The Director's Chair - How to Work with Good (and Bad) Actors
This is the fourth in a series of guest posts by filmmaker Raafi Rivero.
I often hear directors say stuff like, “he was good in the audition, but I don’t know what happened.” How do you tell a buddy that his actor sucked? Half the time you sit there thinking, “well, did you direct him?” How do you get a woman who was so good in the audition to just relax and be who she was before? The sad news is that if you “don’t know what happened” I can tell you: you weren’t a good enough director that day. These are the bad times. The slightly better news is that it happens to all of us at some point. And hopefully you learn from it.
One thing that doesn’t work is to sit there rolling take after take and let bad unfold before your eyes. Take a break, walk with the actor(s), talk privately, clear the set. Do whatever you have to do to change the energy of the scene and on set. Something is unbalanced. Dig until you find that thing, then come back and roll fresh takes.
I often hear directors complaining about a bad actor. This is ridiculous. There is absolutely no excuse for complaining about why an actor sucked on your film. If you are the director, all responsibility stops with you. Much of your problem could probably have been solved in casting — get a better person in there. Failing that, rehearse (cha-ching!) until you’re confident you can get the performance you need. Otherwise, what’s the point?
The better situation is laughing about how bad of an actor someone is after you got a decent performance out of them. Or, better yet, how bad someone is that you didn’t cast at all. Badmouthing your actors will get you nowhere.
“He’s so good, I didn’t even have to direct him.”
I’ve heard directors say this one too and it is equally wrong. In this reverse case: relying too heavily on a good actor can lead to a listing, meandering performance.
For example, Jeff Bridges won an Oscar last year, but you didn’t see the same level of acting in Tron: Legacy. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the uneven performances by Mr. Bridges and others is directly related to the first-time director who helmed the film. Tron was visually brilliant, no doubt about it, but the difference between Bridges’ Flynn and say, Morpheus in the Matrix? Night and day.
Actors, no matter how talented, rely on the communication and vision of the director to inform what they bring to a film. This is not to lessen the importance of what a great actor can bring to the table. A great performance can lift an average film to extroardinary heights. Conversely, bad directing can hamper even the best of actors into lackluster performances.
Bring your “A” game, and the best actors will respond with theirs.
Bad Actor / Good Actor / Same Scene
Big difficulties will arise when the talent level of two performers is mismatched. This is particularly a problem when the more talented person is in the less prominent role. Egos can get involved, and one actor may want to dominate the other in the scene. Here is when you dig deep. Nothing’s worse than when the more talented person is rolling their eyes because they think every direction you give is for the other guy, especially when they think they can start directing themselves. Don’t let this happen.
You may have to steal a page from the police handbook: good cop, bad cop. Speak to the actors individually.
To your more seasoned actor you might try niceties, reason, ego stroking: “you know Danny’s hasn’t been at it as long as you have. What’s really going to make you shine is if you give him the space to discover the knife on his own.”
You may have to bad-cop your bad actor: challenge them to step up. “Are you going to let him walk all over you in this scene? Here’s a chance to make your mark. This scene is about you!”
Whatever the technique you use, the reality is that if one of your actors is not generous with his or her talents then the results can show up onscreen. Solving this imbalance and removing unnecessary competition will allow the performers to get back to the original problem: how to make the scene work.
Communicating with actors — finding out what motivates them to give their best — is your spy task on any film. Make sure you cast the right person and work the material until it’s right. The emotional truth you put onscreen will do the rest of the work for you.
To see all the posts in this series (to date), click here.
Raafi Rivero is a filmmaker and designer living in Brooklyn, NY. In between stints slaying dragons and leaping small puddles in a single bound, he’s managed to snag a couple of industry honors and is hard at work on the upcoming feature How to Steal. Raafi has directed content for HBO, Sony, and Discovery as well as shady record labels and satisfied customers the world round. His short, Their Eyes Were Watching Gummy Bears, will play festivals this summer. Follow Raafi on Twitter here.