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  • Daniel Harding


They're just like the rest of us, I promise. The only difference is that they are on screen and we're not. I know from experience that working with actors can be daunting for filmmakers, so here are some thoughts and tips to help

They're not aliens

As obvious as this sounds, I think a lot of filmmakers treat actors as though they are some sort of separate entity, void of human emotions. There's an etiquette on set, and rightly so in many cases, that put actors on a pedestal, and I feel this is the route cause for a sense of alienation you may feel towards actors. But rest assured, in my experience, most of them are just like us (us being the crew). So I suggest treating them like they're part of process like you would do anyone else. Most of the time, they want to feel part of it too. Experienced actors often reject this etiquette, and will feel alienated by it as well. "Talent to set", meh. I guess talent sounds more complimentary than saying "actors", but they are actors, so what's the problem? It can make them seem more unapproachable than they really are. Don't get me wrong, there are some cases when an actor should be left well alone - often for concentration purposes, but they also want to feel part of the team. If you make them feel too much like outsiders, this may have a detrimental affect on their performance. It's pretty obvious when an actor wants to be left alone, so try not to be too talkative or distracting. They need to prepare and concentrate on what's coming next. But don't treat them like aliens either.

Give direction

Actors love direction, probably more than their own kids. In my experience, actors know that a little bit of direction breeds confidence. They've probably spent hours, if not days, learning and practising the script, so to feel zoned in again to something new is a huge benefit to them. Learning the script is obviously very important, but it can often kill spontaneity - which is something a lot of actors look and wish for. I've worked with hundreds of actors, and I don't think I've met a single one who hasn't been appreciative of a bit of direction. This means you have to learn the script too, because how can you give direction if you don't know each character as well as the actor playing them does? Because it's their character, they're going to learn it in depth, so you have to talk on that level. If you suggest a bit of direction that goes against what they have in mind for their character, the professional actor will pull you up on it. You may hear: "My character wouldn't do that", which is a fair thing for them to say. If challenged, you need to be able to explain why their character would do that - assuming you are the director. If you can't think of anything, be honest and tell them. Say the last take was spot-on, but you'd like to see if there is anything else in the can. Invite them to try something different. Most actors won't feel comfortable doing this (hence the need for direction), so try and give them something. It can be the smallest thing but it can have the greatest affect. But like anything, too much will be too much. Don't talk their heads off about motivation and backstory. This will bore the hell out of them and best kept for rehearsals or if they specifically ask you in preparation. But help the actor out. Give them a note or two during a scene to help liven up their performance and make it real.

Each actor is different

Whilst my tips may work for some actors, know that it won't work for all of them. Each actor is different, so if you're directing a project (especially if it's your first time), acknowledge that each actor is going to need something different from you. I feel it is my job as a director to find this out, and quickly. We don't have much time on set, so whenever I work with an actor, I'm tuned in to finding out what they need from me to help with their performance. Some actors may want to talk and talk about everything, but others want to be left alone. Treating an actor how they don't want to be treated will only work against you in the long run - especially if it's a longer project, as these differences will inevitably reveal themselves once the honeymoon period is over. It is also my job not to expect an actor to work the way I want to work. There are many things I prefer to do, but if the actor doesn't want to do them, I won't. Why create more problems for yourself? As a director, I am reassuring, but I also don't need to win a battle with someone on set to prove my authority, so I like to compromise - as long as it doesn't go against what the script needs, obviously. All I care about is making sure I get the best possible performance from everyone involved. I've had issues with actors in the past, it's inevitable. But I try not to let those problems known (if at all) until after we've wrapped. What's the point? If an actor has a problem on set, for whatever reason, as the director it's your job to find out and solve it. They'll love you for it, and will work harder and better.

Create an environment they can work in

This is something I don't think they teach at film school - I don't know for sure, as I didn't go. But from my experience, it seems to be the thing most filmmakers forget to do. This could come under the 'they're not aliens' point, but there is a little more psychology to this one. What do actors need? A script. But what else? They need a space to perform! If they don't feel comfortable, they won't perform. They will just regurgitate the script - nervously and awkwardly. They'll be highly self-conscious, which is bad. You want them to be in the zone - as though no one is watching. If people are talking, laughing, or on their phones (it happens!), whilst an actor is either preparing, or worse, performing, this will clearly have a negative affect on what they're going to give you. Your job as a director (assuming you are one) is to create an environment an actor can perform to the best of their ability in. If they can't, or you don't, then it's your fault, not the actors. If you're not happy with the work they're doing, ask yourself why? Put yourself in their shoes. You've cast them after all, you must think they're good. Being an actor is a very self-aware role - they're vulnerable. Imagine having to perform in front of a bunch of people you've only just met... Think of all the self-doubt and anxiety you'd feel. Actors get used to this, but if you can help them out, even just a little bit, it'll put them at ease and you'll get a better performance.

Watching playback on set

Occasionally you might get an actor ask to watch playback. This hardly ever happens to me, but when it does, I say no. This is because I am 100% sure that it will have a negative affect on their overall performance. If I want something different, it's for me to decide. I am the director. When I'm filming showreel scenes, it's different because I hardly know the client and what they're capable of, so I want them to see and tell me. But when it's a professional set, I don't want any other opinions apart from my own. This probably isn't the case for all sets, but on mine, I prefer to be in charge - sorry! But directing is a tough job, so you need to be in control of what's happening. If an actor changes something without you suggesting it first, how can you know what's coming next? It's totally up to you how you want to play it, but in my experience, the only thing watching playback on set will do is kill whatever thing you are looking to achieve. Once you're happy, move on. If you're not and they tell you, suggest going for another one as a safety, but I recommend not letting them watch it back. It bursts the illusion, and 99 times out of 100, the performance is never better. At best, it's the same. But now the actor has something in their mind that they are trying to do or avoid. This is bad. If you need to watch playback for technical reasons, turn off the audio and only let the necessary people watch it, i.e. the DP or focus puller. In my opinion, no one should be watching playback on set.

Lastly, keep them in the loop

Once the film is in the can, it may take you months (sometimes years) to get the edit together. In this time, an actor is hanging by the phone waiting for someone to let them know it's finished. They are both eager and anxious to watch the film, but keeping them in the loop with the production will go a long way to making them feel part of the team. Even if you're still some way off, letting them know is a good thing. It's their work as well, after all. Ignoring them, or ghosting them (which happens more often than you'd expect!) is a huge no-no. If you start to ignore your actors, this reputation will spread like wildfire and people won't work for you again. I hate being ignored, and I love being updated. Consider how you'd feel if you were them, and treat everyone accordingly.

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