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?

In a nutshell

  • Understanding the script is crucial for directors. It enables them to effectively communicate story, character motivation and arc to actors, ensuring a strong foundation for performance.
  • Building a healthy actor-director relationship is essential for collaborative success. It fosters trust, respect and open communication that allows both parties to work together in realizing their creative vision.
  • Employing various rehearsal techniques and on-set tools, such as table reads, blocking, walk-throughs, improvisation and emotional recall, empowers actors to deliver authentic and powerful performances. This elevates the overall quality of the project.

As a director, you play an integral role in getting the best possible performance out of your actors. You must guide them through the creative process and give them the necessary tools to bring their characters to life. You must identify what works best for each actor, as everyone has unique strengths and weaknesses. Understanding different techniques to evoke a particular emotion or feeling in a scene is crucial. By understanding how actors work, you can ensure that your cast delivers top-notch performances for your project. Let’s explore how you can direct your actors to bring out the best possible performances.

Know the script

Knowing the script inside and out is one of the most essential components in directing actors. As a director, you must be able to communicate the script’s story, character motivation and story arc. Since most productions are shot non-chronologically, informing actors of their position in the story is vital. This foundation allows you to answer any questions actors may have about the emotions and larger story their scene is connected to.

Building a healthy performer-director relationship

It’s vital to establish a healthy actor-director relationship. Many first-time directors make the mistake of thinking that actors are just order-takers. However, actors, like directors, also have a creative vision for their characters. It’s your job as a director to work with the actor to bring your vision to life. This all begins with mutual trust, respect and open communication.

Trust and respect

Establish clear expectations and goals from the beginning to maintain a collaborative atmosphere throughout the production process. The director should create a safe and supportive environment that allows actors to take risks and explore their characters’ emotions and motivations.


Great directors are excellent communicators. An effective director should communicate their vision clearly to the actors while also being open to their ideas and input. As a director, you want to provide constructive feedback and direction that helps actors achieve their best performances without being overly critical or negative.

When communicating with an actor, avoid line reading — where you repeat the actor’s lines how you want them to say them. Giving actors information about the subtext behind the line is more professional and empowering.


  • Do say this: “Can you emphasize ‘not,’ almost like you’re annoyed instead of frustrated at Hellen?”
  • Don’t say this: “Say it like, ‘Hellen, you’re not listening to me.’”


Rehearsals are a critical part of any successful film production. They offer the actors and crew the opportunity to work together, iron out any issues, and ensure everyone is on the same page. With rehearsal, productions can practice cohesion, continuity and timing. Here are a few rehearsal techniques that best help the actor.

Table reads

Table reads involve the actors and director sitting around a table and reading through the entire script together. This gives you, as the director, an opportunity to hear how the dialogue on the page sounds when read by the actor. It also allows the actors to get a feel for their lines’ pacing, timing and context.

Here is an example table read for the final episode of “The Office” (2005 – 2013).


Blocking is the process of deciding and directing where the actors will stand and move during each scene. This is a physical rehearsal for what movement will happen at different parts of the scene. As a director, it’s your job to connect action and emotion to the scene. Stage directions, stage business, props and even proximity to their scene partner heavily influence an actor’s line delivery.

Walk-throughs vs. run-throughs

A walk-through is a rehearsal in which a scene is performed in sequence, and actors can work out timing, lines and blocking. The goal of the walk-through is to rehearse the full scene in sequence. It’s called a walk-through because it’s typically done at a slower pace, and the director may still give notes as they work through the scene. A run-through refers to performing the entire scene from start to finish, complete with wardrobe, props and an operating camera, without interruptions. Many people call this the final rehearsal, as it helps you grasp the timing and pacing before the filming begins.

On-set tools


Improvisation is an incredibly valuable tool for getting natural, authentic performances from actors. Improvising typically involves going off-script and allowing the actors to use their own words in the scene while acting and reacting in character. It’s important to note that improvisation still requires a director’s direction. You will still need to provide the emotional direction and the objective for the end of the scene. This helps actors respond more authentically to the emotions and actions of their scene partners, bringing a greater sense of realism to their performances.

Memory exercises

Directors can incorporate memory exercises into rehearsals to help actors access their emotions and connect with their characters. These exercises can include asking actors to recall specific memories or experiences from their own lives that relate to the scene or character. Directors can also guide actors in focusing on sensory details or body sensations to trigger emotional responses. By incorporating memory exercises into rehearsals, directors can help actors deliver more authentic and nuanced performances while also creating a supportive and collaborative environment on set.

Emotional recall

Emotional recall is a powerful directing tool that can deliver powerful performances, but it can also take a lot out of an actor. As the name implies, emotional recall involves guiding actors to recall specific emotions from their personal experiences. Rather than instructing, “This scene is sad, so we’ll need you to cry,” an emotional recall direction would be phrased as “The character needs to cry in this scene; can you access a personal emotion that might bring you to tears?” Because of the personal nature of the emotional recollection, the actor brings authenticity and depth to their performances.

As previously mentioned, the success of this approach relies heavily on establishing solid trust between the director and the actor. As a director, you need to encourage the actor to identify specific moments or events in their lives similar to those in the script. The actor can then use those memories to trigger the appropriate emotions and behaviors for the scene.

As a director, you must create a safe and supportive environment for the actor to explore their emotions without feeling overwhelmed or triggered. Sometimes this looks like letting the actor have some time alone away from the set or even having everyone except for the director leave so the actor can feel safe to express themselves in such a vulnerable state. The director should also be sensitive to the actor’s emotional state and provide guidance and support as needed.

Guiding actors through emotional recall can result in powerful performances, but handling it with care and sensitivity is crucial to prioritize the actor’s emotional health.

Be aware that different schools of thought regarding highly emotional scene work exist. Some actors use their personal experiences in their acting, as shown above, while others are trained not to rely on their own lives for inspiration. Finding the emotional resources to cry in a scene is mainly the internal work of the actor. Often, professional actors won’t need much help at all.

Foster a healthy actor-director relationship

Overall, a healthy actor-director relationship leads to a successful film production. Various methods to direct scenes empower actors to perform at the height of their capability. It requires patience, dedication and hard work from all parties involved, but the result can be a beautiful and compelling work of art.

Contributing editors to this article include Ricky Anderson II and W.H. Bourne.