Winner of an Oscar, a Tony, and two Emmys, Ellen Burstyn is widely recognized as one of the greatest living American actors. Lesser known is her importance to the history of the Method, an approach to acting rooted in lived experience that introduced a new, radically present and humane style of stage and screen performance.
Now the subject of a new collection on the Criterion Channel, the Method was codified by director and teacher Lee Strasberg during the Great Depression and cultivated at the Actors Studio, where he served as artistic director beginning in 1951. Burstyn began working with Strasberg in the 1960s and became so central to the Studio and its techniques that she took over after his sudden death from a heart attack in 1982. In between, she became both a sought-after star and a major player in the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s, working with many of the most significant up-and-coming directors in the country, including Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show), William Friedkin (The Exorcist), Bob Rafelson (The King of Marvin Gardens), and Martin Scorsese (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore).
The Criterion Channel’s Method Acting lineup features two of Burstyn’s favorites among her own performances: as the protagonist in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, a widow who drives across the country to California with her child in tow to pursue her dream of being a singer; and as Edna in Resurrection, a woman who, after narrowly surviving a car crash, discovers she has the power to heal people. In this conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we spoke about how the Method has been misunderstood, how Burstyn has used the techniques she learned from Strasberg in her work, and how she contributed to the development of both Alice and Resurrection.
As you know, there have been a lot of widespread misperceptions about what the Method is, one of the big ones being that it involves staying in character a hundred percent of the time and doing extreme forms of research and being a real jerk on set. That’s not the Method, right?
No. No. Hardly.
So, how would you describe the Method to a reader who maybe doesn’t know that much about it but has been watching these movies and is excited about them?
Well, I would quote Lee Strasberg, who said it is a method to train the senses to respond to imaginary stimuli. You want to be able to make the fiction real to you. Sometimes it’s easy; sometimes you just read the script and it’s clear. But other times you have to do something to yourself in order to make it real to you. It means that you’re stimulating your senses to respond as though this circumstance you’re in is real so that it becomes real in your body. It affects your breathing and your immersion in the fiction.
When I auditioned for my first Broadway play, I had not studied acting. There was one scene where I was moving from Chicago to New York. It’s the first day in my new apartment in New York City, and I’m all excited about it. So [as an actor] I had to cook up some excitement. Now, there I’m standing, looking at the stage manager holding the script, and I’m trying to say to myself, “Okay, I remember my first apartment in New York.” I’m trying to excite that memory, and then all of a sudden a voice in my head says, “No. You’re on the stage of the Ethel Barrymore Theater in New York City, about to audition for your first Broadway play.” That gave me all the reality and excitement I needed.
If I had been in other circumstances, I would’ve had to do something to myself to simulate that kind of excitement that I was looking for, and after I had studied acting, I knew how to do that. So I might use a memory of a smell of that apartment, or it might be what I saw out the window, the garden, or it might be the sound of the particular traffic that went by. Using one of the senses and moving into it mentally so that it becomes a reality—that’s the basic technique.
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