12 Tips for Working with Non-Professional Teenage Actors
This is a guest post by filmmaker Jeremy Engle.
Many filmmakers are weary of casting real teenagers, particularly non-professional ones, in their movies. And for good reason: You can’t shoot long hours, if you film during the school year, you need to get them tutors, and there’s tons of extra paperwork. And I haven’t even mentioned the parents. For many, teenage actors just add up to too many headaches.
This summer I will be directing my first feature film THE TEACHER about the struggles of an idealistic first-year public high school teacher. The film draws on my experiences as a classroom teacher and educator for over 15 years and tells the story of the powerful and often challenging relationships between a teacher and his students.
When I began writing the script I knew that I wanted real teenagers to play the teenage roles. For many people, when they see a basketball movie, and it’s obvious that the actors can’t actually play, it’s spoiled for them. For me, it’s the same when I see a 19 year-old playing a 13 year-old — it’s just hard for me to believe the film anymore.
However, I think that it’s more than worth it to use real kids and non-professional one too, and I’ve written some things that might be helpful if you decide to go on a similar journey as mine.
[Editor's Note: If you haven't seen it, be sure to check out his first short, Mosquito.]
1. Rehearse A Lot
That seems pretty obvious. But unfortunately, many filmmakers can’t afford it — either due to time or money. However, rehearsals are where a film featuring non-professional teenage actors is made. In the case of THE TEACHER, I am rehearsing once a week for six months with thirteen 13-17 year-olds using a non-traditional, collaborative process in a kind of modified Mike Leigh approach. (More on that later in Tip 5, “Improv Is Your Friend”). But even if you’re not going to build your script through a collaboration with your cast, the longer the rehearsal process, the better.
2. Build A Safe Environment
As a director, you need to create a safe emotional space for teenage actors before you can do anything else. Worry about performance later. Don’t assume that your cast is comfortable sharing their talents with others — especially in front of their peers — just because they have chosen to become an actor.
Simple icebreakers and warmups go a long way towards building chemistry and trust, and taking the pressure off. I began my first rehearsal with a simple icebreaker activity where my 13 actors were each given a clipboard with a series of things they had to find in the group, such as, “Someone who can whistle with the fingers,” “Someone who had broken a bone,” “Someone who likes the same singer/band that you do.” It was short, fun, and they got to see that they had many commonalities and shared interests right away. (See Endnotes for more Ice Breakers and Warmups.)
3. Don’t Worry About The Script
(See Tips 4 and 5.)
4. Build On The Actors Own Experiences
I wouldn’t start with a script if I were you. In fact, I am not even starting with characters. Instead, I am starting with the actors and their lives. (We have been rehearing for over two months and the actors still haven’t seen a script!)
At the first rehearsal, after some ice-breakers and warmups, we formed a circle and I asked the actors to close their eyes and replay the past week in their head and to visualize all of the conflicts they experienced, big and small. Afterward, they shared their conflicts: younger siblings coming into their room and not letting them study; wanting to borrow money from a reluctant parent. Periodically, I asked for some volunteers to stand and improvise the scene we just heard. For “homework,” I gave the actors journals to write about any conflicts they experienced at their schools during the week. At their next rehearsal, they shared their stories and we chose as a whole group which conflicts sounded most interesting to act out. The person who told that story was tasked to be the director and had 5 minutes to work on the scene with a few fellow actors and put it on in front of the group. Grounding the rehearsals in the teenagers’ lives helped to build their trust in themselves and draw upon their experience as an actor.
5. Be Careful About Acting (or Directing) Jargon
Words and concepts like “objective,” “want,” “stakes,” and “backstory” might seem very simple but they can be very confusing and intimidating to young actors, and you will likely find that while some actors know these terms, many don’t. So it is important to build concepts and vocabulary from the experiences that come out of the improvs. As I stated in Tip 4, begin with the actors’ experiences, but I also believe that reflection and analysis are critical too. After an improvisation, analyze together what’s going on in a scene, what’s working and why; and from that organically develop working definitions of: Wants, Stakes, Subtext, Being in The Moment, and Listening.
One day I brought in rope and gloves and had two actors engage in an all-out tug of war. This has become a key metaphor throughout our rehearsals. “Don’t pull too hard,” “Wait until the other actor pulls first before you begin pulling back,” “Feel their resistance.” In another case, an actor was dominating many of the improvs; I had learned that through our discussions that she was a boxer, so I told her, “I want you to be a counter-puncher in this scene, wait until they throw a few punches, see what they have, before you find your opening.”
6. Improv Is Your Friend (Don’t Worry About The Script Part 2)
I don’t want my young actors to focus on their lines, on themselves, and what they are doing. I want them to listen, react, and to be in the moment. What is most important is that they understand a given scene/situation and can emotionally connect to it. This is where improv can be very effective and freeing. Sometimes improvs can come from the teen actors and their lives (See Tip 3); sometimes I give them a simple situation: there are two characters, one must get somewhere quickly and the other has to stop people and collect signatures on the street for an important cause. Others can come from well-known improvisational games such as “Freeze & Justify,” where two actors begin a scene and actors sitting on the sideline call out “freeze” and take the place of one of the frozen actors and initiate the scene in a new and different direction. (See the Endnotes for a fuller description.)
7. Have Fun
At least I think so. One of the deeper values of fun is freeing the actors to explore and experiment without the fear that they are getting things “wrong”. During one of the early “Freeze & Justify” games, an actor lifted another cast member into their arms, who then let out a very big scream. Following this, both young actors become much looser and freer in their acting.
Teen actors often feel the need to please — and this is in many ways the hardest habit to break. I want them need to know that they can try things out, go too far, fall flat on their face, and figure out what worked or didn’t on their own. During one of our rehearsal days, we explored the ways that students try to “get over” on their teachers and one of the scenes got a little wild (It was liberating for them to be able to throw paper at a teacher and know they wouldn’t be suspended!) but afterward they reflected on it, and without my stepping in, they said it went to far — that it wasn’t believable. But it was necessary to see where the boundaries are by going too far.
7b. Be Serious
Yes making a film can be lots of fun. But it’s important to let actors know that it will sometimes feel like work. That they will have to do things over and over again, even when they are tired. At others times, things might get raw, too close to home, overwhelming. It’s a delicate balance between the fun and the serious, and the director needs to feel the pulse of the group at every step of the way.
Have lots of them. No extra explanation is needed.
9. Check with a lawyer
Whether your film is an “Ultra-Low Budget” Film ($200,000 or less), a “Modified Low-Budget Film” ($650,000 or less) or a mega-blockbuster, if you are paying your actors, there will be a lot of paper work. There are contracts, State Labor Laws for Minors, trusts and bank accounts that have to be set up. And for each, lots of documents written in very obtuse and tricky language. Definitely get a lawyer to help you navigate this treacherous path. We are very lucky to have the Indie Film Clinic provide us with their services free of charge. We couldn’t do this without them!
10. The Casting Process Is Critical
Obviously, casting is critical in the sense that if you don’t find strong actors, your film is in trouble, but also, because you should plan for a long casting process if you are going to find unknown teenage actors. I spent 3 months casting and had over 400 young actors audition before narrowing it down to a primary teenage cast of 13.
10b. Form Allies With Schools, Teachers, Afterschool & Drama Programs
I had the benefit of having previously been a teacher so I knew many schools and principals. I recommend that you cultivate relationships with schools, and afterschool and drama programs well in advance of your production. Visit the schools and programs. Talk about your project. Meet with the young people and make them feel like this is an opportunity worth taking a chance on. This is much more effective than posting flyers, or putting out a call for Mandy’s.
11. Cultivate Relationships with Parents (Don’t Be Afraid of Stage Moms or Dads)
Assume the best and make allies with parents from the beginning. They are entrusting you with their kids! Be honest from the beginning about your script and the themes in it. No surprises. Recognize that they are doing a lot behind the scenes, like chauffeuring their kids to and from the set. And you should know that parents will need a lot of help navigating the paperwork that comes with contracts, etc. Most importantly, make them feel that you are seeing your actors through the eyes of a parent: school and safety first.
12. Acting Can Be About Doing Very Little (Appreciating Silence)
After my three-month casting and callback process; it was very easy for my actors to feel like their being selected to be in a movie was all about getting my attention as the director; about impressing me. So it has taken some time to break the habit for actors that they must always be funny, witty, memorable and stealing each scene. I recommend spending a lot of time working on listening, non-verbal communication, and commitment to simple actions. One rehearsal, I asked the group to recall their very first day of high school — their fears, hopes, their naivety; what the halls looked like, what the chairs looked like. And then we spent much of the rehearsal simply walking into a classroom and sitting down. (“Dog & His Bone” is a great exercise to address this challenge as well.)
- Make The Cast Comfortable With A Camera.
- Build Stamina
- There Is No Failure (Everything is research)
- Praise Actors
More Ice-Breakers, Warmups, and Exercises
Who Started The Motion?: Actors stand in a circle. One actor is sent from the room while another is selected to be the leader who starts the motion. The outside actor is called back, stands in the center of the circle, and tries to discover who is leading the other actors through different motions (moving hands, tapping feet, nodding.
Freeze and Justify: Two actors improvise a scene. At any moment, anyone else in the group can shout, “freeze!” and the actors must freeze immediately. The actor who stopped the scene taps one of the actors on the shoulder. That actor sits down and the new person takes their exact position and must now initiate a new and different scene that flows naturally from the positions of the two bodies. At any moment another person may shout, “”freeze!” and it begins again.
Dog And His Bone: One actor is blindfolded and sits in the center of the room with a dog bone in front of them. They are the dog. Sitting around the dog is a circle of actors. They have to steal the bone. The director points to an actor in the outer circle and they must try to steal the bone. But if the dog hears something, they point in the direction of the sound and the actor must go back and sit down. This activity is great for working on total commitment to a single action. And it really focuses young, excitable 13 year-olds.
The Kickstarter Campaign for THE TEACHER is in its last week, check out more from the links below.
Jeremy Engle was a classroom teacher and educator for over 15 years. He wrote and directed a short film MOSQUITO about young kids growing up in NYC in the ‘70’s. It screened at festivals throughout the world – including Edinburgh, Oberhausen, Gijon and Seoul – winning the “Spirit of Slamdance” Award” and is included in writer Dave Eggers’ DVD Magazine Wholphin. Engle was selected as one of 20 filmmakers to participate in the Independent Filmmaker Project’s 2011 “Emerging Narrative” program and is a member of the Brooklyn Filmmaker Collective [Ed. note: along with NFS founder Ryan Koo].