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How to Direct Actors

The director is responsible for guiding the actor or actors through the scene, nudging their performance this way or that in service to the film at large. This often involves asking for adjustments in the way an actor delivers their dialog or does an action. The goal is to achieve a believable performance, where the actor(s) react to each other and the world around them in a way that keeps the audience invested in the story.

Volumes upon volumes have been written about directing actors. Traditional theater is one of the world’s oldest art forms, dating back over 2,500 years. At a more basic level, storytellers have always strived to draw their audience in through voice and inflection. Then in more modern times came the phonograph, then radio, film, television, and digital entertainment.

All this experience evolved into various acting methods and techniques which are taught to actors today. Some involve creating elaborate backstories for a character, while others rely less on backstory and more on reaction to the present. Some acting methods, like improvisation, have no script at all. Here, the actors develop their characters as the scene takes place, with little to no rehearsal or preparation. In others, actors are trained to inhibit their characters completely, “living” as the character while the cameras are rolling, to create a more genuine performance.

Whatever method the actor is using (and some actors are not trained in any particular method), they look to the director to guide the performance. The actor is one piece of a larger puzzle of costumes, lights, sound, editing, effects, and music. Because the director oversees all of this, they have the ability to tell if an actor’s performance works in sync with these other aspects, known as the mise en scene, or "all the rest."

Hopefully you’ll have time to rehearse with your actors before they perform. This is easier when preparing for a stage production, which usually involves a rehearsal process lasting a few days to a few months. Here, you have a lot of time to work with an actor to finesse their character, try variations on scenes, and even perform for test audiences to gauge reactions. For film, sometimes you only have a few days to prepare with an actor… if you even get that. Especially on lower budget productions, you may have a single day with the actor in which to rehearse, shoot, and get the take. It can be a challenge.

Actors will often come up with an approach to how they will play their characters before the rehearsal or shoot date. The director’s job here is to make sure that approach feels like it belongs in the scene - and the actor looks to them for an objective view. Does the intensity of the actor’s performance match their scene partner, and the setting? Are they under-acting or over-acting? Are they displaying the right emotions? This can be more complicated in modern day film, where the actor may be reacting to a green screen or a tennis ball on a stick.

Almost always, the director will need to ask for adjustments. Remember, this usually isn’t because the actor has done anything wrong. They simply interpreted the scene in a way that may not work for the overall product. The actor needs to be able to trust that when the director asks for a change, it’s at the service of that product… and that’s down to how the director gives direction. If you ever find yourself yelling at an actor, stop. Just as the actor must trust the director, the director must respect that trust, and the time, energy, and emotion they are lending to the final product.

So how do you go about finding the right performance? Directing actors involves more than saying “Be happy on this line, then sad on this one.” The actor may ask, happy in what way? Pleased? Ecstatic? Content? Then they’ll ask, how sad do you want? A simple frown, or should they break down in tears? It is possible to guide an actor through a scene by finding the right adjective to describe the character’s emotion. However the better performance often comes from the actor finding a way to access their own emotions, and applying them to the scene.

You’ve probably heard the cliche of an actor asking, “What’s my motivation?” It’s their way of saying, “How do you want me to act?” One way to help them find those natural emotions is to use subtle reminders about the scene or situation, or about the character’s past, to guide the performance. Alternatively, you could talk about a goal the character has, and some of the things that may be hindering them from achieving it. Sometimes your direction doesn’t even need to be related to the project you’re working on. “Read the line like you just got a big promotion at work,” is completely valid, and may have nothing to do with the scene.

These directions usually give more nuance to the performance, and are a better tool for the actor to use - limited only to your imagination. For example, picture a scene where a character named Tanya is at the supermarket buying a fruitcake on the way to a funeral. An actor may read the scene and decide to act depressed, lifelessly grabbing the fruitcake and flopping it onto the conveyor belt. This is certainly one way to react to going to a funeral… but perhaps the character is especially self-conscious. Would she be comfortable with people seeing her in her saddened state?

It’s the director’s job to think about this, and to ask for an adjustment. Let’s say you want to emphasize Tanya’s discomfort. One method could be to tell your actor to “act embarrassed,” but though you’ve landed on a specific adjective, embarrassment is not a specific emotion. Instead, you could tell your actor, “Go through the scene as if Tanya is afraid everyone is laughing behind her back.” This direction is both more specific and more nuanced. Your actor is already bringing sadness to the scene… but perhaps now she’s looking over her shoulder. Fumbling with her change. She drops the fruitcake. A better performance than someone who’s simply embarrassed.

If you’re still not seeing what you want, you can try “Go through the scene like you really have to pee.” It could work!

You can also use action verbs instead of adjectives to spur on a performance. During a romantic scene, rather than the direction “look like you’re in love” you can tell your actors to simply “lose themselves” in each other’s eyes. During an argument scene, you can tell your actors to “really lay into one another” instead of saying “get louder”. If you want your actor to pull back a performance, maybe you tell them to “Find some composure,” rather than say “calm down”.

There will inevitably be disagreements between the actor and director. While the director does have the whole film in mind, remember that it is the actor’s responsibility to bring their character to life. Some actors will spend hours, days, weeks or months researching parts of their character. Many professional actors will go above and beyond the script to create character backstories or details that the writer or director may not have thought of. If there are disagreements, it’s good to keep an open mind. When an actor says, “I don’t think my character would _____”, you should listen. In many ways, the actor may come to know their character even better than you.

One final note: If you want to be a good director, take some acting classes. Learn what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a direction, and take mental notes when those directions are clear or unclear. Then when you’re in the director’s chair yourself, you’ll be able to communicate adjustments in a more nuanced, and ultimately more effective way.


Cover Photo by PxHere

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