Method to the Madness: When Actor and Character Blur

January 2, 2014 3:56 pm

Ron Burgundy making an appearance at a curling match in Canada on December 1st.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues opened in cinemas December 18th as one of the most anticipated box office releases this year. Fans of the moustachioed, wise-cracking narcissist news anchor Ron Burgundy, played by Will Ferrell, have waited nine long years for writer-director Adam McKay to get the gang of field reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) and sportscaster Champion “Champ” Kind (David Koechner) back together for the sequel of the 2004 film Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.

Made for $26 million as a homage to 1970’s Action News format, Anchorman went on to earn $90 million at the box office during its theatrical run and has dominated a culture of movie-goers and fans that will also rate what they see alongside what they can quote. Just like that Mean Girls quote you knew before you had even seen the film from its endless repetition by pubescent teens. (You know the one.) Whilst Anchorman‘s comedic script may not have ingrained itself into public consciousness and vernacular like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it was certainly ripe with witty barbs and belly-achingly funny moments courtesy of its eponymous characters.

To keep the movie and its characters in the media, Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy underwent what McKay described as millions of dollars of advertising; done for free. From appearances on local news channels in America, the moustache billboard in New York to his own flavour Ben & Jerry’s ice cream (Scotchy Scotch Scotch, for the uninitiated) just this past month, Will Ferrell has shown the light, charming and funny side to method acting: a practice usually regarded as too serious.

Of course, Ferrell is not the first person to blur the lines between character and actor. There have been incredibly famous performances given by other actors demonstrating their commitment to the roles over the years.

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Trevor Reznik: insomniac and ironing board

Christian Bale, in 2004, two years after the box office bomb science fiction flick Equilibrium, played emaciated insomniac Trevor Reznik in Brad Anderson’s cerebral psychological thriller The Machinist. The English actor lost 62 lbs (28 kg) in a four month starve prior to filming because he believed the character “needed” to look drastically thin. His ideal weight, however, was lower still at 99 lbs but the filmmakers vetoed that creative idea on grounds of medical concerns. His diet was supposedly a cup of unsweetened coffee and a snack like an apple or a can of tuna, ingesting a paltry 200 calories a day in order to lose the weight. The film was received well by critics and Bale’s method acting similarly lauded. When he was cast in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins in 2006, the first of what would become a billion dollar profitable movie trilogy franchise, Bale put back on the weight he lost with an additional 60 lbs of muscle to play billionaire playboy-cum-Caped Crusader. Ironically, Nolan eventually thought that Bale was too bulky.

In the sequel to Batman Begins, Bale and Bruce Wayne faced off against arch nemesis The Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight. The Joker had been played by Cesar Romero in the 19060’s TV show of Batman before Jack Nicholson portrayed a chilling maniac in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman alongside Michael Keaton. These two iterations of the villain were characterised by their garish coloured outfit of bring greens and purples with white face paint. When it came to Nolan’s depiction of the character, he owed the tremendous success of that film to the late, great Heath Ledger. Upon receiving the nod for the casting, Ledger’s ability to capture the nuanced anarchic troublemaker was doubted, having cited roles in Brokeback Mountain, A Knight’s Tale and 10 Things I Hate About You as indications of this doubt.

But Ledger would go on to silence those critics.

Heath Ledger improvised the clapping in this scene.

He worked alongside the costume and make up crews of the film to create the look for the 21st Century movie Joker. He locked himself in an apartment on his own for a month in order to get the voice, the laugh, and the mannerisms in a visual set piece that enthralled audiences worldwide. He kept a diary of the month recording The Joker’s feelings and thoughts of the time rather than his own and would often not answer to Heath on set. Sometimes he would come in on set days when he had no shooting timetabled in costume and terrorise the cast and crew staying in character throughout. He directed The Joker’s video warnings in the film, Nolan trusting him enough to not even be on set during filming, and showed movie-goers a villain that will long stay in memory. The differing stories of “You want to know how I got these scars?” and that line “Why so serious?” so deliciously chilling and quotable in a performance that saw him win Best Supporting Actor posthumously after dying of an accidental drug overdose. Those in Heath’s life believed that he could not shake the psychological effects of inhabiting that character.

And these actors are not alone going to these lengths. Kate Winslet practised her German accent at home reading her children bedtime stories in it in preparation for The Reader, Adrien Brody gave up his apartment, his car, his phone, lost 29 lbs and took off to live in Europe with just two bags of clothes and a keyboard to learn how to play Chopin, practising for four hours daily. Michelle Williams tied a belt around her knees to get the right strut for Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn and of course no list of method actors is complete without mentioning Daniel Day-Lewis, an actor who has transformed himself on many occasions for the sake of authenticity in his roles. In last year’s Oscar nominated Lincoln, Day-Lewis would sign correspondence as the 16th American President, refuse to talk about current affairs on set and kept the voice throughout filming.

Whilst Ferrell may not draw the critical plaudits for his staying in character, it is still generating the buzz and publicity that is sure to attract more people to buy tickets to see the film and know what all the fuss is about.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is in cinemas now!

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