10 Tips When Directing Inexperienced or First-Time Actors

Acting is difficult. Even on the professional stage, we see plenty of A-list actors who shine in certain roles and struggle with others. Likewise, we often see directors who almost always seem to get good performances out of their actors, like Paul Thomas Anderson, even when directing inexperienced or first-time actors. Compare this to other directors who are known more for their technical ability, rather than director-actor relationship, and you can see where their actors give less consistent performances.

One of the most important aspects of being a director is gauging when your actors are giving a solid performance, and what you can do to improve the situation if they are not. Acting is something which can make or break your short or feature films, which can capture or disillusion audiences. It is critical to get it right. As I mentioned earlier, sometimes even well-experienced actors give bad performances. So how do we make sure we get good performances out of inexperienced or first time actors? Luckily, we have combined 10 tips, if followed correctly, will guarantee you always get a perfect performance from your actors.

1. Take the casting process seriously

It is easy to rush the casting process, especially if you are working to a deadline or working with a low-budget. But this is quite possibly the most important stage of ensuring you will get the performances you require from your actors.

As I touched on in the introduction, it is possible to be an amazing actor, but not quite be right for a certain role. We have all seen movies where a well-known, talented actor is cast in a role that they do not quite fit.

Alternatively, we see actors, especially on long running TV shows, where their personality sort of matches that of the character they are playing. This is not to say that your actors should basically be your characters, but it helps if they have the same energy and are on the same sort of wavelength as your character. This way they do not need to change their entire personality and mannerisms, but just act as an extension of themselves, rather than as a totally different person. Work to your actors strengths.

For more comprehensive advice on hiring the right actors, please click here.

2. Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse

And when you’re sick of rehearsing… rehearse some more.

Seriously, inexperienced or first time actors will make a lot of “mistakes”. Rehearsing is the best time to iron out these mistakes and get the performance you want out of your actors. You do not want to be working on a tight-schedule, where you are paying daily for your locations, equipment hire, actors and crew – only to be unable to get a take right because of one of your inexperienced actors. You are better off making sure you and your actors are on the same page, before you sink all that money into the production. This will ease a lot of the pressure off on the day of the shoot.

3. Treat your actors with respect

This is something which should go without saying, but unfortunately is far too common in the independent filmmaking world. Alfred Hitchcock was famous for claiming that actors should be treated like cattle. This backward way of thinking was shocking in 1962, and is certainty outdated now.

If you respect your actors, they will respect you back. This will help form a level of trust which is instrumental in forming a positive working relationship. There are absolutely zero excuses for belittling or berating your actors.

4. Build a safe space

Actors have to put themselves on the line, in front of other actors, the crew and the audience. This is quite a daunting prospect, especially as their reputation and, consequently, their livelihood could depend on the quality of their performance.

It is important that they know that they are in good hands and feel safe to try out new ways of acting a scene, or taking a fresh perspective on a take which may be entirely left-field to what the director or screenwriter has interpreted for the character. They need to know that it is okay to try fresh ideas which may or may not work. Filmmaking is a collaborative art, not a dictatorship. As a filmmaker, it is important to leave your ego at the door. A good idea is a good idea, regardless of who makes the suggestion. The effect will be the same on the end result.

One way to encourage a safe space is by building a rapport with your cast and crew. Perhaps spend some time outside of work to get to know each other as friends. The type of atmosphere you create on set will also determine this, for example Taika Waititi is known for keeping his sets light hearted, which allows a positive feel on the film set.

5. Have a one-to-one session

Every actor will have a different way of working. As a director, it is your responsibility to figure out the actor’s preferred working style and make sure you work with them in a way which will result in the best performance for the camera.

Whilst most directors often just stick to doing a reading of their script then group rehearsals with all their actors, I have found that when I sit down individually with each actor and speak to them about their working style and the character, I am able to get the best performances out of them. This also leads to a better working relationship, making it more likely that will want to continue to work with you in the future.

Some actors love to go into depth about their character, what emotions they will be feeling during certain scenes, what their motivations are behind their characters etc. These are often fun discussions where you get to really explore the character and how they would react. Don’t be afraid to change the script or shooting style if you explore unchartered territory which improves the story.

Another pieces of advice is that if you are working on a digital camera, let it keep rolling between different versions of the take. Do not shout cut. Some actors need to get into a certain headspace and continuously cutting between takes could ruin their concentration. Speak to the actors and find what works for them.

6. Allow the actors to have creative freedom

The actors will have their own interpretation of the character which may be different to yours as a director, or what the screenwriter originally intended. This is not necessarily a bad thing. A dedicated actor should be able to explore the character from many different perspectives.

Let them actor know that you are open to interpretation and ideas. If they are given creative freedom, they could add an additional texture to the character which you had not considered.

7. Feedback

The actors will be looking to you as a director to let them know whether or not you are happy with their performance. There is nothing more unhelpful than a director shouting “Do it again!” and letting the actors know they are unhappy with their acting, without explaining why.

Be specific in your feedback. If your actor was becoming far too emotional, ask them to dial it back. If they are under-acting, suggest some hand gestures or movements they could incorporate into their performance in order to keep it dynamic.

Don’t forget that everyone responds to different direction in different ways. Learn to adapt your style and explain the same point in different ways. I cannot stress this enough. Different actors will respond to different cues, learn how to explain your point in multiple ways until the explanation resonates with the actor.

One method I have personally found particularly useful when shooting is showing your actors the footage, so they can see how they look on camera. You can then go through the footage and explain what you liked, what could be changed and how you would go about improving it.

8. Order your scenes

Whilst the order of the scenes is usually done on what makes the most sense logistically. Where possible, also consider the experience level of the actors in this decision.

Where the actor is relatively inexperienced, they may struggle to give the most emotionally draining performance right off the bat, first thing in the morning. Maybe work up to this performance by adding it towards the back end of the day when they are warmed up.

It sometimes helps being able to shoot in order, rather than out of sequence, where possible. This allows actors to organically work through the character’s natural arc.

9. Be flexible

If you are working with inexperienced actors, you cannot expect everything to go right or as planned. There are two ways in which you should be flexible:

Firstly, there needs to be some element of flexibility incorporated into your schedule. The actors may take longer than an experienced actor to nail the scene to the point where you are happy with it. Allow for this extra time when scheduling shoots.

And secondly, things will go wrong. You may not be able to get a certain performance out of them for a particular scene or piece of dialogue. Don’t just plough through with it and get a passable performance. Instead, improvise and adapt the scene or change the dialogue to make it work. This is just another problem that you will have to deal with as a director, it is part of your job.

10. The LAST resort

This really should only ever be a last resort. However, if all else fails, you can try and act the characters part yourself in order to show them what you are trying to get at. This is not advised, as you are not an actor, and the acting should be left to them.

The most important thing…

…is to have fun! Filmmaking should be a fun, learning process – regardless of where you are in your career. While we all want a great film at the end, it is never worth taking yourself so seriously that you alienate all your peers whilst doing so. Have a blast!

If you would like a more information on working with actors, please click here.

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