I love working with with actors as a TV director and also as an acting coach at the Met Film School, Ealing Studios.
Here’s what I tell my student directors about working with actors on camera:
1) Actors are people too.
They are not an alien species with extraordinary demands or mysterious needs. They’re like you. They just want to feel comfortable so they can do their best work for you.
2) Listen to them.
The question I am asked most often by new directors is ‘What if an actor refuses to do what I say?’ The reality is this – an actor hardly ever says no. You are the director and they want to give you what you want. If they question your direction it’s usually because they don’t understand what you’ve said and they want to make sure they get it right. Sometimes an actor will have a different idea about the character or hesitate because they feel uncomfortable with your request. Talk to them about why – they may well have a point!
3) Don’t leave actors in the dark.
Filming involves very long periods of hanging around, especially for actors. Tell them what’s happening if there’s a delay. And let them take a proper break if a shot is going to take a while to set up. And it sounds really obvious, but make sure they aren’t cold, hungry, thirsty or in too much discomfort while you get that difficult, time consuming shot.
4) Let them know if it’s good.
Film and TV schedules move so fast the most commonly heard expression on set is ‘Moving on.’ This may mean you’ve approved a take. But it doesn’t sound too exciting to the actors. Whenever you can, go over and let them know you’re happy with their performance.
5) Trust them to do the work for you
Simon McBurney, the director of Theatre de Complicité, has said that there are three kinds of actor. The first kind says, ‘Tell me what to do!’ The second kind says, ‘Don’t tell me what to do!’ The third kind (the kind we all love to work with) says, ‘Well I’ve been doing some thinking and maybe we could try this? What do you think?’ It’s a collaboration and the best actors can show you things you never dreamed of. So don’t prescribe their actions or speech, let them show you their take on it first and go from there. However…
6) Be specific in your instructions.
Actors do want direction. You have to be clear and make decisions, so they in their turn can make choices about how to play things. The moments you identify must be precise, the language and tone you use is important so make every suggestion or response count.
7) Have fun!
The more relaxed you can be, the better. Keep some freedom to change things, don’t lock it down too fast. Get to know your actors as people. The time you spend with your actors off set can be as valuable – and as much fun – as the time you spend on it.