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The Actor’s Responsibility

We often think of the director as the master storyteller, guiding the cast and crew towards one unified vision.  While much of the responsibility of crafting this vision falls on the director, the line can be come blurry between the director’s work and the actor’s responsibility.

For the actor, much of his work happens before the cameras even roll. The actor bears the responsibility of creating his character under the director’s guidance. By better understanding the actor’s process, you, the director,  can more effectively work with him to create a multidimensional character.

  • Backstory – The actor is responsible for creating her character’s backstory. What was her life like and what events in her life lead to the events of the movie? Although the director plays a role in helping the actor craft her backstory, she is solely responsible for doing the work.


Remember that good actors prepare for the role on their own. A good director is there to guide them… not do the work for them.


  • Research – It is the actor’s responsibility to do the research necessary to render an accurate on-screen performance. If the actor is playing a policeman, then he may consider working with a local police department to learn the life of a cop on the street. If she’s playing the British Queen, she must understand the life, customs, time period and behavior of a British Queen. Each role requires a different amount and type of research, the responsibility of which falls on the actor.
  • Delivery, Dialect and Behavior – If you’re shooting a period film, or a movie that involves a language other than the actor’s native language, consider hiring a consultant or acting coach to train the actor in the proper dialect or accent. It is the actor’s responsibility to learn the proper dialect of his character. In addition to the spoken word, the actor must also learn how to carry himself. Whether its learning the mannerisms of a real-life person for a biopic, or understanding the social morés of the 1890s, the actor has been hired to convincingly play the role and is expected to fully understand the person he is playing.
  • Memorize lines – This, although it should go without saying, is a the true mark of a professional. In the same way that professional crew members arrive on set with the tools they need to do their job, so too must actors arrive on set with their lines memorized and with a firm understanding of the scenes they are performing. Actors who don’t memorize their lines cost the production time and money as the crew much shoot take after take, all because of the actor’s lack of preparedness.
  • Know the objective of every scene – Talk to the director and make sure you’re clear about what the character’s goal is in each scene. What does he want and what is he doing to attain it? Know where the character is coming from in the previous scene and where he is going in the next scene. If you don’t know, then ASK!
  • Act the subtext –  Acting isn’t about reading lines; the dialog is a symptom of the deeper feelings and drive of the character. Act for the subtext, or deeper meaning, not the dialog. Ask yourself WHY the character is saying a certain line, what is the underlying motivation for this comment, and is that motivation the real driving force behind the movie?
  • Know the story – The process of making a movie means shooting it out of order. When shooting a scene, know where, how, and why it fits in the overall movie. Understand the complete plot and character arc so that when you’re asked to film Scene 46, you know what your character’s behavior, feelings, and motivation are in Scenes 45 and 47. When the editor edits Scene 46 together with Scene 45 (which you may have filmed a month later), the transition of performance must be seamless.

The director’s primary job on set is to work with the actors to get the best performance for the story, and this process begins long before the cameras roll, during rehearsal. Once the actors are cast, work with the actors to craft their character’s history, motivations, and subtexts so they can play their characters realistically during the time of their lives in which the movie takes place. This is when the homework you did by defining the subtexts, themes and motivations of each scene in your script is helpful.

Unlock the Most Powerful Acting Tool – Backstory

A play, story, or movie is nothing more than a short glimpse of a part of a character’s life in a moment of conflict. The audience does not have the luxury of knowing the character from birth, so personality and behavioral traits, quirks, likes and dislikes, and temperaments must be derived during the short time the audience watches the character in action. An actor who plays a character must understand the character’s life up to the point the story takes place. This is called the “backstory.”

Backstory is critical to a performance because people operate on many levels, each level determined by our past. For example, a man may react when provoked in a bar fight differently if:

  1. He grew up in a poor neighborhood in a single-parent family. His father is in prison for murder and his mother is a drug addict who has resorted to a life of crime to support the family, or  .  .  .
  2. He grew up in a wealthy house where money was no object. His father is an attorney and his mother a congresswoman.

When creating a character’s backstory, determine:

  • How was the home life? What was the character’s relationship with parents, siblings, and extended family? What conflicts were there?
  • How was the character in school? What was the best memory of school? The worst memory? Was the character teased? Was he or she popular? An outcast? How did this affect the character later in life?
  • What is the character’s job history? Is he or she frustrated at work? Ambitious? Lazy? Always waiting for the big break?
  • Who are the character’s friends and enemies?
  • How did the character get to the point at which the story begins?

Although much of this backstory doesn’t appear in the script and will not appear on screen, it is critical to helping an actor determine how to play a role or how to react in a given situation if he fully knows and understands his character’s past.

Write out the backstory for every character in the story. Create a detailed character profile as if you were writing the character’s biography. In addition to broad points, create a variety of specific moments (scariest moment, happiest moment, a moment when the character experienced death) for the actor to refer to when on set.


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.