Tips for Directing Actors


Actors are the director’s primary storytelling vehicles. A good actor can breathe life into a character and a script. Being able to aid and guide the actors through the production is the director’s job.

A primary goal for the director is to create a supportive and creative environment that is conducive to good work. The actors will be able to focus on their work if the atmosphere created by the director and her crew is relaxed and cooperative. If bickering and general chaos occur on the set, it will be difficult for the actors to concentrate.

Many things happen during the course of a shooting day: general nervousness, the forgetting of lines, tension among actors, technical problems that can interfere with the flow of a scene, etc. It is unforgivable for actors to not know their lines, but it happens. What if actors want to try something very different in their performance than what you had in mind? (Let them do it as long as you have what you want and there is time.)

The director should know what the actor is capable of in any given situation. Casting and rehearsals will give the director a strong indication of the actor’s talent and range, but the critical point comes when the cameras roll. Many intangible elements must come together in front of the camera when the director calls, “Action!” These elements include emotional tone, pace, projection, and the arc of the characters. Some actors behave quite differently when they have to perform “for real” and it is up to the director to find ways to ease this anxiety.

The director must know how to stimulate, even inspire an actor. Needless to say, he must also know how to make an actor seem NOT to act. How to put him or her at their ease, bring them to a state of relaxation where their creative faculties are released. — Elia Kazan


In the theater, the rapport between the audience and the performers has a profound effect on the energy level and direction of the performance. In a film, the actors play for the director. She alone knows how all the little bits and pieces will come together in the editing room, and she evaluates the performance. The actor looks to the director for validation after every take. In this relationship, it is important to keep in mind that actors need feedback.

The director’s attention is always divided between cast and crew. It is understandable that a novice filmmaker might get caught up with the problems of the DP, the sound recordist, wardrobe, or a number of things after a take while the actors are standing there wondering if the take was good or not.

Make sure that the actor feels that they are your priority. Make sure they hear from you after each take. In this regard, the following are a few suggestions:

• Refrain from giving notes to an actor within hearing range of other actors or the crew. Take her aside and speak quietly so nobody else can hear. Be considerate of the potential for embarrassment. Actors are very sensitive about their work. By being private, an actor can plan to incorporate your note in a less stressful atmosphere.

• When giving notes, give one at a time. If you give all the notes at once, you will have either a confused actor or one that is concentrating on too many things at a time.

• When giving notes, avoid saying things like “You should do this.” Instead, phrase it like a question: “What would happen if?” or “How about trying another approach?” or “How would your character feel if?” This approach makes the process a collaboration not an order.

• If an actor did something terrific, not only let her know it but everyone. It is the equivalent of applause. But be prudent with praise, you don’t want to be guilty of “praise inflation.”


More tips…

  • Novice directors sometimes feel uncomfortable working with actors for the first time. Their language and work methods can be intimidating. Be honest and upfront with your talent. Do not try to sound as if you know what you are doing if you do not. Keep your direction simple and to the point. The actors will most likely help you.
  • Make all the actors feel they are important, no matter how small or large their part. Regardless of their screen time, each character is integral to the whole. After you call “Cut” at the end of a shot, do not ignore the actors or seem dissatisfied with their work.
  • Resist the temptation to make each take perfect. A film is a series of moments. Part of one take may flow better with the part of another rather than using all the material from a single take. Watching each take either on set or on the video monitor tends to identify the take as a whole, rather than as a part.
  • Shoot a scene as many times as you feel is necessary. If the scene is not working, shake things up: Shoot from another angle, change the blocking, shoot reactions, or break for lunch and come back to the scene later.
  • Some actors need several takes to warm up, others get it on the first. Seek a take that allows all the actors in the scene to be at their best.
  • If an actor looks like he is “acting” too much give him an activity that makes sense in the context of the scene, such as a shoe that won’t stay tied.
  • Shoot the rehearsal. Often the best take is the first because it is fresh and spontaneous.
  • Half your battle will be won if you cast well.

Excerpted from Producing and Directing the Short Film and Video, Fifth Edition, by Peter Rea and David Irving. © 2015 Taylor & Francis Group LLC. All rights reserved.

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MasteringFilm, powered by bestselling Routledge authors and industry experts, features tips, advice, articles, video tutorials, interviews, and other resources for aspiring and current filmmakers. No matter what your filmmaking interest is, including directing, screenwriting, postproduction, cinematography, producing, or the film business, MasteringFilm has you covered. You’ll learn from professionals at the forefront of filmmaking, allowing you to take your skills to the next level.