A tour de force who dominates the stage and screen, Daniel Day-Lewis started his film career playing the romantic lead and quickly established himself as a tireless method actor in films like My Left Foot, There Will Be Blood, and Gangs of New York. He’s an artist who will go to any depths to embody a role, often living as his characters throughout the duration of a film shoot. Day-Lewis is known for being private, lending an aura of mystery to his method (what other actor would move to Italy to study shoemaking?). “Life comes first. What I see in the characters, I first try to see in life,” he has said.
Our own Judy Berman on the genius of Tilda Swinton in several roles you might have missed (here, discussing Caravaggio):
Although she’s had longstanding collaborative relationships with some of cinema’s greatest minds, from Jim Jarmusch to Wes Anderson, Swinton’s most crucial partnership was also her first, with the radical queer filmmaker Derek Jarman (who died in 1994). She made her big-screen debut in his Caravaggio, playing Lena, one-third of a sordid and tragic love triangle involving the Baroque painter. It’s a relatively small role, but a striking one, setting the tone for a career defined by otherworldly beauty, magnetic strangeness, and outré sexuality.
Morgan Freeman is known for playing the wise character, the moral compass, the gravitas and heartbeat of a film. He’s a compassionate and generous player who thrives off the community of actors in a picture. “The big danger in acting is to wait for your line. That’s what I never do. I always listen, no matter how many times we do it,” the actor has explained.
Robert De Niro
He gained nearly 100 pounds to play a boxer in Raging Bull, he drove a cab to prepare for Taxi Driver, he antagonized co-star Jerry lewis in The King of Comedy to get a genuine reaction out of him, and he ground his teeth down and got buff for Cape Fear. When De Niro commits, he’s all in. “There is a certain combination of anarchy and discipline in the way I work,” the actor has expressed. This intensity has made him the favorite of frequent collaborator Martin Scorsese and is the reason we keep a close watch on the actor — despite some of his best roles being associated with his youth.
Karina Longworth’s biography on Meryl Streep is a must-read, looking at the star’s ability to fully inhabit her characters in films like Kramer vs. Kramer, The Deer Hunter, and Sophie’s Choice. Streep’s best roles find her playing complicated women and women dealing with women’s issues. There is a natural sophistication to her method — an innate ability to make the ordinary fascinating. “I have a smattering of things I’ve learned from different teachers, but nothing I can put into a valise and open it up and say ‘Now which one would you like’? Nothing I can count on and that makes it more dangerous,” the actress once stated. “But then the danger makes it more exciting.”
Katharine Hepburn challenged conventions about women in Hollywood, on and off the screen. She declined interviews, refused to wear makeup, wore pants, and ignored Hollywood’s views of older actresses, starring in films into her 80s. Her characters were often equally independent and assertive, shaping the view of the modern women. As Mary McNamara put it in the Los Angeles Times, “It was her defining role: life.”
His charismatic screen presence and instinctual ability to embody a role made Marlon Brando one of the most admired and influential actors of the 20th century. In films such as Streetcar Named Desire, Last Tango in Paris, On the Waterfront, and The Godfather, Brando brought passion, emotion, and a kind of punk stoicism that enraptured audiences. Stories about Brando’s screen test for The Godfather, in which he stuffed his cheeks full of cotton balls to transform himself into the aged Don (winning him the coveted part), are evidence of actor’s ingenuity.
Toshirô Mifune, Akira Kurosawa muse (Drunken Angel, Rashomon, Yojimbo) and one of the most famous Japanese actors of his time, became known for his action roles — specifically playing the samurai. But Mifune brought a dramatic depth and intricacy to his characters that was unique. His swordsmen weren’t always the heroes audiences wanted them to be. “The ordinary Japanese actor might need 10 feet of film to get across an impression. Toshiro Mifune needed only three feet,” Kurosawa once said of his star.
The French actress made an international breakthrough in films such as Heaven’s Gate, La Dentelliere, The Piano Teacher, and Story of Women. Her theatrical background and penchant for eccentric and difficult roles, for which the actress creates an evocative internal landscape, make her riveting to watch. “I never got offered girlfriend roles,” she told The Guardian. “It was not my idea of being an actress to be the girlfriend. I like to be a side person, a supporting role, but in the centre – a character that you can cast a specific light on.”
One of only ten African-American actresses to be nominated for the Best Actress Oscar (playing Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It), Angela Bassett is a Yale drama school grad whose prolific filmography found her playing some of the most coveted roles for black actresses: Malcolm X’s wife, Betty Shabazz, Michael Jackson’s mother, Katherine Jackson, and lead roles in dramas like Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back. And she brought dimension to the American Horror Story series on the small screen. Hilton Als writes of the Bassett’s “cool” technique and how her success has changed the way audiences view black women in cinema:
Her dignified, alert, and earnestly emotive screen presence does generate audience sympathy. And she appeals especially to that segment of the moviegoing public (black women, white housewives, lesbians, and married men) who are not just fetishizing her striking upper-body musculature but are responding to the subtext of her performances—a subtext that includes her struggle to reinvent Hollywood’s view of black women as something other than wisecracking or doleful martyrs, their hair stiff with brilliantine and the funk of subjugation.