How to direct actors to get the best possible performance

How do you extract the best performance from your actors? Rehearsal can be the key, but what is the fine line between proper preparation and over-rehearsing? As the director, your job is to steer your actors toward emotionally rich, convincing performances, so what is the best way to communicate your desires to your actors?

The pre-production process is important for your entire production team. Once actors are cast, they are often overlooked until it’s time to shoot, with the exception of an occasional costume fitting or two. While it’s difficult for a director to juggle so many tasks, particularly on low-budget productions, the time you spend with your actors in pre-production saves you both time and money during production and post. It essential for a film director to know how to direct actors.

Casting

It’s impossible to discuss the rehearsal process without briefly touching on the casting process. To know how to direct actors, it helps to know how to cast them. It’s difficult for an actor to deliver a great performance if he struggles to learn his lines. How can you tell if an actor will quickly learn lines?

Directors have a great opportunity during the casting process to discern this valuable piece of information. Give your potential actors one or two days to prepare for the audition by providing the sides — a short excerpt of the script — in advance of the audition. If an actor doesn’t know his lines, he can’t act; he’s simply reading the sides. Many Hollywood directors won’t cast an actor if they don’t know their sides by audition time. If you don’t provide the sides to your potential actors in advance, miss out on an invaluable piece of casting information.

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The table read

Knowing how to direct actors starts at the table read. Typically at a table read, both cast and key crew gather for an informal read-through of the script. Depending on the size and scope of your production, you might need more than one table read: a creative read for the actors and a technical read for the crew. Stress to both cast and crew that the read-through is workshop time to explore the script; it’s not about performance. Additionally, you may find it beneficial to digitally record the process.

Your writer should be present for the read-through with the cast. Any dialogue that does not sound natural should be changed now. In general, this is the time to isolate any final problems with the script and get a re-write. Oftentimes, your actors can offer great suggestions for problem areas of the script, including dialogue replacement, particularly if dealing with accents and ethnic references.

Film is a collaborative process, and it’s imperative not to consider the script an iron-clad document. While it is important to be respectful of the source material, the script will morph over time changing with interpretations by the director, actors, and, finally, the editor.

Game of Thrones table read

Don’t be afraid to stop the table read to allow your actors to ask questions such as what is the character’s motivation? What is the character’s back story? These are answers you may want to offer at the table read, or you may want to save this information for a private discussion with the actor.

Immediately after the table read, an intimate social such as a BBQ or wine and cheese party can be a great opportunity to let your team’s creative juices flow. Besides being the perfect opportunity to let cast and crew become better acquainted, it’s a great time for individuals to have access to the team to ask questions or seek clarifications.

The value of the director as an acting coach

Did you know that many A-list Hollywood actors have acting coaches? While your cast may not have access to or be able to afford an acting coach. Even if you’re not paying the actors yourself, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t know how to direct actors.

An acting coach will usually help the actor break down the script. While it’s difficult as a busy director to spend that much time individually with each actor, you can still provide the same homework assignments that an acting coach would. Remember, the goal isn’t to have your actors doing busy work. Make it meaningful and interactive. Your feedback will speak volumes.

How to coach

First, have your actor map out his character arc throughout the script. Where is his character when the story begins and ends? What are the major turning points for that character?

If neither the writer nor the script has provided a backstory for your actor’s character, ask your actor to write up a brief bio for the character. It’s important that you work with the actor on this assignment to ensure that this backstory does not conflict with the script. This is also a great opportunity for you to share with your actor your thoughts on the character’s motivations and backstory. Again, this is a collaboration. There are no right or wrong answers. You want to support your actor and allow him to own this character.

Have your actor take a step out of the character’s mind and look at the character’s physicality. Is the character anxious all the time; how would the actor physically manifest this? Maybe your character served in the war and now has a pronounced limp. Maybe a character has low self-esteem, and the actor interprets this by slouching. If you encourage your actors to explore a character with more than just their facial expressions, by incorporating their entire body, they’ll achieve better performance.

Consider the character’s voice. Read a scene with your actor. Ask your actor to deliver three different takes on that scene. Listen to the actor’s voice. Is the delivery too soft, too hard, too edgy, not edgy enough, etc.? This is a great time to experiment;  the stakes are low, and you’re not paying a crew to stand by and idly watch.

Next, have your actor analyze each scene that she’s in. For each scene she should notate the overall purpose of the scene; how does the scene move the story forward? She should also understand her character’s goal for that scene; what is her character trying to achieve in that specific scene that moves her toward her final goal or arc?

Knowing how to direct actors includes understanding the emotional state of your talent. Remember that the acting process tends to leave an individual feeling open and vulnerable. It’s important that your actors trust you and feel safe. You’ll get better results as a coach instead of a director. Try not to criticize your actors. A great approach to redirect your actor is to say, That was great; now let’s try it a different way. By doing this, you build confidence in your actor. It may be hard to be calm and supportive when the clock is ticking and the crew is waiting, but screaming criticisms at your actors will tend to stifle their performances. By using a coaching approach in pre-production, you’re one step closer to ensuring a calm, encouraging demeanor when things get stressful on the set.

Rehearsal

There is a fine line between rehearsing enough and rehearsing too much. Because of this, there are some directors who will rehearse with cameras rolling. They might claim it’s to get a novice cast accustomed to the cameras or help a novice DP and crew prepare for actual shooting, but in many cases, it’s to capture a unique performance by the actor, a performance that happens only when the material is fresh. With this in mind, some directors will rehearse parts of the script with the entire cast but save emotionally charged scenes for one-on-one work with the individual actor.

For scenes that involve anger, rage, laughing or crying, utilize sense memory techniques with your actors. Ask them to recall an incident that evoked the emotion you’re trying to bring to a scene. Once they’re in that emotional space, rehearse the scene. Try to repeat this exercise with the actors until the emotion naturally occurs in the scene.

If you have access to the set during rehearsals, you probably want to work on blocking. Different directors have different approaches to this. Some think that requiring the actor to hit specific marks is distracting from the acting process. Actors trained for the stage typically appreciate blocking direction; cinematographers also like to know how the actors will be moving during a scene.

Remember that movement is important when thinking about how to direct actors. If you have a film where the characters just sit around and talk, your audience will get bored rather quickly. During initial rehearsals, see how your actors naturally move throughout the scene. Encourage them to be active on the set, embodying their environment with physicality. Unlike a play, many scripts do not have specific blocking information such as Character X crosses to upstage left to answer the phone, if your characters don’t intuitively achieve the blocking of a scene, you will need to block for them.

Blocking character movement on floor with tape.
Blocking character movement on floor with tape.

Allowing your characters to rehearse in costume can also be beneficial particularly if you’re doing a sci-fi, fantasy or period piece. The costume and accessories can help the actor transform into character. Practicing in modern costumes can also be beneficial to actors, allowing the novelty of the wardrobe to wear off in rehearsal.

Rehearsal time isn’t just about practicing lines; it’s about establishing characters’ relationships with the other actors. If your characters are supposed to be members of a football team, get them to work out together and play football as a team. Particularly when working with child actors, it’s important to facilitate a natural bond that characters would share such as a mother and daughter, father and son or siblings. Perhaps the actors might go together to a baseball game or a theme park in character. The more inexperienced your actors, the more time they should spend in character-focused bonding activities.

Knowing how to direct actors includes allowing them some creative freedom. Improvisation is also a wonderful opportunity to allow your actors to own their characters. Create a scenario for the characters outside of the script, and allow them to play out the scene. Perhaps you want the characters to play out the day before the script begins or moments before two characters meet. Improv can also be a great teaching opportunity; swap roles with your actors allowing them to step into the shoes of other characters in the script and gain perspective into the relationships as well as how each character fits into the unique world represented in the script. Get involved in the improv games by acting out characters in the script so they can see how you would embody that character without you directly saying, “Play that character like this.”

Finally, prepare your actors for non-linear shooting during rehearsals. The novice actor and the child actor can have difficulties shooting scenes out of sequence; remember to rehearse scenes non-linearly with your actors so they will be prepared if you decide to shoot the last scene first.

Before cameras roll

Knowing how to direct actors includes being aware of their well-being. Try to give your actors at least a few days off before you start production. This will not only ensure that they are well-rested but hopefully provide freshness to their performance when they return to set. While reminding them of set expectations are important, remember to send them off on a break with a positive mindset by praising them for their hard work during rehearsals. While rehearsals are important for the actor, they’re also important for the director to practice saying, “That was great, now let’s try that a different way.”

Sidebar: The pros and cons of hiring a professional actor

If you’re looking to take your production to the next level, you should consider hiring professional actors. With tax incentives for film and television popping up in almost every state, it’s now fairly easy to find professional actors in many major metropolitan areas who belong to either the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) or the American Federation of Television or Radio Artists (AFTRA). Working with a professional cast can usually speed up your production by requiring less prep time and fewer rehearsals as well as nailing a scene with fewer takes. Also, if an actor has managed to make it into the union, they are accustomed to showing up on time for early morning calls. Besides the contracts and paperwork, the biggest drawback to working with SAG-AFTRA actors is having to be mindful of meal breaks and turnaround times, which can result in costly financial penalties.

Dealing with any union can be challenging and SAG-AFTRA is no exception; however, there are many very talented actors who belong to the union who will work for very reasonable rates particularly if you are producing digital content (for the web) or low budget independent film. It’s definitely worth exploring the options at www.sagindie.org.