On Working with Actors

Stuff I've learned about working with actors on set and off.

Most of the commercials and content we create at Plucky have actors in them. We're not known as an animation house or a CGI shop (although the last commercial we did had over 30 VFX shots in it, so...). No. We're known as a commercial production company that specializes in storytelling with people. Sometimes children. But they count, too.

You'd be surprised at how many directors are terrified of working with actors. 

I've given the why of this some thought. This post is about working with actors.

It starts in casting. I have the actors come in and I ask them to show me what they'd prepared. Then I usually give an adjustment to get them a bit closer to my vision, and to see how they handle taking direction. 

When I work with actors, I respect their process. We're here to do a job, and I'm here to help them get to where we need to be. Sometimes we end up someplace even better than I'd imagined. So I try very hard to not say "say it like this!". I try very hard to create a positive, collaborative atmosphere despite the high stress nature of film and television.

I will say "can you try it as if...". The as-if game is a nice workhorse for directors, because it gives the actors something actionable without resorting to a line read. It's a great tool for adjusting tone.

I make it a point to not give too many notes or adjustments at once. If you overload someone, they lose what's important and people just shut down. I'd rather take some time to get us there, because the results are better than if you force it in one barrage of suggestions. I have a friend who's been directing for years and he still doesn't get this basic thing. It is painful to be on set with him.

And if I have to, I'll go back to the whole "what do you want? And what's in your way of getting it?". Or, I'll do a Meisner thing with them to get them to the right place. 

Sometimes I'll ask the actor to take a walk with me, away from the crew. Walking helps us work on physical stuff like rhythm. It's amazing what that can do for performance. 

Sometimes I'll improv with an actor to help them get there. I love that.

If you're thinking "geez, dude, how long did it take you to get to here?", the answer is: a lifetime. The learning never ends. And I love the process. The thing is, I love actors. I think it shows.

The point is to create a collaborative atmosphere where actors feel they can let their guard down and do their best work. Sometimes things don't go perfectly smoothly when the pressure's on and the clock is ticking. Sometimes you'll need to use shortcuts. But if you've approached the job in a way that lets the actors know you've got their backs, usually you'll get something pretty good. Sometimes you'll get something truly great.

I'm pretty sure there's some sort of larger life lesson in here, somewhere.