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10 tips for directors seeking to get the most out of their actors.

By Adrienne Weiss.


As a feature film director, your relationships with your actors may be the most delicate ones of your entire production – especially if you are a first-timer without much prior directing experience. From teaching workshops in acting and directing, I’ve noticed that directors make the same mistakes over and over again. These subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – behaviors often sabotage their chances of getting good performances.

The following 10 suggestions – some practical and craft-related, others simply glorified leadership and communication tips – should help you avoid some of the most common pitfalls.


1. Be Prepared To Talk To Your Actors.

One of the most common mistakes directors make is failing to be prepared to work with their actors. After all, you know the script inside out, maybe even wrote it over a period of several years. So, isn’t it safe to assume that you know enough about the story and characters to direct the actors? The answer is: most probably not. Directing your actors will require an entirely different kind of information than you needed when you were writing your screenplay or making other directorial decisions.

In order to work with actors, you must create a subtext for them, providing each actor with insights into the inner workings of their characters. But in order to do that, you must first answer a few basic questions: What does each character want, and how is he or she going to get it? Actors need the answers to these questions in clear, simple and active language. But these answers aren’t always obvious – you must give yourself the time to think through the script, scene by scene and character by character. If you don’t take this time, odds are you’ll talk too much on set and only succeed in getting random results.

I once watched a director ramble on about the metaphorical meaning of a prop to an actor. The actor stood there nodding, making polite, intelligent sounding noises. However, when the director finally finished, not only did the actor have no idea how to play the scene, but her energy was confused and dispirited. The director had left her with no practical insights as to how to play her scene. Winston Churchill once ended a very long letter with the comment, "I’m sorry this letter was so long – I didn’t have time to make it short." The only way to be brief and to the point with your actors is to take the time to crystallize your thoughts before opening your mouth.

As a corollary to this rule:

2. Go Over The Script Line By Line With Your Actors Before Getting on the Set.

Some directors like extensive rehearsal periods, while others just work with the actors on set. But at the very least go through the script individually with your actors. During a quiet moment, discuss with them, line by line, their characters’ desires, the meaning of what they’re saying, the stakes and the script’s major dramatic turning points. It is crucial, before you shoot, to begin move away from the idealized image you’ve had in your head to what this real live person may or may not bring to the material. Speak with your actors, allow them to contribute their ideas to creating their performances. If you skip this process, you’ll wind up wasting a lot of time, missing out on opportunities to make your material richer.

3. Cast People With Whom You Can Communicate.

When you interview a d.p., an editor or a producer, don’t you seek people on your wavelength? Don’t you want people whose senses of humor you appreciate, who understand your frame of reference and whom you trust to do their jobs? It’s the same with actors. You’ll click with some, while, with others, you may never find a connection. While that lack of a connection may not seem important during casting, the ability to communicate with an actor quickly and easily becomes critical during the stresses of production.

I know one director, beloved by actors and famous for his collaborative ensemble work, who deliberately creates an obstacle for his actors just before making a final decision on casting. If the actors is able to work under pressure, they’re in. If not, he’ll look elsewhere.

If given a choice between two actors, go with the one you feel understands you and to whom you are actually able to listen. You both will have a much better experience making the movie.

4. Maintain An Air Of Authority With Your Actors.

Okay, so you have a great connection with your actors, you laugh at each other’s jokes and now the temptation is to become friends. Big mistake. No matter how friendly things are between you and your actors, it is essential you keep professional boundaries. In order to do their best work, actors need to feel safe and secure. The best way to establish that sense of safety is consistently to convey your control of the process. If you tell the actors your personal problems, your fights with your producer or (the worst!) your fears about whether or not the movie will work, they will inevitably begin to lose trust in both you and the film. The results will wind up on screen. That’s not to say that you must pretend to know all the answers. There will be times when you won’t know what to do, but it is wisest at those moments to take a break and consider your options. Or even ask, in an authoritative way, if anybody has any suggestions. But always maintain your authority. If you were in a vulnerable situation, wouldn’t you want to feel that someone responsible was in charge? The great English director Peter Brook once said that directing is like leading a group through a dark cave with a flashlight. His or her job is to be out front, illuminating a few feet ahead and saying, "Let’s go to the left – it looks drier over there."

So, let the actors tell you whatever they want about their own personal lives – perhaps it will help you to get a better performance out of them. But no matter how vulnerable you feel, maintain your command and make choices about the way to proceed.

Another corollary:

5. Don’t Take Anything That Happens With Your Actors Personally.

On the set, an actor might love you and lavish you with affection, or look at you like you’re an alien, resisting your every direction. Focus on the work and don’t take their attitude towards you – whether positive or negative – personally. It is very important to stay objective. Many neophyte directors waste precious time and energy reacting to situations with their actors. Keep the drama on the screen.

6. Give Your Actors Playable Objectives.

Most successful directors know it’s important for an actor to know his or her "objective." When an objective is well-chosen and well-played, it can enrich a performance with layers of subtext. But even though you may discuss objectives with your actors before they are selected, the results will sometimes remain unsatisfactory. So what’s the problem?

Frequently, the source of the trouble is that the objective was phrased too abstractly and therefore was unplayable by the actor. For example, directors come up with objectives like, "He wants her to love him." Or, "He wants her approval." Though in some ways these seem like intelligent, thoughtful choices, on another level they are actually very difficult to translate into action. What does "wanting someone to love you" actually mean? Unless given something very specific, it is difficult for the actor to commit to that choice. Actors need to know what to do. In my experience, the most playable – and therefore effective – way to state an objective is to frame it in the context of what an actor should make the other actor do or say. Make it as concrete as possible so the actor knows whether he or she has achieved it by the end of the scene. For example, "I want her to love me," becomes "I want to make her look at me with eyes full of love and heave a romantic sigh." Or, "I want her to run up and throw her arms around my neck and kiss me." Wanting someone’s approval becomes, "I want him to say I did a good job," or, "I want her to smile at me and say that I’m the best damn garbageman she’s ever seen."

Directors often ask, "But isn’t that too simple? There are supposed to be layers in the scene." Yes, but far from reducing the richness of a scene, choosing a simple objective actually allows the complexity of your script to emerge. Remember the actor lectured on the metaphorical meaning of a prop? Imagine if she’d simply been told, "You want to make him fall down on his knees and beg you to come back to him." Odds are she would have been a lot more interested in and connected to the scene.

7. If An Actor Has A Problem With Something, Pay Attention And Deal With It As Soon As Possible.

This is classic. You’re thinking about a million things – you’re about to lose the location, you’ve run out of money, you just had a huge fight with the producer – and an actor comes over, very upset and says he hates his pants. "Deal with your damn pants," you think. "I’ve got better things to do!"

But remember, helping your actors build their characters should always be a top priority. Resist the urge to dismiss an actor. Something as seemingly insignificant as a pair of pants can affect how an actor approaches his or her character.

8. Create More Spontaneous Conflict Between Characters By Giving Actors Information Privately.

Directors often make the mistake of discussing with one actor his or her important character information in front of the other actors in the scene. They go on and on about how much Ellen hates Dave, how she resents him for leaving her and how in this scene Ellen is going to make Dave pay. The problem is, if the actor playing Dave has been hearing all of this, he is going to anticipate Ellen’s animosity, and, as a result, the scene will lack spontaneity and life. It is much more useful to keep each actor focused solely on his or her own experiences and feelings. This can be achieved by simply taking each actor aside and speaking to them privately. In addition to enhancing the surprise of the scene, an added bonus is that the actor feels special – the two of you are in on a secret, and that kind of bond generally creates better work. When it comes to directing the other actor in the scene, sometimes the best results can be achieved by giving that actor a contradictory secret agenda. Then just let the actors go at it. I once saw a scene in which one actor was told his sole objective was to get the other actor to sit in a chair. Of course, the other actor was told her objective was to remain standing at all costs. As simple as the direction was, the scene was hilarious and fraught with dramatic tension.

9. Be General With Praise And Specific About Aspects That Need Improvement.

Directors often make the mistake of praising what they liked: "Oh, I loved the way you tossed your hair and laughed coquettishly!" But when it comes to things they don’t like, they merely say, "Hmm, I might do things a little differently. Let’s try it again." In fact, your feedback should be just the opposite. If you praise an actress for tossing her hair and laughing, you can bet she’s going to do it over and over again, less and less organically, because she wants to win more of your approval. So it’s better, when things are working well, to resist the urge to "objectify" an actor’s actions through specific praise. But if something isn’t working, an actor needs to know exactly why so he or she can make an adjustment. Instead of merely saying, "I would do it a little differently," you might say something like, "You’re anticipating that next line. Keep chopping the vegetables until he says that little Timmy has stolen the secret code – then you can look at him and throw the carrot."

And lastly:

10. When In Doubt, Give Your Actor A Physical Activity.

We’ve all seen scenes that seem stiff, just two talking heads. There’s one easy trick to energize a dead scene: give actors something physical to do. Have them fold laundry, clean up a mess, sort through papers and so on. Physical activity can help focus an actor’s energy, making the scene more natural and his or her performance more watchable.


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