What NOT to Say to an Actor

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Something I am constantly thinking about and trying to improve is understanding how to be a good partner to my cast. As a director, how can I help them arrive at the best performance possible? Part of the challenge (and fun) is learning each performer’s process—since every actor is different, some may hate a certain thing while others will benefit from it.

Chatting with your cast before ever stepping on set is paramount to getting on the same page and understanding what makes them tick. To that end, something I’ve always done is, debrief with my cast after each day, or at the end of production, to find out what worked for them and what didn’t. This helps me to constantly evolve my approach. It’s that thought process that led us to this latest episode! Hearing directly from experienced actors on what does and doesn’t help is invaluable in our pursuit to be great partners for them in production.

The Episode

Things that don't help

  • Saying Nothing
      • Actors love notes, even if that note is something small. Saying nothing will leave your actor uncertain. That uncertainty may allow some insecurity to creep in that will make it harder for them to do their job; or it could lead to them losing confidence in you as it shows you don’t understand the actor’s process.
  • Vague Feedback
      • When you are giving those notes, don’t be too vague or cryptic. Make your note specific and concise. Similar to saying nothing, being vague will likely leave your actor feeling as though you don’t know what you want. If that is the case, just tell them. If you are stuck, let them know—they are your partner in this. If you hide this from them, they will only lose trust in you. Bring them into your process, it’s why you hired them in the first place.
  • “What’s with your Face?” (Unconstructive criticism)
      • A general lack of empathy toward the actor’s position is a major problem with a lot of new directors. Without a good understanding of what it’s like to be under all the lights, in front of the lens, and stared at by everyone in the room, the odds are high that you will only make your cast’s job harder. The best way to stay away from horrible and insensitive notes like “what’s going on with your face?” is to get in front of the camera yourself. Do some acting, find out first hand what it feels like to be in those shoes. I guarantee that it will change the way you direct forever.
  • Bad attitude
      • A bad attitude from the director will trickle down to the entire cast/crew and make set-life miserable. The tone of the set starts at the top, heavily built by the director and lead cast. This is yet another way you are in partnership with them. Start on the right foot by taking the time to create an atmosphere where everyone feels safe to do their best work.

Never Do This!

  • Line reads
      • UNLESS your actor asks for them (which is rare), never try to impose YOUR performance onto your actor. You hired them to embody that role, make it their own, and bring their voice to it. They can’t do that if you are trying to give them yours. Of course, as always, there are exceptions to this, but be very cautious and make sure it is what your actor wants.
  • Being an A-Hole
      • Don’t be this. Never be this. It shouldn’t have to be said. To really be a good leader, you have to create a safe atmosphere for everyone to thrive in. Your job is to make sure you’ve constructed a working environment where each cast and crew member feels heard, seen, and able to do their best work. If you do this, they will charge into battle with you every single day!
  • Huffing and puffing
      • Actors are humans too. They aren’t your robots that perform seamlessly on command. Having empathy and realizing that there could be something in their life creating a block in that moment will allow you to be a good partner and help them get back on track and into the scene. Communication is key!
  • SEXIER!
      • Subjective notes that can be interpreted differently depending on who is reading them, will only cause problems. Once again, you could start losing your cast’s trust and leave them wondering “what does that mean?” Instead, do what the great John Badham suggests‚—instead of an adjective that could be lost in translation, give them something to play to, like an action or objective. Don’t tell them the end result—give them something they can use to get there through their own process.

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