24 Jun 2019

Here are some essential tips for working with actors

  • Written by 
Here are some essential tips for working with actors Shutterstock - guruXOX

We don’t talk much about actors and acting on RedShark, but they are a crucial part of any drama, and also an element that lets down so many early attempts at shooting drama. Like everything in filmmaking, acting is a skill and directing actors involves just as much technical skill as cinematography.

We’ve all seen so many shorts which are nicely shot, but where the performances are disastrous. There is a tendency for those just beginning filmmaking to hire some actors and just ‘let them go’.  There’s a lot more to it than that, so here are some very basic tips:

1. Casting is key.

Don’t go just on showreels or agents’ recommendations, you really need to see the actors in person and get them to audition. Yes, this takes time and money, but not as much time and money as finding you’ve cast someone who is just wrong for the part and you need to reshoot (yes, this has happened to me). The trend now is to ask actors to ‘self-tape’ – that is, to send you video of an audition piece. This is better than not seeing them at all, but it is still a compromise. You want to interact with the actor, find out their range and just how they respond to directions. 

2. Professional actors are great.

Yes, non-professionals can be wonderful too, but they take a lot more work. Film is a very technical medium, and one of the great things about pros is that they hit their marks, they make the same gestures and movements at the same place each time, and they don’t talk over each other’s lines. Or that’s how it should be. When it comes to editing, you will really welcome that consistency when cutting between takes. Non-actors can sometimes give something very special, but it needs a different sort of direction and a more fluid approach to putting a scene together.

3. Actors like direction.

Don’t be tempted to hold back because you are relatively inexperienced compared to the actor. Give them as much information as possible, but make it clear and specific, not cryptic or poetic. Don’t say, ‘I’d like more of a sense of lost innocence’ or ‘act more like it’s a Monday’. Do tell them what words should be emphasised, what mood they are in, what point the mood changes and when and how they should move. 

4. Be wary of ‘actorly actors’, particularly those straight out of acting school.

That may sound a little unfair but in the UK, unlike the USA, our main tradition has always been theatre rather than film, and it is a very different form. Things have got much better in recent years, but it still common to see short films ruined by theatricality. Of course, sometimes this is exactly what you want, particularly if it is a comedy about an actor.

5. Improvisation can be great, but in most cases it’s not a substitute for a well written script.

What can be very productive is to get actors to improvise after they have performed a scripted scene – now they know the characters and the situation, and it’s quite possible that the will come up with something more convincing than what is in the script. If they don’t, well, you don’t have to use it. But improvising can be great for rehearsal and developing the performance. Which brings me to my final tip.

6. The magic of giving actors false information.

OK, let me explain - this is something I’ve used myself with great results. In rehearsal, take two actors who are playing a scene together aside and, separately and privately, give them the background on the two characters. But give them contradictory information. Say it is a couple who have arranged to meet. Tell the actor playing A) that B) really fancies him/her, but that B) is too shy to come out with it. Tell B) that A) has been pestering him/her for months, you don’t like this person all but you know they have history of mental instability and could easily be upset if you say the wrong thing.  Then put the two actors together and get them to improvise. In a few seconds something very interesting will emerge…

I’d like to hear your experience and tips on working with actors. I’m going to follow this up with a discussion on ‘mise-en-scene’ and ‘blocking’ or ‘staging’ – in other words, where and how do you actually put the actors in the frame?

Title image: Shutterstock - guruXOX


Roland Denning

Roland Denning is an independent filmmaker and writer based in London. He was a lighting cameraman/ documentary cameraman for two decades, shooting everything from feature drama to rock promos. He still shoots when he can't afford to employ anyone else. His satirical novel, The Beach Beneath The Pavement was published in 2011.

Twitter Feed