Getting Actors to PerformWriters will often put textual cues or emotional directions into lines in an attempt to communicate with actors how they intend for the lines to be read. Instead of Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be;” the modern writer will write “(pensively, slowly, with deliberation) To BE…or NOT to be.” Sometimes this is at the behest of the producer, who is hoping to make a script “actor-proof.” In short, producers and writers are hoping that no matter an actor’s level of talent or intelligence, the script will be communicated as intended. Directors have a tendency to grow attached to a specific vision for their film; in their effort to bring this vision to life, directors often manipulate actors as though they were marionettes, moving them about like props.

Often, the creative staff will become frustrated when they feel as if an actor is not engaged enough in the material. They might believe that actors are lazy or that they are phoning in a performance. Generally speaking, when an actor stops listening to a director and performs mechanically, it is because trust has been lost or broken and the actor is attempting self-protection through robotization.

Sometimes, an actor can feel so threatened by a director’s over-controlling line readings that they lose sight of the play as a whole; he or she might begin insisting on rewrites to make the character more important or better liked. The actor might display a “diva attitude,” making demands of co-stars and assistants and creating backstage hierarchies that threaten company morale. On film sets, the actors might insist on being part of the editing process, choosing scenes that showcase the broadest range of emotion possible, even in cases where it doesn’t match the style of the film.

When a project has reached this level of discontinuity, it is difficult to stop the impending train wreck. Things will unravel quickly and the production itself might be put at risk. The best way for a director to prevent this type of behavior is to respect the talent and collaboration of the actors and to focus on the work.

Occasionally, it has been reported that some productions have employed spy tactics to gauge the true nature of the actors they are auditioning for roles. A director might employ a friend or colleague to sit in the holding room, as if waiting for an audition, and report back to the production staff about the off-stage antics of actors. While this might help those in charge of casting avoid certain difficult personality types, a better method for assessing personality and chemistry is to create a comfortable in-room experience. When an actor feels at ease in an audition, it will be easier for the director to see the actor’s true demeanor and determine if working with that person would be a good idea.

The Actor/Director Relationship

A good actor will always express the desire for an educated, passionate, hard-working, and involved director. Similarly, good directors will treasure the actors who come into the room with ideas, thoughts, and contributions. The relationship between an actor and director should be collaborative. The two may have different ideas about how to achieve the agreed-upon vision for the show, but if each respects the other, the combination of their ideas will yield the greatest result. Each party has the opportunity to challenge the other one, to demand greater and better things, to bring out the best of what the other has to offer.

Each actor will have his own approach to a role and to working with a director. Some actors like to ask a long series of questions. Often, the actor isn’t looking for an easy answer- or a specific answer at all- but rather, to open a conversation with a director in order to learn more about how the director works, how the director sees the show, and how the director will respond to their involvement.

Likewise, directors have preferred methods of working. Some utilize warm-ups, table work, physical movement, or questions like “if your character was an animal, what animal would she be?” Not every exercise that a director puts upon an actor will be appreciated, and not every exercise will actually be useful for every actor. However, an actor’s openness to trying these methods says a lot about their professionalism and generosity of spirit.

Actors and directors should make demands of one another. They should expect the other party to rise to the occasion. Only when this happens does true genius emerge.

When Push Comes to Shove

At the end of the day, beyond the collaboration and rehearsal work, it is the job of a director to push an actor to reach new levels that they have not yet experienced. Veteran actors come into the room with a wealth of experience and often give performances that are perfectly acceptable- or perfectly mediocre. It can feel frustrating, frightening, depressing, and annoying for an actor to be pushed to reach new levels of connection with the character they are playing. Many good actors find themselves playing the same part over and over, or worse yet, find themselves giving performances that are not as good as they know they can be. Usually, it’s the result of a director who didn’t push hard enough or well enough during the process.

For actors who have been type-cast, playing the same kind of role in different projects, phoning in a performance or playing the same character becomes easy and familiar. Breaking out of that box requires a total re-invention. Actors hide behind the familiar. They know what they are good at delivering, and that delivery becomes easy. Often times, directors don’t feel comfortable pushing them for more. Even worse, some directors may not trust that these talented veterans actually have more talent to be uncovered. When an actor allows himself to be stripped down, to be vulnerable, a director can begin to truly work. Directors must earn this connection, this trust; once achieved, they must demand great work from the actor.

The greatest actors among us are often victim to playing a stereotype or acting too much. Great acting doesn’t appear to be acting; it does not feel like acting. Too often, an actor feels the need to “perform” for the camera. It is up to the director to remind him that the camera is there to simply capture the moment. Never believe that an actor cannot do better, cannot connect in a truer fashion. If an actor is giving a lousy performance, the director must tell him so and demand more. Film acting is subtle, it requires absolute truth; what appears on screen is forever in the hearts and minds of the audience. On stage, an actor has the ability to find new connections in each performance. With film, it must happen during shooting, as there is no way to correct it for future performances.

Communicating the truth of a piece, of a moment, of a person, is the only way to make a great film. When a director unearths the honest, natural essence of an actor, he knows that he has done his job well.