2.2 Working with actors

Although we are covering this topic in production, the director’s work with the actors starts as early as the audition process and continues through rehearsals in pre-production and right up until the moment the cameras are rolling on the scene. 

As a director, when I’m asked what my job entails I often reply that it is to help actors to stop acting. The film industry is unusual in that practically every member of the public is a critic. Most people have watched hours upon hours of films over the course of their lifetimes so they are well qualified to decide what they like and what they don’t like. A film maker is trying to use actors to breathe life into a story. When acting is done well the audience can almost forget that the people on the screen are actors and can lose themselves in the drama which is happening to the characters they play. When actors are less than convincing, however, it is incredibly difficult to do that. A director’s first task, therefore, is to help the actor to feel as though they are the character they are playing. In order to do this the actor needs to know as much as possible about the life of the character.

As human beings, we are influenced in how we react to situations by our own, unique experiences. For example, if a man had been bitten by a dog in his past, it is likely that he would be nervous around strange dogs. A man who has dogs of his own and who has never had a bad experience with one may greet the same strange dog with confidence and friendliness. Therefore, a director and actor must create a ‘back story’ for the character that will influence the way that the actor deals with the different situations that make up the scenes of the film. 

In ‘Whatever Turns You On’, the electronics store security man stares, suspiciously at the homeless guy. The homeless guy appears to be resentful of this suspicion. When working with Richard Wall, the actor who played the security guard we created a back story to explain this suspicion. The security guard had come across homeless people who had engaged in shoplifting in the past. He prided himself on making sure that there was no shoplifting in the electronics store and, because of his past experiences, felt that the homeless guy was certain to be ‘up to no good’.

In working with Luke Cameron, the actor who played the homeless guy, our back story involved numerous situations where people judged him unfairly because of the way he looked. His resentment was very natural, therefore, when he was in the store on honest business but was being targeted by the security guard. As a result of working with the actors in this way, although the security guard has absolutely no dialogue in the entire film, the communication between him and the homeless man emerges as an extremely powerful part of the film’s message.

There are many types of directors and as many ideas on how directors should work with actors. In my experience, the ones who have most difficulties are the ones who don’t communicate clearly with the actors. Standing in front of a camera and playing a role is a daunting task. Actors should be made to feel as comfortable, respected and supported as possible. The more relaxed they are, the better they will be able to do their job.

When presented with a script both the actor and the director should undergo a process of script analysis. The script tells us who does and says what and where this happens but it does not necessarily tell us why. Script analysis is the process of finding that reason. It is about finding the motivation for the characters to do what it is they do. Because a drama is a work of fiction there is no right or wrong answer in deciding what a character’s motivation is. The important thing is that the director and actor both agree on what that motivation is.

Let’s take an example. A female character has the following line in a scene:     

            “Why do you want to know?”

The director feels that the character is feeling annoyed that she should be asked whatever question she was asked. The director, therefore, will expect the actor to deliver that line with a certain amount of aggression. The actor, however, has decided that her character is asking this question because she is disappointed that she is being suspected of something. The actor, therefore, delivers the line with sadness. An example of bad directing would be for the director to say to the actor:

            “Say it with more anger.”

This leaves the actor confused. Their character is disappointed and the director is asking them for anger. An effective director will, instead, realize that the actor is interpreting the motivation of the character in a different way. They will take the actor aside and find out why she feels that the character is sad at this point. When they get to the bottom of it, either the actor will agree that the director’s understanding of the character’s motivation is more appropriate and will then, naturally, deliver the line with appropriate aggression, or the director will take onboard what the actor has understood and will change his/her own interpretation accordingly.

Here are some points to bear in mind when you are working with actors:

  1. Be sure that you have a shared understanding of the motivation of the character

  2. Remember to tell the actors that they are doing a good job

  3. Remember to give the actors appropriate breaks

  4. Make sure to rehearse with the actors as much as possible

  5. Don’t allow other people on the set to give their opinions about how a scene should be acted. This confuses the actor and undermines the director’s vision

  6. If you don’t agree with the way an actor is playing a scene, find out where your understanding of the character’s motivation is at odds with that of the actor

  7. Treat all the actors with equal respect. It is important to have a sense of team spirit rather than creating ‘prima donne’


Written and Practical Assignment

Work with your actors to create the back stories for their characters.

Document one of your character’s back stories and explain how this back story will help the to give the actor suitable motivation for the scenes in the script