One of North by Northwest's greatest strengths—and it has many—is its star, Cary Grant. Lending the character of Roger Thornhill a relentless wit, humor, and debonair poise, Grant is a unique and stylish leading man, while maintaining a down-to-earth and relatable quality that aligns the audience with his plight from the start. Where other male stars of his time may have tended towards seriousness and macho reserve, Grant is expressive, lithe, and never self-serious. His on-screen pleasure, noted by many as his chief talent, situates him as a symbol of a simpler time in film acting, in which emotional revelation was not the goal. Indeed, Cary Grant consistently keeps audiences at an emotional arms' length, favoring the affective gesture or perfectly timed one-liner over intimate emotionality. In this way, Grant's performance in North by Northwest is nearly anachronistic to the acting styles that were becoming more and more popular at the time of the film's release, namely "Method acting," the American acting training adapted from the work of Russian theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski.
The rise of "Method acting" in the 1940s and early 1950s, popularized in America by acting coaches Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner, encouraged actors to draw on their own personal experience to craft sincere and emotionally naturalistic performances. The trend of "the Method" caught on like wildfire. Actors such as Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and Marilyn Monroe all championed "the Method," with a marked self-seriousness and a fierce commitment to emotional authenticity on screen. Interestingly enough, Hitchcock had no interest in Method acting, and after working with Montgomery Clift on the film I Confess, was quoted as saying, "There are some actors I've felt uncomfortable with, and working with Montgomery Clift was difficult because he was a method actor and a neurotic as well." Cary Grant's performances in Hitchcock films are remarkably anti-Method in their surface-level charm. Grant never digs too far beneath the surface, but that becomes one of the major pleasures of his performing style. As Pauline Kael, the film critic for The New Yorker wrote in a profile of Grant in 1975, "He appeared before us in his radiantly shallow perfection, and that was all we wanted of him. He was the Dufy of acting—shallow but in a good way, shallow without trying to be deep. We didn’t want depth from him; we asked only that he be handsome and silky and make us laugh."
Born Archibald Leach to a poor family in 1904 in England, Grant was a stage actor from an early age, eventually becoming a vaudeville performer in the United States before beginning work in Hollywood. Intent on becoming an iconic male movie star, Grant changed his name and began crafting his persona as a Hollywood star, with silent film star Douglas Fairbanks as his role model. He began his career acting in dramas, but eventually became known for his charms in romantic and screwball comedies such as Bringing up Baby, His Girl Friday, and Arsenic and Old Lace, before becoming a frequent collaborator of the "Master of Suspense," Alfred Hitchcock. Having made a name for himself as a heartthrob in romantic comedies, Grant's accessible appeal gave him a certain allure in Hitchcock's eyes. Critics said that while James Stewart was the actor with whom Hitchcock most identified, Cary Grant was the actor he most wanted to be. Eventually, Hitchcock would say that Cary Grant was "the only actor I ever loved in my whole life." If the macabre Englishman behind such grisly movies as Psycho and The Birds pays you that compliment, your charm must be singular.
Indeed, Cary Grant was singular not only for his charm, but for his privacy and the mysteries surrounding his impeccably-crafted persona. A poor Englishman from a difficult home life, Grant melded his identity with the persona foisted upon him by Hollywood and the public. However, he maintained a shrewd control of this persona, and was never consumed by the pressures of his career, retiring from acting in his 60s and remaining notoriously tight-lipped about his personal life. In many ways, the persona of "Cary Grant" can be read as a way to maintain the integrity of his authentic self and his privacy. Grant once said, "I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be and I finally became that person. Or he became me. Or we met at some point.” Put this way, Grant's career trajectory was an inexplicable work of alchemy and personal transformation. Grant was hardly a student of "the Method"; he had little interest in looking inward and mining his interior life for authenticity in his work. Rather, he made his entire life and career a performance. Where other actors sought to expose and unpack, Cary Grant winked and ordered another martini, saving something for himself.