How to Direct Actors and Get Amazing Performances in Your Film

This post will cover some advanced tips on working with actors: casting them, directing them and managing them. As always, these tips are based on my own hard-earned practical experience.

Casting: go for the absolute best (and learn to recognize it)

I have already shared some basic tips on the process of casting actors on my website. Here I will deal with much more advanced issues. I will start with the immensely important issue of choosing the right actors for your project.

1. My strong advice to you is this: don’t mess around with mediocre actors and amateurs – go straight to the top. Your chances of landing a bona fide A-list actor are close to zero, but I can assure you that there are a myriad of extremely talented and charismatic professional actors around who are very accessible and who would love to work on your project for less than their regular fee if they like you and your project. They have the looks, talent and charisma of movie stars, but haven’t made it big yet. They can add so much value to your project it’s not even funny. Grab them!

2. Most independent filmmakers cast lackluster actors in their film, which seriously compromises its quality, to the point of making it unwatchable schlock. I know an indie filmmaker who has awesome filmmaking skills but has terrible taste with actors, as a result of which his films have a quality ceiling that they cannot exceed.

Here are the main reasons for which, in my opinion, these filmmakers get their casting so appallingly wrong:

a) They cast their actor friends without looking at the wider pool of real talent. What an amateurish mistake!

b) They are not ambitious enough and don’t understand that they have a realistic prospect of landing the best actors if they know how to sell themselves and their project.

c) They don’t seek the help of professional casting directors. As with every other crew member, you would be surprised at just how willing casting directors are to help you for less than their normal fee if they like you and your project. If people don’t like you or your project, you need to work on that before you embark on pre-production.

d) More generally, they have poor taste: they don’t know what real attractiveness is, they don’t know what makes a screen performance truly great, they don’t have a deep grasp of coolness, charisma or gravitas, for example. Their script may call for a femme fatale or a quiet alpha male, but they wouldn’t recognise the real deal in those archetypes if it was staring at them in the face. They always go for the actor who is 90% right for the role, instead of the one who just IS the character! They just don’t get it. Some of these filmmakers are brilliant with camerawork, writing or editing, but their lack of taste with actors destroys their efforts. They would be fine if they could hire a casting director and trust her taste, but they don’t do that, either. This is self-sabotage.

The bottom line is this: be ambitious, cast your net wide, seek the help of professional casting directors and choose the best.

3. Avoid hardcore theater actors. Their style is calibrated for the stage, not for the screen, and unless they also have some real film acting experience, they just don’t understand that in movies, less really is more. As importantly, theater actors tend not to be familiar with the filmmaking process and do not understand the importance of hitting their marks accurately, shifting their position by a few inches to make sure the framing is perfect, the long waits in between set-ups, and so forth. As a result of all these film-specific complications, the first time they work on a film, theater actors tend to have the impression that the director doesn’t know what he’s doing. The over-acting issue is in itself more than enough to discount them. Of course there are always exceptions, but exceptions do not make rules. Some people find my opinion tough to swallow, but I will not soften my message to assuage fragile egos.

Directing actors

4. What you need to understand is this: in film acting, less is more. A strong approach for outstanding screen performances is as follows: choose seriously talented film actors who have a strong presence even when they are not doing anything, have a vision for the performance, communicate it, and encourage them to experiment. Use subtext when directing actors.

5. My favourite actors include Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Leonardo DiCaprio, Anthony Hopkins, Mark Ruffalo and Ed Harris, among others. I am not the only one who finds them compelling – millions of other people do!What do they have in common? They have charisma, they have presence, and, above all, they draw you into their character without doing much. I can assure you that they did not become famous stars through coincidence.

I can also assure you that there are many film actors who are just as charismatic and talented but nowhere near as famous and expensive. These are the ones you want in your projects. Seek them, recognize them, make them fall in love with your project and deliver excellence.

6. A quick word of warning: while you should have A-list actors in mind as the standard of quality to seek, don’t look for clones: no actor can be more Anthony Hopkins than Anthony Hopkins himself. Find someone who is comparably charismatic and talented, but also completely distinguishable and unique and totally “his own person.” This is seriously important! Cheap copies are lame.

7. Actors love to be directed. Many inexperienced filmmakers hold the misconception that there is a constant conflict between what the director wants and what the actor wants. The opposite is true! Truly talented and professional actors simply want to show up on their sets having learned their lines and be told exactly what to do. I have had the privilege of working with a good range professional actors and this is the one thing they have in common: they arrive on the set fully prepared, full of energy, full of positivity, they report to the director and ask what they must do. They listen, they do as they are told, they stand on their marks without complaining — for hours on end if necessary — and then they leave tired but happy, having spent a day doing what they love. This is what you should be aiming for. I can assure you it is a real joy!

8. It is frequently said that directing is 50% casting. I agree with the spirit of this statement: if you cast actors who truly are the best for the role and are also very professional, you will be amazed at the results you will get. Conversely, if the actor is only 95% right for the role, no amount of direction will compensate for that intrinsic shortcoming.

9. Here is one of the coolest things about working with talented actors: as a director, one always has a vision for every shot in the film, and every second of that shot. With brilliant actors, their performance and on-the-fly subtle improvisation always yields performances that far exceed what one imagined in pre-production. You review the take on the monitor and think “my goodness, this is so fresh, so brilliant, so unexpected!”

10. The key with achieving such amazing performances is this: the actors must show up on the set having learned their lines perfectly, so that they never have to spend a single second worrying about them. You should then encourage them to inject a little creativity and spontaneity into their performance. Tell them not to be afraid to do some light paraphrasing and re-wording of their lines during the performance if they feel inspired. The results are absolutely amazing when this happens, because you no longer see a talented actor giving a good performance – you start to see the real character, as if it was actually a real person who just happened to be spied by the camera during the course of real life. (This tip is generally not applicable to TV commercials, in which lines must be followed strictly, for branding reasons.)

In my experience:

Strong cast + familiarity with their lines + light improvisation and flexibility + directing using subtext = intoxicatingly seductive performances.

I have personally had this happen in some of my projects and it is amazing. The first time I noticed this was on my very first film. I filed it away in my mind, used it subsequently, and I’m now sharing it with you.

11. Praise loudly, correct quietly. It is absolutely essential to maintain a positive atmosphere on set at all times, and as the director, this is 100% your responsibility. At the end of the take, give loud praise to anyone who did a particularly good job: this does not just apply to the actors – it also applies to the camera operator, dolly grip, crane operator, and so on. If somebody did a particularly good job and gave you what you wanted, praise them and thank them in such a way that everyone on the set can hear you.

Conversely, if you need to give direction to an actor because he or she is really getting it wrong, go to them and give your direction quietly and politely. This is a private conversation and must be treated as such. No one else should be able to hear you. The purpose of this is to avoid humiliating the actor. You can give loud directions with the best of intentions, but many actors will find this uncomfortable and it may damage your relationship with them. I have heard of directors who deliberately treat actors roughly when they want real pain to be apparent in their performance, but it’s really not my style and I do not recommend it.

12. Film acting is a job. Film acting is of course also an art, but in my view it is above all an occupation, just like being a dentist or a bricklayer. This means that you should only work with professionals. Professional film actors respond extremely well to direction partly because this is their job — this is what they do for a living! I am able to make this comparison because I have also worked with less professional actors and found that they respond less well to direction, which means they usually only have one take on a character, and if it is not the one you want, you are stuck with it no matter how much direction you give. Avoid!

Being friends with actors

I will conclude with some brief thoughts on being friends with actors. It can be difficult for a director to be friends with actors, because there is a potential conflict of interest. Actors always hope that their director friends will cast them in their projects, but the truth is that the director should always be completely dispassionate and seek the best actor for the role, even if it means casting a 200-character movie without including a single one of your friends. If you want outstanding results you have to be professional, you have to be ambitious, you have to be dispassionate. That said, it is also true that real professionals understand that there will not be a role for them in every project their friend shoots.

The result is that I tend to get along better with successful actors, because they don’t care if I cast them or not and therefore there is no neediness to put a strain on our friendship. The less successful actors, on the other hand, can be exceedingly difficult to handle. I am telling you this because I do not want your projects to be damaged by poor casting decisions.

It is worth repeating: if your cast is anything less than earth-shatteringly stellar, you really are just wasting your time and money, and you might as well not shoot the project at all.

Go for the best – always – no exceptions! Good luck! 🙂

7 Replies to “How to Direct Actors and Get Amazing Performances in Your Film”

  1. From my experience so far, theater actors have been behaving in the way you described “professional” actors and the “professional” actors have been so “un-professional” that I don’t want to cast them anymore. Theater actors come to the set with their lines learned and when there is down time, they are going over the script(s) and get to bed as early as possible so they are fresh the next day. They listen to my direction and don’t complain. The “professionals” come to the set with their lines kinda learned and hoping to “ad-lib” as if the script was merely an outline. The first thing I hear from them is “you don’t really want this word for word do you?” During down time, they are recording video for an audition for another project or chatting on the phone. They stay up late working on audition materials for other projects. They sometimes don’t listen to direction either.

    One thing I do like about professional talent is that from my experience so far, they will not take direction from anyone else other than the director. When I was first starting out, I didn’t have my hiring process perfected for hiring crew and a crew member once thought they could tell my talent what should be done. The talent looked at me like “who is this guy talking to?” and from that moment I had a true understanding of the power dynamics needed on the set and never had an issues after that.

    This has been consistent. I’m not arguing that what you are saying “should” be the norm, only that I do see there are many “professional” actors who in my opinion simply aren’t professional at all and its enough of them to make it feel like the unprofessionalism is the norm. Including ones sent from casting agents. I’ve also had casting agents go through great lengths to get their talent hired at the expense of their own professionalism.

    I’ve had no problems with theater people going to big but I believe that has just been because of my casting process and I’ve been able to get ones who truly are remarkable in their ability to make the switch and behave in the professional way that I need. I prefer to work with them for many other reasons as well but no time here to list them all. 🙂

    At any rate, I’ve definitely made casting it’s own entity in my productions taking as much time if not more as all the other pre-production tasks combined.

  2. Personally, I think that some projects require novice actors. Two of my favorite directors, Wes Anderson and the Swedish director Roy Andersson, frequently employ normal people who do not have much acting experience. Granted, both of these directors have a quirky, unusual style completely removed from mainstream films. My point is that some styles of film can benefit from the nuances of amateur actors. This obviously does not apply to most projects, but I think this is a point that needs to be addressed.
    P.S. If you are interested in seeing a good example of amateur actors being used to heighten the atmosphere, check out the work of Roy Andersson, especially “Songs from the Second Floor”.

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