10 Nov 2015
Christian Bale famously lost 63lbs for the role of insomniac Trevor Reznik in Brad Anderson’s psychological thriller The Machinist. Bale’s disturbing body transformation happened over the course of 4 months during which he forced himself into a diet of a can of tuna and an apple per day, keeping himself isolated for prolonged periods of time and going without proper rest. His dedication to the role before filming even began is a common reference point for people describing method acting.
Method acting is a technique derived from Constantin Stanislavski, a Russian actor and theatre director who between 1911 and 1916 used a methodology to train actors in the quest for theatrical truth. In essence the goals of Stanislavski’s System were to portray actors on stage as natural, believable characters. To achieve these goals actors would rely on recalling emotional memories and past experiences to bring those feelings to the role they had to portray. Actors would also use “If” (often referred to as the “Magic If”) to answer the question “What would I do if I was in this situation?” by envisioning themselves in the character's situation.
Like Christian Bale, many actors in the film industry such as Anne Hathaway, Robert De Niro and Joaquin Phoenix employ the modern day interpretation of Stanislavski’s System — method acting. The method starts before filming, giving the actor time to plan and prepare for the role and leaving them better equipped to deliver a stronger performance during filming with a relatable, believable character.
Don’t think that I’m suggesting that we as designers for the Web take on extreme diets or the kind of psychological experimentation that could be potentially damaging without professional advice. I can’t help but admire the lengths method actors go to for their art. Perhaps we can learn from the emotional investment they make to a role before production begins. Isn’t that the whole point of UX research? We throw the word “empathy” around boardrooms and company about pages to show that we care about the people we are making the product for. To me, empathy has become an empty promise — a buzzword to appease potential clients.
To be truly empathetic I believe it involves going further than a few demographically informed personas that we assume are going to represent real people who use the things we make. Think about the project you’re working on now - how much of a difference would it make if you lived as the person you are making this for? How would they feel using the product? Where does it fit in their everyday lives? My hunch is that we would be able to make more well informed decisions that resonate with those people by diving right into the role, then we would have better tools to answer “What would I do if I was in this situation?”
There is no doubt that with this approach it can be emotionally taxing. There’s a balance and a scale in regards to how far you pursue it.
After filming of The Machinist wrapped up Christian Bale’s next role was Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins. He gained 100lbs in six months and started rigorously learning martial arts for the many tightly choreographed fight sequences in the film in the pursuit of theatrical truth.