Monday Prescription: An Actor’s Guide to Directors (and one’s self)

Hi Film Folk!

We’re but one week away from the Film Doctor festive shutdown. We hope you’re all getting what you need together for a nice relaxing break!

This week’s Monday Prescription follows on from a very popular post of ours from last year ‘A Director’s Guide to Actors’ and this time we tackle the opposite end of the spectrum – how an actor can work with the ‘King’ of their project, the director.

Film Doctor - David O Russell Jennifer Lawrence Bradley Cooper

NB/ This article, in most places, can just as much apply to Editors, Cinematographers, Screenwriters – so read on!


An Actor’s Guide to Directors

We’re going to cover a lot of ground in this post, from choosing projects and auditioning to working on set and your showreels but the main focus is, of course, your director. Directors come in many shapes and sizes. They work in different ways, giving attention to different areas at different stages. Some are cool, calm and collected, some distant and dreamy and others hot-headed and stressed. Most, a combination of all three.

As the Director is, in theory, ‘the God’ of the story, here we suggest how best you can fit in to work with him/her, rather than how you can get what you want. What you should want is simple: a great story well told with a great character performance.

This is not a guide to absolutely every director who has ever lived or will – it would be impossible to create such a document – but it does serve as a rough guide to the challenges and issues that constantly arise between these two very important puzzle pieces, the actor and director.


What is a Director?

A Director, is first and foremost, a human being trying to understand life. They want to tell stories. They may approach those stories from a musical background, or theatrical, or literary – even video games. Some focus on the technological aspects more, some on the text, others on performance, performance, performance!

Whichever way you look at it, a director has made the same commitment as you – to tell stories in a visual medium. They should not be feared or approached as an exotic creature of mystique and intrigue.

They are people who have chosen to tell a story.

Film Doctor - Stanley Kubrick

The Famous, The Unknown and The Ugly

Before we move into more ‘common’ territory, it is best we broach the subject of the different sizes of production an actor might find one’s self a part of. We are, of course, assuming that actors with a steady film career will have plenty of publicity, acting and script reading to do and won’t be reading this but what of the actor ‘about to break’? Or the completely inexperienced? Both could be likely to work in a high quality student short one second and get a call to be a day player on a new Woody Allen film the next. A lead role, perhaps, in one. A line, or a look, in the other.

In working with a Director, the first, perhaps obvious, question is: who is s/he? Is your Director a star? A student? A music video/commercials Director wanting to branch out into narrative? What have they achieved before? What do they want to achieve?

Your approach must be slightly different according to the production size and the skill level of the director within a narrative medium (20 years in Music Videos doesn’t necessitate high skill in drama). The Director (depending on his/her ego) may need a steer in the right direction and might be open to this. If they have come from the theatre then you might be ‘quids in’. You must know the ‘animal’ you are about to deal with (the information will most likely all be online!)

If, through fortune, financial connections, ego or pure madness, there comes into existence a director that appears to be enjoying the ‘idea’ of being a director and the attraction it gains him/her from the crew or the leading man/lady, then an actor must approach this director (the ugly) with extreme caution. Art and entertainment is not his/her priority and, if it’s yours, you must consider whether this endeavour is worth it (especially if it is unpaid). Life is not quite long enough to dedicate to somebody ‘playing’ at being a Director or their ‘vanity project’.

This covers the unknown and the ugly but what of the famous? You must accept that a seasoned narrative Director will have his/her way and you will have to run with it, even if it goes against your personal tradition. The size of your role and the emotional poignancy, or lack thereof, will dictate the level of discussion you may/may not have.

This brings us to our next point. The most important ingredient, other than talent, that an actor can offer any of these directors is knowing his/her role.


Know Your Role

Knowing your role, dear thespian, does not relate to knowing your lines inside out (although this, too, is important). No, what we refer to here is knowing your character within the context of the story and theme.

Now, of course, if your role is simply to bring the lead a coffee and ask ‘Would you like any milk with that?’ in a new Scorsese picture, and that’s that, you can rest assured that the purpose of your role is to add a naturalistic atmosphere to the scene – in fact it’s more likely that an extra will be offered that line on the day, rather than an actor being telephoned (money, time etc). Don’t scramble your brains about it. Don’t see it as time to be spotted as the new De Niro or Streep. Learn and say the line professionally. A star director will have a million and one other things to deal with, without being harangued by somebody wanting a foot up into a bigger role. We can’t speak for ‘special circumstances’ but generally, do your thing, as asked, and leave them to it.

If your role is, somehow, intertwined with the drama of the piece, then a deeper understanding of the overall text/story might be in order. Don’t necessarily expect any more attention but do try and grasp the purpose of your character and lines and, if the director or his assistants state its necessity, do have a conversation about it.

Do you get the picture? Build your level of importance and level of involvement in unison with what the role is. It’s not about you or your struggle or how great it might feel to finally have two lines in a film directed by a star director. It’s about the film. The overall piece. Know your place in it. Know your role.

Film Doctor - Coppola

Working with a Director

Now, as we have said before, a Director must understand the different working process of all his actors for optimum results. So, too, must an Actor for Directors. Unless you intend to limit yourself and only approach acting in one way (regardless of the source material/director) then the best step an actor can take is to be open to different methodologies. Of course, there are examples (Daniel Day-Lewis) of actors that have always stuck to one kind of preparation and execution but, for a varied creative life, working with as many different directors, across different screenplays with different themes and tones, malleability is key – not just malleability but a Chameleon-like adaptability.

Work to understand the director’s character and visual needs. Understand what s/he wants to say and why.  They might not know themselves – but have what you need articulated.

What if this is impossible? What if, after trying and trying, you are not receiving adequate attention to reach the highs and lows you wish to?


How to work when a Director ignores your performance/the actors all together

Not every director will give you the time you feel is needed for your role, maybe no time at all…even if you’re the lead!

When a director shows little interest in involving him/herself in your performance (for whatever the reason – over-interest in camera, trust in you) then the actor must become his/her own director. Marlon Brando called it ‘giving a director-proof performance’. You must gauge very quickly on set (if you haven’t beforehand) what kind of relationship you will have with the director and how to go about it. You must not let your performance and your commitment to character suffer as a result. You can not control the outcome of the film (if you so wish, then direct instead) but you can ensure that the character is performed to the best of your ability and the psychology and emotion of him/her in the screenplay is conveyed to the camera.

Here you must channel the powers of the writer, the director, the dramaturgist to understand your character’s situation and your place within the story.

NB/ You must understand yourself well enough to realise when the character and your performances need attention and when just you want attention. The Director’s job is not to give a human being attention for attention’s sake but to place his/her energy into an actor when it aids the character and story. Do not waste a Director’s time with unnecessary needs – particularly if your role does not merit it.

Film Doctor - Spielberg Hanks 

Script and Showreel

Here we face the subject of the script and the director and producer’s showreel.

Oh, it is all too much the case that the actor is undervalued and s/he is placed in the spotlight, to ‘turn tricks’ to impress the producer and director. Headshots and showreels and auditions and callbacks  are the order of every day (and yes you should have all of those materials and attend the auditions) but so seldom does the actor think to, or have the knowledge to, demand the same of the director and producer. This particularly should be the case when working on a project in a collaborative manner (for free).

Of course, we do not mean literally demand but it should be an actor’s duty to do his/her due diligence on the team offering the role (search for showreels, previous work, IMDB).

Do be selective. Don’t just have the attitude of ‘I need more things for my showreel’. It shouldn’t be ‘things’. It should be  high quality work that will show your acting to the best of your ability. And why are you only looking to involve yourself in ‘things’ for a showreel rather than looking for interesting work (collaborative or not) in the first place?

Of course, if you’re new to ‘the game’ and are just looking for more on-set experience, then maybe don’t worry so much. Make sure to do your due diligence – check out their work, read the script, – is it really going to be worth it? Make sure you are signing on to projects of your level. A terrible film based on a terrible script or directed by a terrible director that you simply said yes to to get more material will not serve you if you use it and will have been a waste of time if you don’t.

Do your homework!


The Great Escape

Many actors have chosen this profession as an escape. As James Franco says in his book Actors Anonymous: “Anyone that is driven to play dress-up for a living is trying to hide something either from himself or from others.” It is our job to be honest and self-knowledgeable in this pursuit. We must not become Blanche DuBois, imagining ourselves off into fantasy lands, but a very accurate mirror, knowing our flaws and our strengths and constantly exploring what it is to be ourselves and to be human.

How can one portray a character with honesty if one can not even face one’s self?

In truth, we are players, but the purpose is not to play. The purpose is to tell a story – and to entertain an audience, with a story, is to serve.

Film Doctor - Kathryn Bigelow

To Act is to Serve

An Actor’s primary goal, as with anybody in the entertainment/artistic field, is to serve. Yes, there is a cathartic quality to what we do but, if catharsis is your sole desire, then there are support groups designed for such needs. A professional actor works to entertain, delight, sadden and connect.

First you serve yourself in preparation, then the Casting Director in the audition, third you serve the screenplay and its intentions, then what the Director feels it means. Finally, once all those goals have been achieved, the story containing your performance serves to entertain or thought-provoke your audience, whether they are watching online, on mobile phone, television or the silver screen.

Every step of the way you are giving yourself away. Giving yourself to the character, giving yourself to the director. Serving!

Writers and Actors are the two most undervalued  roles in independent cinema (until that actor is a ‘star’ of course and then it’s a different story) but we must remember, as loyal servants to our characters, our audience and our craft, that we are happy to do so. We are born to serve. For, as long as the story and the director are of a high standard, we worship at the altars of story, character and drama.


‘Monday Prescription’ No.31 – Know the piece and know your role in it. Work on projects you are genuinely interested in. Be selective. Serve your director, story and audience.

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Have a great week!
The Film Doctor Team
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