Working with actors is always the biggest challenge for me as a filmmaker — that and locations, and money, and the lost thousands of hours of time, and making sure everyone is working together, and bitchy creative types plus sullen and lazy volunteer crew — but working with actors is probably the most important thing. A film that’s beautifully well-shot, with a fantastic script, but shitty actors will be a shitty movie, as opposed to a film that’s horribly shot, with a horrible script, and fantastic actors–which will be still a shitty film, but a less shittier one.
These are some observations I’ve made about actors in my experience so far.
Mistake 1: Actors are fragile birds who need to be nurtured.
One erroneous approach to working with actors is somehow thinking that they’re like horses, and they need to be horse-whispered somehow; like their egos are fragile and if you say the wrong thing, they will crack and spend the next ten years of their life in an asylum laced in a straight-jacket. This view of actors is based on a sound principle but extrapolated to a ridiculous extreme. The sound principle is, don’t treat anyone working with you like crap. Don’t yell, don’t scream, don’t get frustrated because your actor isn’t giving you what you need. These problems are related to the next things I will refer to, which is a lack of preparation; but the point is, don’t buy into the stereotype that actors need to be treated with velvet gloves. Be honest. Don’t be brutal or cruel or sad or mitigative; just be honest. If they’re professionals, or at least have aspirations to be, they expect critique and feedback about the job they’re doing. That’s how they become better. And they don’t need to be manipulated; like in order to cry, they don’t need to be emotionally battered with memories of their dead dog Mr. Miggles that somehow got strangled up on the clothesline while jumping off the outhouse shed while chasing the cat Mrs. Miggles. Aside from the shudder of xeno-racial marriage, what actors need are the tools to get to the place they need to be in, and that’s not manipulation, that’s guidance.
Mistake 2: Not preparing or rehearsing
I’d say this one is a biggie. Going into a shoot not rehearsing is a recipe for mediocrity. And it’s the simplest thing to do, and also the one that pays off the biggest rewards, on top of it being the cheapest thing as well. It’s superb value and if you shoot your script with a 20 year old camcorder and a tape recorder microphone, you can at least be assured you are going to get some good acting and something that will be mesmerizing. People are a lot more forgiving about technical bullshit than you’d think. Actually, people don’t really care about that shit at all. That’s why a good storyteller with nothing but a grizzled voice and expressive eyes and a kickass story can mesmerize people as opposed to a 200 million dollar piece of sewer flotsam like G.I. Joe.
If you don’t rehearse or prepare, you will also be frustrated with your actor’s performance; but it’s not the actor’s fault. It’s yours. So don’t be a soggy mare: prepare.
Mistake 3: Every actor is a unique snowflake and they need to be treated differently
No, they don’t. This kind of wrong approach is similar to the “horse-whisperer” approach to directing actors, and it’s built again on the wrong premise that in order to get people to do what you want, they need to be manipulated. If you prick me, do I not bleed? If you prick me, do I not get irate and attempt to throttle you with the nearest object to me at that precise moment, which is a spatula? If you prick me, do I not immediately demand my juice and cookie because the most rational reason why you’d be pricking me is because I’m donating blood and I’m starting to get faint?
The point is, attempting to somehow psychologically analyze an actor in order to understand why precisely they’re being a dumbass about a scene is a waste of time and effort and is similarily dumbass-worthy. People aren’t fundamentally different and that’s why 99% of humanity can watch a show and at the very least know what the frak is going on. Whether they actually enjoy it or not is when we get into the unique snowflake theme of life. But in regards to basic acting ability, everyone is the same and they speak and understand the same language of acting.
Mistake 4: Acting is all about psychological analysis or objective interpretation
This was a hangup I had for a long time and I didn’t quite understand why some actors I worked with just didn’t get a scene when I’d give them directions using exercises like articulating goals, needs and wants. Some actors, even after going through all the acting exercises I could throw at them, would still be pretty fucking stupid and just not get it. Why didn’t they get it? I would constantly wonder. Well, because they simply sucked, and there wouldn’t be anything I could do to change them. Well, I shouldn’t simply say “they sucked.” Which goes into my next point.
Mistake 5: Everyone can act if given enough time and direction to prepare
No, they can’t. This is something that took me the longest to realize, because frankly I believe in meritocracy and that with enough elbow grease, you can stick your arm into any orifice, however small. Acting is about the combination of attitude, vulnerability, and imaginative smarts. A good acting attitude dictates that an actor will do anything to prepare for a role, thus demonstrating an ability to absorb the details and nuances that are so important to a good performance. However, if an actor isn’t willing to open his or her “heart” to an audience, to let the audience “in” — that is, be willing to forgo his ego for the sake of the character — then an infinite amount of preparation and research won’t matter. Indeed, preparation for the beginning actor is probably mostly about letting go of the fear of being judged. Actors who are giving a stilted or “blocked” performance are thinking too much in their head, and that thinking has everything to do with the fear of how they are being perceived. A good actor just goes with the flow and thinks with their heart-brain. Yes, it’s an actual organ.
But even having a “heart-brain” isn’t enough. I’ve seen lots of actors willing to do everything and anything–get naked, run around with a dildo on their head, etc.–to get over their fear, plus doing the necessary research. But is that enough to portray a character realistically? No. The final part is actually becoming the character, and that means letting go of the ego of thinking you’re a kickass actor who can portray anyone and anything. This is part of having a good actor attitude as well. When I see someone who performs with verve and heart, I see someone who is talented, but their performance is overwhelmed by the stench of their fucking ego. The arrogance bleeds through and you can tell they delight in the ability to shock their viewer; and indeed, that’s what motivates these particular actors to act in the first place. It isn’t to entertain their audience that they act; acting is a method of controlling them. While control is certainly a factor in entertaining an audience, a good actor is someone who is able to give of themselves fully. An S&M sex worker may fully delight her client, but great sex basically comes down to giving of your heart to a loved one who reciprocates fully and honestly in response.
Mistake 6: An actor always listens to a director
Nope, they don’t. Some actors believe they’re great actors and will not listen to anything you have to say, especially if it smacks of a critique. These actors are not in the game to act. One of the difficulties at first when casting that I had was learning to filter the wannabes from the real deals. It’s hard but not impossible to do, and it will result in better productions all around. The drama deserves to be on the screen, not on the set.
Granted, maybe you want to work with an actor who is giving you attitude because you actually believe they’re awesome and perfect for your film. So you think, well I’ll put up with it for a while and maybe it’ll go away. Or, I’ll have a nice little chat and they’ll do a 180 in attitude. Nope. If an actor is giving you attitude, they’re basically scared of being judged and this is one of the defense mechanisms they have to protect their ego. At the end of the day, though, you have to ask yourself if this kind of actor and his or her attitude is working for the good of the film, or himself. And the obvious answer is they’re only thinking of themselves. So tell them to move along and maybe one day they’ll realize how bratty they’re being.
That being said, sometimes an actor has attitude because they worked with a shitty director who yelled at them, threw temper tantrums, walked around in their tighty-whiteys whilst combing their leg hair with a toothbrush. I can safely say this scenario, however far-fetched, could have its true moments. However, a good actor will recognize a good director. And by “good”, I mean everyone on set–right from the crew to the actors to the director and producer–puts the good of the story and the film as their first priority. Why should you accept anything less? Don’t. Drop, rinse and audition until you find the right talent for your work. Because who wants to half-ass the things that will make or break your film?
Mistake 7: With enough preparation and rehearsals, actors will deliver come shooting day
Wow, did I have fun with this one. I’ve had actors who were awesome during rehearsals. Come shooting day: choked. So the question I had to ask myself was: why? The most obvious answer was: as much as the actors seemed prepared, they weren’t. The actors I had for this particular shoot didn’t even know their lines. But that’s not their fault: it was mine.
The most basic aspect of preparation for actors is to know their lines. If actors don’t know their lines, they–and you–are screwed. We are all screwed because any good performance comes from a place of being automatic in the places that need to be automatic, and responsive in the places that need to be responsive. For example, think about an actor being told to move from one part of the room to another. An actor who was being too objective would start analysing and focusing on his actual movement when in real life, who the fuck does that? Anyone who does that in real life is immediately scented out as being inauthentic, dishonest, fake. Anything we do in real life that is automatic should be done as automatic by the actor. Anything that is responsive–that is, having a conversation for instance–should be responsive. If you ask an actor if he would like an apple, he should reply that sure, he loves apples, give him a barrel-full, or that no, he doesn’t like apples and he doesn’t like apple-givers, and whips out a spatula and starts beating you with it. Just like in real life. The only difference is the actor is channeling these responses through consideration of what his character would or would not do. And that just requires imagination and flights of fancy.
Overall point: a good director doesn’t teach his actor to cry
That’s right. A good director isn’t a teacher, period. A good director is a mirror first, and a tweaker second. A good actor knows when he or she isn’t doing a good performance, just like when you make your pitch to the banker to get a loan, you know after the fact to a certain correct degree of probability if you are going to get it or not, if you “sold” it. The thing with good actors is they need someone to let them know to what degree their performance is to be corrected, or in what direction they are to be guided. Too much, too little. This way, that way. While I’ve heard the most horrible mantra a beginning director can say is “more blah”, the sad fact is, if you don’t give some kind of quantitative direction, an actor won’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. Think of it as a volume knob. A volume knob is pointless if the radio isn’t even on. “More blah” is a horrible directing tool on its own, but in combination with other directing tools, it is a necessity.
A shitty actor, or a beginning one, will not absorb any teaching you have to give them, because they don’t have the process in place to even make sense of your directions. They are thinking too much about their ego. The only thing you as a director can do at this point is to guide them to a place where they understand that acting is an exercise and exploration in freedom, not an opportunity to be judged. As soon as they get to that place, they can allow their more intuitive instincts to take over when it comes to a role. Because those instincts are always there. We act every day. The only difference is we understand and accept in every day life that we are being judged, and make our behavior in response to it habitual and instinctual. When it comes to acting, however, we are again pointed out explicitly that that judgment, that watching, is there. So when you’re working with a new or shitty actor, you are basically letting them know it’s ok to accept the judgment of the viewer and suppress it again in order to go about the necessary task of living. In that sense, acting is living, and living is acting.