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All actors are not created equal, no matter what you read about actors describing their “process” for preparing for a movie and how they get into character. Sure, most actors put in months of research in preparation to play a role that might entail shooting a gun, playing a cop, or playing an instrument. The majority of the time, studios will pair an actor with an expert on the profession they are attempting to portray, so some of the more subtle things see natural.
For instance, when Matt Damon was preparing to play Police Officer Colin Sullivan in The Departed, he spent time with a Massachusetts State Police unit where he learned how to properly do a pat down, he went on a raid, and rode along with various officers on patrol. All of that is good preparation, but that is what separates a solid actor like Matt Damon from other actors who rolecan win an Oscar every single time they appear in a movie.
The list of actors and actresses who can pull that off is smaller than you might think, and what separates them from the rest of the pack is that they are so methodical in their acting and preparation that it can be borderline dangerous. When I think of the people who have a legitimate chance of winning an Academy Award with each movie, it is a fairly small list in relation to the volume of working actors in Hollywood right now.
Here is a version of what I think that list could look like:
Daniel Day Lewis (DDL is the reigning GOAT and only actor to win 3 Best Actor Oscars.)
Leonardo DiCaprio (This is the hardest sell since he’s never won, but I honestly believe Leo is one of the best around.)
Tom Hanks (He has 2 wins and 5 nominations, but he’s starting to slow down)
Meryl Streep (I think it’s easy for her to get nominated because of her name, but winning isn’t the same. 15 nominations and 2 wins is still impressive.)
Cate Blanchett (She’s the best working actress in Hollywood and it is not close.)
Christian Bale (I am much more surprised by this than you are, trust me. I was never a fan of his early on.)
Sean Penn (The former Mr. Madonna has 2 wins and 5 nominations.)
Kate Winslet (Kate has notched 6 nominations and just 1 win.)
You could possibly make the case for Hillary Swank or Joaquin Phoenix, but those are hard sells to me. I think Phoenix is one of the most talented actors in Hollywood, but he is also a legit crazy person which keeps him from being nominated more than he has.
So that is the entire list: eight total people who have a legit chance of WINNING an Oscar each and every time they appear on screen. So what separates them from everyone else? What puts them in the category of award-winning caliber and also box office successes?
The answer for me is fairly simple; it is the way they descend into a character to sometimes scary levels, and voluntarily transform their body in sometimes scary ways. I want to call this the Heath Ledger Corollary, but I’m not sure he is the best example. He’s the most well-known example, which is different, but it is also a great place to start.
Ledger was on the rise as someone who could make the category above, but when he was cast as The Joker, the wheels fell off so much that he could never recover. There were numerous reports that he locked himself in an apartment for a month prior and after shooting, and never broke character the entire time. There were also reports that he would show up to set on his days off, in character, to watch creepily from the back in a way that seriously disturbed everyone on set. We all know how that ended, but what we don’t know is how much of that was mental stress that he brought on himself because of his commitment, and how much of it was him taking drugs and falling off of the rails. The answer probably lies somewhere between the two. The reason I have been thinking about this is that there are already reports from the set of Suicide Squad that Jared Leto, a renowned method actor, has sent gifts to his costars in the forms of a live rat in a black box, bullets, and a dead hog with a video of him in character. Is Leto heading down the same path as Ledger did? Is there something about method actors and The Joker that makes it too hard to shake? I’m sure there isn’t, and I don’t want to practice overreacting to certain things like that, because that is serious subject matter and I’m not one to make light of that topic.
What I am sure of is that The Joker is unique to any other character, especially any other villain, in any form, from any movie. As someone who has read 1000s of Batman comics, I can say without pause that The Joker is the scariest villain you could ever imagine. He is completely insane, but also has a split personality, and can go from “over the top” scary to “having a quiet conversation in a car with a dead person that he killed” subtle-scary in a second. To take that on as a method actor could absolutely be overwhelming, but I’m sure Leto will be fine and shake it off eventually. I am not comparing the two actors; just the menacing psychosis that I’m sure would infect anyone who pretended to be that for months at a time.
I’m not the only one who thinks that, because this time with The Joker around, the filmmakers have what they are calling a “Life Coach” on set at all times because of the very dark subject matter that will be in this movie. There aren’t any reports of any talks he has had with anyone, but when Leto dives into a character, he goes deep, and I’m curious to see him on the other side of that evil coin once filming has ended. What I expect to see is an actor who is on his way to the “every time” Oscar category we touched on earlier, and someone who can get any role he wants.
That is how he breaks into the categor,y and is also what separates the category from the rest of the field. If you look at that group, all of them are fully capable of disappearing into a role and not coming out until they are done filming. Daniel Day Lewis might be the best example since he is the acting GOAT of a generation, and the only 3-time Oscar winner for Best Actor.
This is a man who takes very few roles, but please don’t try to argue that anyone else is better than him at acting or preparation for a role. Your kneejerk reaction is say that Tom Hanks is the best actor of his generation, and he is a terrific actor and an American treasure, but he is not better than D. Day. Lewis has won 3 Oscars to Hanks’ 2, but Lewis has taken on 28 acting roles to get that and Hanks has taken on 76. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what they call killing it! DDL sinks so far into roles that when he played Christy Brown in My Left Foot, he refused to get out of his wheelchair for the duration of the role, and not only that, he refused to even sit up straight so as to not break character. That commitment is what got him the Oscar, but it also got him 2 broken ribs from the stress and over a year of physical therapy to recover.
That is incredible to me! When you read stories of Christian Bale dropping down to 120 pounds to play a role, and then turning around and gaining 90 pounds to play Batman eight months later, it seems like a good story, and it is, but it is also incredibly dangerous. Those types of physical transformations take their toll on a body and mind, and it’s something that these type of actors do on a regular basis, which I think is taken for granted. That is why I worry when I see a method actor taking on a role like The Joker or when I read that actors are struggling with drug abuse.
There have been some tragic examples of this, with the likes of Heath Ledger and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, but that is where this corollary shouldn’t be a surprise, and one that we should be on the lookout for. These people do this for their craft, they do it for us, but they also leave behind families, so keep that in mind the next time you see someone lose weight or you hear a rumor about drug abuse. These people are better at their jobs than we are at ours, and it is something that I think about when I can forget that someone is award-winning famous for two hours and just be impressed by the performance. It’s an amazing transformation!
Stephen Balding is the Entertainment Badass for The Scoop. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenB_41.