Plan and Execute Any Project Using Heath Ledger Method Acting Principles
When you have the right philosophy and approach, you can plan and execute projects at the highest level. Learn from the techniques of the Joker himself, Heath Ledger, how to choose a project and commit to it entirely for an end result in which you can take enormous pride.
If you’re a fan of movies and filmmaking, then there’s a good chance you’ve heard of method acting. It’s an acting technique in which the actor prepares with the intent to achieve one hundred percent emotional identification with a part.
In essence, the actor doesn’t just “play” the character, but rather they “become” the character.
There’s a certain degree of mysticism that surrounds method acting. You may have heard stories about edgy and unconventional actors going to fantastic lengths to achieve realistic performances. Think Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, Christian Bale in The Machinist, Val Kilmer in The Doors, Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood and Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.
In fact, the method acting of Heath Ledger and his preparation for the role of the Joker in the Batman movie is the stuff of legends. In his own words, here’s a little of taste of what he put into creating the character:
“It’s a combination of reading all the comic books I could that were relevant to the script and just closing my eyes and mediating on it. I sat around in a hotel room in London for about a month, locked myself away, formed a little diary and experimented with voices.”
Actually, he holed up in the hotel for 43 days, to be exact. And that “little” Heath Ledger joker diary, as it turns out, was anything but little. It included: copious amounts of notes and images, including sad stories that reminded him of the Joker; images of jesters, clowns, jokers and, even Malcolm McDowell as Alex in A Clockwork Orange, for inspiration; and dialogue of his own creation, notably for the film’s intense hospital scene.
So germane was this diary to The Dark Knight Joker actor and his pursuit of fulfilling this role that he kept it with him on set at all times to help him get into and remain in the extreme psychological mindset of the Joker. Going even further, Ledger even came up with his own makeup scheme for the character, using white clown makeup and cosmetics from a drugstore, in order to give the appearance that the character does his own makeup.
Heath Ledger’s success in his portrayal of the Joker was due in part to his method acting skills and dedication. But it was really so much more than that. Ledger had a unique view of his career—he was willing to take on a high degree of risk for reward—and he had a flexible plan for how it could all play out. This informed his choices and the projects he picked, and opened up new worlds to him.
Ledger was not a “maintain the status quo” kind of guy. He was on journey, one that allowed him to stay true to his own spirit, and one that gave him the freedom to pick and choose projects that suited him, and take them to completion in extraordinary ways.
So what does this mean for us?
We are all creators. We are all hopefully working on projects that are important to us. But are we choosing them correctly? Are we planning them well? Are we executing on them to the fullest of our abilities? And are we getting the final results we want?
Let’s see what we can learn from the Heath Ledger method acting philosophy on selecting, planning and executing on projects, so that we may knock our own projects out of the park.
“I'm not good at future planning. I don't plan at all. I don't know what I'm doing tomorrow. I don't have a day planner and I don't have a diary. I completely live in the now, not in the past, not in the future.”
This is a great place to start. While Ledger is almost stating that not planning is a character flaw of his—and for sure having a plan for a project is critical—for me the positive takeaway is this idea he states of living in the now.
The fact is, many of us tend to spend way too much of our time dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. But when you actually train yourself to live in the moment (yoga and meditation can be highly useful tools to help with this), you make yourself much more flexible to seeing and accepting opportunities that arise. And once you embark on a project—be it starting a business, writing a book, learning a musical instrument, investing your money, or anything else—paying attention to what you’re doing now is going to get you way better results than being preoccupied with the baggage of the past or the unknowns of the future.
In other words, when you’re working on a project and thinking about how the last one didn’t work out or how this one might be a failure when you’re done with it, it’s already game over. When you work on a project, give all of yourself to it and focus on nothing else but the work. Make this your method.
“If you make decisions based upon people's reactions or judgments then you make really boring choices.”
We’ve all been there. We have a potentially great idea, get jazzed about diving into it, share it with someone we know and then they knock us off our pedestal with their negative reaction. Maybe even to the point that they kill the idea for us altogether.
The creative ideas you have and the choices you make are yours. You and you alone need to be critical of them and judge them for their worth. You also need to be gentle with your ideas and give them the chance to flourish without outside influence.
As a working actor, Heath Ledger was especially conscious of this, as agents, managers, producers and studio execs in many instances wanted him to take on certain types of roles and be something he didn’t want to be. He knew this type of influence, if he allowed it into his creative process, would lead to boring choices. And boring choices are dangerous choices. They kill creativity. They result in bad work. And in the worst-case scenario, they can crush your sense of self-worth and destroy your ambitions.
Be conscious of what types of projects get you excited and always move in a direction towards them. And be your own barometer of what you think is good. Of course, that’s not to say that you can’t ask other people for their opinions and advice. However, know that having a trusted circle of truly helpful collaborators and advisors who care about your best interests doesn’t usually come easy and very often must be built over time.
“I don't feel like I have anything to lose, so I don't really understand what I'm putting at risk.”
We all think we have something to lose. Be it time, energy, reputation, friends, career or any other number of elements. Elements that keep us from pursuing that thing that we know deep inside is going to make us happier and more fulfilled than anything else we could possibly do.
For a lot of us, it takes an inner transformation to realize that we’re too worried about what we have to lose and not focused enough on what we have to gain.
Look at Heath Ledger’s career. Granted early on he was at the mercy of studios in order to build his career, the guy successfully went from doing fluff pieces like 10 Things I Hate About You and A Knight’s Tale to grittier and often downright daring films like Ned Kelly, Lords of Dogtown and Brokeback Mountain. The type of films that challenged audiences and gave The Dark Knight Joker actor a deep sense of satisfaction as an artist.
Ledger once said:
“If you're just safe about the choices you make, you don't grow.”
In no matter what discipline you choose to work, challenge yourself to remove the safety net before you take on projects. Be willing to push the boundaries. And always be willing to fail. Do it for the sake of your project, the sake of those who will benefit from it, and of course, for your own sake.
“If you spend all day on horseback, and you hop off, you walk around like you still have a horse between your legs. And it affects your shoulders. They fall.”
This Heath Ledger Brokeback Mountain quote is perhaps the most important quote here. What Ledger is talking about is the thing you probably often see missing in the work of your coworkers, peers and maybe even yourself.
Ledger could have easily spent an hour or two on a horse to prepare for his role in Brokeback Mountain. And that may have been adequate enough to satisfy the needs of the role. But the difference between spending an hour or two on a horse and spending all day on a horse, probably every day over the course of several weeks or even months, makes all the difference. It allowed him to actually embody the part instead of just kinda look it.
If you’re not going the distance in your work, it’s time for you to apply the Heath Ledger method acting technique to the projects you pursue. You can apply it to anything. You can even apply it to washing and cleaning your car.
Sure, it’s easy enough to scrub your car with soap and water, shammy it off and call it day. Or you could do it the time-consuming way, the hard way, the right way. The way that gets you the exceptional result most people wouldn’t even bother with.
You could clay bar it, wax it and polish it. You could clean the doorjambs. You could use Q-tips to get into those hard-to-reach areas of your dashboard and apply appropriate protectant to all of the different surfaces and fabrics inside your vehicle. You could restore your headlights to their factory sparkle. You could even detail your engine.
If Heath Ledger were alive today and playing an auto detailer in a film, I have no doubt he would take the time to master all of this and more. He would go to that place where he doesn’t hope he does his best, but rather he ensures he does his best.
How much of yourself will you give to your next project?