Method Acting & Magic

Recently I saw the documentary ‘Jim & Andy’. It’s a 20 year retrospective on the making of ‘Man On The Moon’ in which Jim Carrey plays the notoriously eccentric Andy Kaufmann.


It’s currently available on Netflix and well worth a watch. Andy Kaufmann was famous for his unusual antics. He took everything to it’s absolute limit without seemingly ever caring what the audience thought about him. Whether or not this is true, he found his own audience and a curiosity about him has endured. Nobody knows if they ever really knew him and many wonder if he’s even really dead.

It is most likely that he tragically died of cancer in 1984, but having constantly remarked that his final prank on the world would be to fake his own death, many believe he’s hiding in some tropical paradise sipping mojitos with Elvis.

On that very same score, his impersonation of Elvis is extremely uncanny, as evidenced below –

Andy referred to himself as a ‘song and dance man’ and aside from being an extremely funny comic, that’s exactly what he was. He also exhibited an unfailing level of commitment to everything he did, something that Jim Carrey embodied during the filming of ‘Man On The Moon’.

Never since Daniel Day Lewis in ‘My Left Foot’ has someone shown such complete commitment to a role whilst being on set but off camera. (Aside from the ones held by documentarians, a fact which may somewhat alter these findings if we’re being truly scientific in our approach to judgement)

Carrey would ‘be’ Andy, all day, everyday. He would argue with everybody, turn up late, wrestle with women and make Jerry Lawler’s life hell, in way a the real Andy never really did. He also fully embodied Tony Clifton, a character that was shared by Andy and a few other performers when the situation required. This all made for a great documentary and an even better movie. I recommend both to you highly.

Now, on to method.

“Before you judge someone you should walk a mile in their shoes, then you’re a mile away, and you have their shoes”. – Frieda Norris (often attributed to Billy Connolly, Jack Handey and others)

Magic is often very self referential. We talk about the magicians before us. We talk about the tricks they did. We even perform tricks with the opening line ‘Here’a a trick I once saw a magician do…’ etc.
We talk about frequently apocryphal grandparents who pulled coins from our ears and imaginary clowns that we apparently saw at birthday parties as kids.
We create stories with scant research and almost no basis in reality.

The best magic, as with stand up comedy often comes from truth. Yet we are either afraid to use our own or not aware of the fact that it might be interesting to others. With truth, ‘method acting’ is baked right in. You already did the research by living it.

Daniel Day Lewis spent months in a wheelchair so that he could understand how it would feel and then communicate it on screen. Heath Ledger spent a month in solitude in a hotel room so that he could flirt with mental illness in a way that would hopefully flourish on screen. These are dangerous and potentially life altering techniques that occasionally harm the artist in a way that the art itself can never repay. It would be inarguable though that the performances they created were not incredible.

So here’s my two cent conclusion.

We have two options.

Either we base our stories and routines in the truth of our own lives, where we’ve already done and lived the research or, we seek to find the truth behind the lies we create.

If you’re going to perform something and reference Harry Houdini, at the very least read his wikipedia page. Ideally hunt down everything you can find about him. Listen to the recordings of his voice. Put pictures of him on your wall and look at them everyday while you write your script. Try to get inside the head of the man you claim to be paying tribute to.
If you’re going to talk about using psychology as a tool for mind reading, go get an A-Level in it. Understand what it actually is and not just what you’ve garnered from Derren Brown or episodes of Lie To Me and The Mentalist.                                                           Perhaps if you’re going to do a silent act you should attempt to live for a week in complete silence, or if you’re going to perform an act based on gambling you should do a course for becoming a croupier.

Every single trick or routine you do or are planning to do has a real life experience behind it. It’s either something you already lived or something you can seek out to live.

“Magic becomes art when it has nothing left to hide” – Ben Okri

If we want to be artists, we must show the audience truth. If we want to show the audience truth, we must first know what that is.


Mark James


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