentalizing, Nina, because I see it every day in my kids. By the age of three, they’re able to cry instantly when they want, and moments later be in a very happy place. I think we’re all actors at birth, and the lucky few never lose that natural skill.
Read more: http://arts.nationalpost.com/2010/12/15/culture-club-body-image-method-acting-and-the-case-of-christian-bale/#ixzz14LpBT3u1