One question I am often asked is how do I work with actors. It is interesting to me that of all the complicated things you must learn to master film directing, working with actors seems to be the biggest mystery.
It makes sense when you think about it. Actors are the great irony of film.
They are generally the only ones recognized when the film is complete, and they are involved the least. Film projects can motor on for months or even years before all of the script writing and financing is together. Pre-production starts and the mountain of planning begins, and eventually someone is cast… usually a week or two before the start of production.
If you are lucky, you’ll get a rehearsal, but often you’ll get a few conversations and maybe a read-through before the day of the shoot. They get to show up after everyone one else, and leave before anyone else. (Unless extensive makeup is required.)
Then, once they are on set a brand new dialogue happens. Up to this point, all of the conversations are logistical. Where is the location? What camera are we shooting on? Where will the crew park? What’s the lighting package? What are we having for lunch?
Once the actor shows up, the dialogue switches from technical to emotional. It is a completely different vocabulary and it requires the director to jam the gear shifter from 5th to “R.” (Assuming “R” means Race.) You not only have to get the actor to a vulnerable place, you have to be vulnerable with them. It can be a scary place if you are not used to it.
Good actors are raw, and all their senses are on fire. They are trained to let their beating hearts be exposed, and looking into their eyes can be just like looking into the sun. And the more open they are, the better it looks on camera.
It is no surprise that most directors are terrified of this. (Whether they admit it or not.) This is why they often hide in video village, safe from danger. They look at the actor like another piece of equipment, and often fumble around looking for what button to push to make the actor feel. It is an arms-length, mechanical response to a machine you don’t understand.
It reminds me of the first few times I had to hold an infant. It was this wiggly little thing, all soft and blubbery, looking at me as if I had some answers. I didn’t speak blubber, so it started crying. I gingerly held it out in front of me and tried to mimic what I had seen good dads do – starting with not referring to it as “It.”
If you identify with this when it comes to actors, I have written out a few tips to getting into the same space as actors and getting the performances you need.
Be warned: It might not be easy.
1) Create a safe space.
If you really want your actor to drop their guard and open up, you have to let them know it is safe to do so. But just telling them it is a safe place is not enough. I find it is best to station myself as close to them as possible. (Sometimes I am bumping into the AC.) Get eye level and lower your voice. Speak calmly and smoothly and before you tell them it is safe with your voice, tell them with your eyes.
You will not believe the power that the breath holds. So many actors, and people in general, walk around either breathing shallow or holding their breath.
I have seen actors shudder as they flood their body with air. You can watch the emotion ripple through them. It is important to have them breathe in through their nose and out through the mouth. Make sure they loosen the jaw to let the air flow. This can take some coaxing because a lot of actors get so locked up that they don’t realize they are clenching their jaw. The actor’s tool is their body, and the breath can give them access to it.
3) Don’t deny anything.
As the actor is breathing, the tendency may be to think calming thoughts. This can be helpful, but what you really want is for them to breathe in the feeling. If they are nervous, have them breathe that nervousness in. If they are angry, sad, frustrated, or whatever, have them take it all in. Especially if they are feeling all this because of what day they might’ve had. Have them bring it all into their body, and pour it out into the work. You’ll be stunned by what you see.
4) Pull, don’t push.
The actor is not another piece of equipment that you are using to light the scene. They are a living entity. The worst thing to do is to try and push them around until you get the result you want. Pull them into the emotion. I do this by putting myself into that place ahead of them. If I need them to be joyful, I will flood my system with that joy and invite them to it. If I need them to be broken, I will break with them. I’ll let the tears flow and walk them towards me.
This doesn’t mean that I am always talking slowly and calmly. Sometimes I have to yell. If I want anger, I’ll show them that anger. But not at them, with them.
5) The actor is a mirror of the director.
When I learned this, it changed my entire approach to directing. If you see an actor who is having a hard time connecting to their scene partner, then take a minute and see if you are connecting to the actor. If you’re not, then you must. If they are holding their breath, maybe you are holding your breath. If they are controlling all the moments, maybe you are controlling all the moments. It may seem counter-intuitive to stop controlling the moment if you are the director, but you need to let the story tell itself.
Breathe deep and let it go. Be what you want to see, and then bring it to your actor. If you do, you’ll experience one of the greatest joys a director can experience on set.