How to Direct Inexperienced Actors

As independent filmmakers, we need to use the resources we have available.  Often times, those limitations extend to actors.  While it would be great if we could afford to hire SAG-AFTRA actors from a top agency for our projects, the reality is that we are forced to work with amateurs.  And part of the challenge of filmmaking is learning how to direct inexperienced actors.

Communicating with actors requires a finesse that will help the actors find the emotional and mental state needed to play a moment properly. Although the basics of acting seem simple, crafting the details of a performance requires a special level of trust and communication between the director and the actors.

  • Explain to the actors what production is like: slow, tedious, and repetitive. The more prepared they are for the experience, the better they’ll be. This is especially the case when working with inexperienced actors. Painting a picture of the realities of production will help them pace themselves and maintain a strong energy throughout the shoot.
  • Make sure the actors have their lines memorized before stepping on set. This will allow you to craft the subtleties and nuances of the scene without having to waste time and the actors’ energy.  Nothing is more draining than doing take after take because the actor forgot the lines.
  • Always give actors feedback on what they did correctly and what they need to change. Never begin another take without giving the actor something to work off of. Remember that as a director, you are their only lifeline, so go to them first with feedback as soon as you call “cut.”
  • Help the actors develop a purpose, or objective to attain, during the course of the shooting. “In the scene, all you want to do is get to the car, to get to the store before it closes in 10 minutes.”  That type of direction will add an underlying urgency to the moment.
  • Always help the actors stay RELAXED on set. Keep actors sheltered from any problems and issues on set. The more relaxed the actor, the better the performance.
  • Avoid saying phrases like “Just act natural” or “Just be yourself.” These phrases don’t give any meaningful insight or direction to the actor.
  • Be specific in your direction. “Hank, when Samantha approaches, don’t step back. Look her straight in the eye. It’s a challenge. Which of the two of you is in command of this moment? She thinks she is. You’re letting her know she’s not. It’s a power play.”
  • Don’t be negative when asking an actor to change a performance, but rather, put a positive spin on it. Don’t say, “I don’t want you to say that line so loud,” rather, say “Let’s try it again, but this time, try the line a little softer. I think it would be more effective in this moment because  .  .  .  .” NEVER say what they did wrong; suggest a way they could do it differently.
  • Encourage actors to remain in character, even when the camera isn’t rolling. The more comfortable they are in their role, the more convincing and real the performance will be. Set a place aside for the actors to go to between setups so they can practice their lines and prepare for the next moment.
  • The only person an actor should get advice from is the director. If crew members or other cast members feel free to give helpful acting suggestions, it will only undermine your relationship with the actors.
  • Avoid foreign dialects or accents unless an actor can speak them convincingly. Not only does a bad accent take the audience out of the moment, but it is also distracting for the actor. Often  times, he will be so focused on getting the accent right, that he won’t be focusing on the reality of the moment.
  • Be aware that working with children or animals increases the time and effort needed to get the shot.
  • The more you rehearse, the better the on-set performance. Help the actors prepare not only their lines, but also their character motivations.
  • After auditions, consider hosting a social event with both the cast and the crew to give everyone an opportunity to get acquainted with one another before you get to the set. You will find a tremendous improvement in quality and camaraderie.
  • Help the actor understand where the character was emotionally before and after the scene you are shooting. Because movies are shot out of order, it is important to establish and discuss the character arc of how a character got to this scene and where they are going after the scene.
  • Respect the fact that acting can be an emotionally stressful and trying process, especially with difficult scenes. Be sensitive to the actors’ needs and always be supportive.

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