25 Things About Directing Actors

They’ll tell you that 90 percent of filmmaking is casting. What they don’t mention is that even if you get the casting right, you can still really screw it up if you don’t know how to work with your actors. Here are 25 thoughts about directing actors, in no particular order.

  1. Acting is doing. Think in actions. Speak in actions, not results.
  2. Actors can’t act adjectives — don’t use them to describe what you want.
  3. Same goes for emotions. Ask an actor to “be more angry” and you’re only going to get bad, melodramatic acting.
  4. And vague, generalized ideas will get you vague, generalized acting. Reach for specific, active verbs instead.
  5. Actors need time to prepare.
  6. They also need you to protect their concentration.
  7. Few actors realize how little they have to “act” to give a cinematic performance. Even fewer directors get it, too. Embrace subtlety.
  8. You might not see everything a good actor is doing standing even three feet away from their face — but the camera will. Trust it.
  9. It’s okay if you feel you have nothing to add to an actor’s performance. It’s their job to act, so if it’s working, let them do it.
  10. In other words, sometimes good directing is just getting out of the way.
  11. Good actors don’t always listen to your direction, but they realize what they’re doing isn’t working for you and do something different.
  12. Many times, the performance is in the listening. Get an actor to really listen in the scene, and the camera won’t want be able to look away.
  13. Listening happens in the eyes. Tell your actor to picture what the other actors are saying in their minds to help get a cinematic performance.
  14. Close ups are even more about the eyes. Direct an actor to focus on their scene partner’s downstage (closest to the camera) eye.
  15. Actors work well with directors who treat them as collaborators, instead of subordinates.
  16. Never give a line-reading.
  17. Psychoanalyzing and intellectualizing characters is often unhelpful and maybe even harmful to a performance. Stick to simple, key facts found in the script.
  18. Simplicity in a performance is magic — when you’re getting it, trust it.
  19. An actor’s ego isn’t actually that fragile until you start asking for things they can’t give you — like more or less (insert vague, non-specific direction/adjective/adverb here).
  20. Think very, very carefully before you try to change an actor’s natural and authentic reaction in a scene. Force something different and it might appear — forced.
  21. Bad directing (intellectualizing, emotionalizing, result-asking) will put an actor in their head, the exact opposite place you want them if you want a cinematic performance.
  22. If you’re asking for a beat for anything other than technical reasons, you might be overworking (that is, micromanaging) the actor’s performance.
  23. Rehearsals are exhausting — push while the camera is rolling instead (or skip the rehearsal all together).
  24. You, the director, should be the only one talking to an actor about their performance. No exceptions.
  25. The best actors have spent a lot of time learning how to stop acting, so don’t force them back into it.