You’ve probably heard the term ‘method acting’ on TV or in interviews with actors. It’s where an actor gets into their role by becoming their character for a while.
Heath Ledger is a famous example, staying in character for his role as The Joker in The Dark Knight even when the cameras weren’t rolling. His portrayal of the mad Joker is praised by critics as one of cinema’s most authentic characters. Sadly, Heath’s personal problems cut short his contribution to the world of cinema, but it highlights how interesting, and sometimes dangerous method acting can be.
John Lee is the only method writer I know. He not only researches his characters, but will take on the role of one of the them to research character interactions. He is able to glean subtle nuances and opinions about the characters that most other writers will struggle to find.
In preparation for SuperModel, Lee became a fashion photographer for a year and worked with hundreds of up-and-coming models in the fashion industry. I asked him how it affected his writing style…
CS: “How does method writing help the writing process?”
JWL: “Method writing, or perhaps immersive writing, tells me more about the people around me than I can imagine. When I started writing Supermodel I knew I was out of my depth when it came to the psyche of the teenage girl, so I worked with models to find out what they wanted in life, what they struggled with. I learned what it was like to be a girl, really, very different from being a guy.”
CS: “You became a fashion photographer to study for this book. Would you have been able to write the book without immersing yourself in the characters?”
JWL: “It would not have been the same book. A lot of the anecdotes in Supermodel are based on real events, things that happened to models. When I started out I had this naive impression of models having this easy job anyone could do, but let me tell you, it’s a lot tougher than it looks. You have to have nerves of steel.”
CS: “So there is some truth in what you write about the experience of models?”
JWL: “What surprised me is how many models have the same stories. How many are asked by almost every photographer, male or female, to get naked. How many agents just wanted their registration money, and then forgot about them. A lot of models are bought and sold between agencies like slaves. It blew my mind. All those cliche’s are not really cliche’s, they’re quite real. It’s really tough being a model, you get taken advantage of at every turn. These are things normal models don’t talk about to regular guys, I think because it’s embarrassing, but when you’re in the industry they open up.”
CS: “Your character, Amanda, is a shorter model. Is it that hard for shorter models to become successful models?”
JWL: “I made an effort to work with shorter models, to find out if it was harder for them. And, oh yes, I mean for runway shows the clothes are made months in advance, so you can understand it there. But for photoshoots, who cares how tall the models are? There is a type of racism in the modelling industry against shorter, or rather, normal sized people. It’s more than just practical size.”
CS:”What would you tell your lead character if you met her, knowing what you know now?”
“JWL: “Good question. I’d tell her sometimes you have to shovel shit for a living, and that’s okay. And don’t let people change you. If you become something else, well, then you’re living a dream, not a life.”
CS: “Will you be method-writing again for your next book?”
JWL: “To a degree. The next one, Blood Games, is pretty much a horror story. I want to find out why people are fascinated with horror, without becoming that myself.”
CS: “Do you recommend method-writing to other writers? Has it helped you write better?”
JWL: “It has helped me understand people better, and to bring things into my writing that are more interesting than me, us writers are pretty boring and solitary creatures. Acting classes and doing something like method-writing is a real rich source to draw from. All of us writers need help with structure and language and so on, but what we really need are those insights into minds we don’t understand.”
It was an absolute joy chatting with John Lee about method-writing. Look out for his Novel, Supermodel, published by Swann Books, in December.