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The Directors Chair - Working with Non-Actors

04.22.11 @ 2:04PM Tags : , ,

This is the fifth in a series of guest posts by filmmaker Raafi Rivero.

Several of you have reached out via comments, email, and twitter about continuing the Director’s Chair series and I’m glad for all the feedback. One of the most-requested ideas was to do a post on working with non-actors. I’ll start with an old saying that comes from our sister profession, photography: The camera looks both ways.

To me, this means that how you approach your subject will do a lot to determine how and whether they open up to your camera. For instance, some street photographers are able to capture the most amazing portraits of regular people just by asking and immediately shooting, whereas other folks either miss the moment or try to sneak shots or “take” pictures from their subjects. People often shy away from these types of approaches. What’s the difference? Well, I think a lot of the same principles apply to filming non-actors.

If you are open and giving with how you photograph people, they will open up to you in turn. The same thing applies to film. You must be generous and giving of yourself when working with a non-actor. Explain things to them: you plan to do a take soon, but you’ll do a camera rehearsal first so that the team can measure focus. Keep the lines of communication open, be accessible. Non-actors can clam up and become self-conscious or aloof. They don’t know what’s happening, don’t know who to talk to. It is your job, as much as possible, to make sure that your non-actors are engaged in the process and feel comfortable on your set. This will pay huge dividends when the camera is rolling.

Spike Lee got believable performances from Ray Allen in He Got Game because he let Denzel Washington do much of the heavy lifting. Casting real porn stars in the sex romp scene didn’t hurt either.

Non-actors are often intrigued by the process of making films, but this excitement can wear off very quickly once they realize that it’s actually hard work. Further, they are not accustomed to being directed or being told that what they are doing is wrong. They get tired earlier, grumpy quicker, and generally don’t want to hang out on set all day doing a million retakes. The rule of thumb here is simple and I cannot stress it enough:

With non-actors, prepare to get what you want on the first take.

Because the process of acting is so strange — saying the same thing over and over, attempting to infuse each performance with something original and closer to the truth — a non-actor can be excused for not understanding or caring. In their mind it’s like, “I did it! Yay! Why do you want me to do it again… is there something wrong?” And from there they begin to become overly self-critical. Trying and often failing to give you that thing you said you liked from four takes ago. Not understanding how to get it back, wanting to go home.

It is very important to be both supportive of them — first off, they are probably there as a favor to someone, or are highly esteemed in some other profession — and to make sure that your professional cast, crew and technical people will be able to execute something useable on the first take. Nowhere are rehearsal takes more critical than with non-actors.

“When you cast actors, you try to find the quality you couldn’t beat out of them with a tire iron. That’s where you find the character.”
- David Fincher (source)

Often you cast a friend in a role precisely because of this reason: their natural character or look aligns with something you want to capture on film. The important thing to remember is not to ask them to do more than they’re capable of. I’ve had it happen more times than I care to count: thinking a friend will be perfect for a dynamic role, getting them on set, and realizing that they look perfect but have the acting chops of an oar. Sometimes if you have a non-actor who’s really wooden, you can direct them down. Have them move and say as little as possible like some sort of psychopath and let the actor you trust do all the heavy lifting in the scene.


Non-actors, in particular, don’t look at what you’re doing as a way for them to flex their skills like actors do. If you’re lucky, you find ones who take to the process and develop a natural feel for it. Often, though, they become more and more dependent on what you say as a director. They’re not used to lights and grips and people standing around, so if you tell them say it like THIS, then they do. If you tell them say it like thisssssss, then that’s how they do it.1 They rely on you, the director, as being the one regular person in the room who can help them understand what’s going on and how they can do their job better.

Randomly, here’s a spot we did at Desedo, working with non actors (obviously):

<embed src="http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=3380921" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" width="400" height="300"></embed>

All of the above said, working with non-actors can be very fun. They’re a lot less diva-ish, and seem to have fun in a lot of parts of the process that us insiders are tired of. And performance-wise, you can get a naturalism that’s irreplaceable.

The key is to make sure you see things a bit less seriously — like a non-actor would — and try to relate to them as people as much as possible.


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.

  1. Ed. note: whereas many experienced actors hate line readings. []

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COMMENT POLICY

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  • I think this is an interesting article. Many non-professional actors make their way into projects – so it’s good to have some strategies on how to handle it.

  • Interesting article indeed but in my opinion filmmakers that are more directly connected to their actors( mostly directors but also cinematographers) should already have this basic knowledge if they work with professional actors.
    Knowing how to work with said professional actors and not knowing how to work with non-actors is like knowing how to work with a Arri 435 35mm film camera but not knowing how to work with a consumer camcorder.
    What kind of director are you if you can direct actors but not your average joe?
    If you have a problem with “see things a bit less seriously — like a non-actor would — and try to relate to them as people as much as possible” then that’s your problem and you’re the one at fault.

  • Interesting!

    I love working with non-actors cause you can play as if you were sculpting the scene… To an actor you will say “can you be more sorry on that shot please?” To a non-actor you’ll say “can you pronounce this syllable on that way please?”… more concrete! I invite you to see the short film “La direction d’acteur” by Jean Renoir. It’s the best class you can get ;)

    But one thing I’d like to add is that – actors or non-actors – 70% of your acting direction is Casting. Your choices during the casting time is big part of the job. 20% is preparation. It doesn’t cost anything to prepare the scene at home ;) You have all the time to get the scene mature in the head of your actor/non-actor. And finally 10% only, to my mind, can be done on the set.

    • You’re absolutely right about casting, Jeremy. In fact, I had breakfast with a feature filmmaker buddy last week and he said the exact same thing:”let’s face it, 70% of the job is done in casting.” and I’ve been banging the drum about rehearsal and prep throughout this whole series.

      That said, ensuring that non actors are comfortable and confident is even more important than with other kinds of performers. I’ll have to look out for the Renoir film. Thanks! Another director who’s had great success with non-actors is Jim Jarmusch. With non-actors it’s definitely all about feel.

  • I agree that casting is one the first major factors. In order to cast well, a director needs to have a deep understanding of the characters, the deeper the understanding the more clear casting decisions will be. Before a director can understand characters, he/ she must cultivate an understanding for people, humans. Understanding people belongs to the realm of emotions. There are many things that justify the categorizing of actors .vs. non-actors. A “trained” or experienced actor sometimes brings a level of deftness and skill that bring some of the depth of a character to realization. Conversely, a “trained” actor often brings a suit of armor in the form of pretenses, actor-isms, superficial tricks, and “artistic temperament” that can be challenging to penetrate when trying to get to the essence of human dynamics. I think it is important to fight the stereotyping of actor .vs non-actor, but not always easy. In another life I worked as an actor in all mediums, and when I left that career I was so sick of actor’s (myself included) that I thought I just simply would not work with them. I got over that after a while.
    My point is casting is a search for specific human qualities as well as an innate skill. One that has very little to do with “training”. One without the other usually leaves me wanting. I think it is naive to think that one can direct someone into a great performance. As a director I might be able to recognize specific human qualities that I am looking for and help to bring them to the portrayal. So when I am casting I have very little interest in an actor’s resume, and great interest in what life and understanding one brings to the collaboration. When you get down to the raw stuff, there is little that separates actor from non-actor, yet plenty that separates depth from superficiality.

    • Great points Granville. Although I absolutely disagree with the idea that you can’t direct someone into a great performance. That is, in fact, your job. A couple of my earlier posts in the series deal with that idea directly. That said, I agree that the human qualities that underlying a persons skill are ultimately what we as directors are after. And non-actors can offer these just as well as trained actors in many cases… IF you as a director find a way to bring them out.

  • We actually agree about the director’s job . . And I think I did not write what I meant clearly. More specifically, I mean that you cannot direct “just anyone” into a great performance, as if you possess the magic touch. I think that some young director’s have this idea. Naivete and even a touch of arrogance are not bad in themselves, they are often the very thing that makes it possible to start a project, and experience usually takes care of those things.

    If a person (actor / non-actor) is not able to play make-believe, for whatever reason, a director cannot create that ability. A A director is responsible for performances first in his ability to distinguish when casting. If it isn’t in there, you ain’t going to get it out. Film IS a director’s/ editor’s medium. When I see a poor performance I usually see a lack in the director, attributable to various things from casting to lack of emotional depth, to not knowing how and when to avoid the temptations of ‘cleverness’ or sentimentality, etc.

    It is essential that a director not only understands any given actor’s process, but also people, emotions, psychology and human dynamics. I am suggesting that this is where the job begins, and what makes great directing possible.

  • I’m a Student Filmmaker, and I just completed a Short Film (Which… wasn’t everything I wished for) with two non-actors. There were two reasons. Obviously as a Student Production, we couldn’t afford real actors – and we wanted believability as we aimed for realism.

    There’s something amazing about these non-actors that… if you direct them well, you really get some amazing performances – but understand that there is a limit. Something I’ve learnt from that project was that you really do have to give them time, and rather than criticizing everything simply because you want a better shot… You have to accept that if that’s all they can do, and tell them ‘Alright, That was an awesome take! I love the gestures you’ve done [there]. Now, we’re going to retake that at another angle which focuses on Huang’.

    Clarity and Encouragement is definitely the way to go. And even if they’re not star material – try to help them get there. Accept the responsibility if you’re the Director, but don’t push too hard until the atmosphere becomes stale.

    Having seen some actual productions with big local stars… Raafi is definitely spot-on about the less Diva-like actions. But even in stressed situations, we were able to have fun and laughs. Guess what? It really helped their enthusiasm and work ethos! And best of all… In the plot, the CEO gradually understands the Office Assistant through his own stress. Whilst we feared that awkwardness between the two would appear… It wasn’t as great as we feared! And because we filmed quite chronologically, you could actually see an improvement in relationship between the two as time went on! Magical!

    Finally, I would like to add : Most Student Filmmakers consider the plot the most important thing. I would say that the casting is a big part of what makes or breaks the film! Especially if you strive for believability.

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