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.

Good Actors

Scorsese and De Niro. Collaboration at work.

"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.

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I am really enjoying this series. I don't know how long, or how far through the production process you will ultimately go, but I hope you stick with The Director's Chair for a while. Thanks.

February 24, 2011 at 12:23PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Adam Greene

....I hope I remember to apply some of this good advice ....when I make my next film offering............. Thanks for your series its very inspiring ..... Raised glass in your honour my good man.....cheers

February 24, 2011 at 1:31PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I look forward to these articles. I'm taking notes and will apply them in my latest efforts. Keep up the great work.

February 24, 2011 at 3:57PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


first off, i like this series a lot. thanks for doing it! i agree with lots of it, but for conversation's sake, i'll only write about the the contentious stuff.

first i have a very hard time believing that there is some "magic line" of direction that will make a bad actor good, that will make an inexperienced actor experienced. you can make them more comfortable sure, but a bad actor, who is very relaxed and comfortable is still, well... a bad actor. ever worked with non actors? same idea. you can't somehow implant the savvy and charisma that makes great actors great just by 'taking a walk' with them.

also, i don't think you emphasize the importance of writing enough. quality of characters is mostly found in the words on the page. its brought to life by the actors, sure - the details and nuances are acting (and thus also directing) - but the raw 'stuff' is mostly writing. so your comment on jeff bridges in tron vs true grit... come on. you're comparing coen bros to a hollywood CGI-fest. unless jeff bridges goes off script and improvises unique, non-cliche'd dialogue (which i'm pretty sure the studios would not have tolerated), you're not going to suddenly get a deep, memorable character out of that movie, no matter who is directing. that said though, i do agree that a director CAN make a good actor bad, but it could just as easily be a crummy script.

(amusing note: i thought the most memorable parts of jeff bridges' tron performance were the coen bros / lebowsi-esque dialogue that seeped in. "its bio-digital jazz, man" funny stuff!)

February 24, 2011 at 4:41PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Hey guys, thanks for all the response. ...Drunk Again. Hilarious. Yusuf from the last post, etc. It's great to get feedback 'cause, yeah, if people are into it I'll continue writing these things.

@Dave. Great remarks. I don't at all mean to imply that you can direct your way around bad writing. But I certainly do think you can direct your way around bad acting. In fact, it is a job requirement. You'll never be able to make a bad actor good, but you can certainly turn a grade-A stinkbomb in the middle of your scene into a waft of something from over there. Every actor, no matter their talent, has a range. Even non-actors. If someone is less talented, then their range is very narrow. But you must manage the situation so that they stay within their range and do not mess up the rest of the scene. This is possible. This is a necessity.

I loved the Lebowski-esque lines in Tron, too. But they were distracting in a way because they were a little meta-Bridges, and took me out of the story. The director had a choice there.

What I'm saying to everyone is that if you see a great actor and they're not great in every film. Then one of the primary things you can consider is the director. Similarly, how many times has there been a breakout star who fades after a few films? Maybe a great director managed to capture their essence, their range, but every director couldn't do that.

We all need to figure out how to work with people at different talent levels. Because one day you will be on set with someone who is not good. You can either let them mess up your movie. Or you make it so that they can't. That is your job.

February 24, 2011 at 5:47PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


@ Raafi -

its interesting, the different takes some people have on the roles of directors in the filmmaking process. i know people who are quick to criticize the director for doing a crappy job, and then cite dialogue, story and other elements traditionally managed by the writer, as the reason said director was bad. for example, i've heard people cite danny boyle's use of flashbacks in 127 hours as being "danny boyle's way of telling an otherwise static, one location story." while i haven't read the script, i would be very surprised if these flashbacks weren't there. if they weren't preconceived by the writer.

now, while i do believe that there are directors out there who will take a pass on a script before shooting - that have the 'last say' before things get shot, there are also directors who serve the script more faithfully - maybe because their reputation has not earned them the artistic license to do what they want, or maybe because the script is just really good as is. neither one is right or wrong i guess, but there is definitely not a universal job description for the director. it is one of the most versatile and lenient jobs, from a creative standpoint.

crap, now i forget why this is relevant, but i think it is. anyway, thx for the post/reply, good advice in there.

February 24, 2011 at 6:18PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


edit: i realized 127 hours was co-written by danny boyle (of course, i cite the only movie hes ever has a legit writing credit for. doh!) so, bad example i guess. but you get what i'm saying.

February 24, 2011 at 7:11PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I firmly believe in Scorsese's idea that the film is re-written three times. In the writing stage, on-set, and in post. Whatever it takes. If an actor sounds off saying a line -- maybe their accent rubs the wrong way against complicated diction -- do you let your actor look less than confident, or change the line?

Maybe writers will hate me for saying this, but getting line reads correct is second in my opinion to getting emotional truth correct. I've had jobs where there was no chance at changing the line. But I take the approach that I'm not going to blame anyone else -- or let anyone else blame me -- if something's not right with the final product. If that means changing a line on the fly, so be it.

February 24, 2011 at 9:43PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


First off, what a very good series this is! From my own perspective I believe the process starts with a story which becomes a script. Add a producer, director and a crew, all of whom add or subtract something else. Finally there is the cast and the same applies. The process is now 6 layers deep. Now comes rehearsal, shooting and post-production. We are at 9 layers. It's called team work.
A bad actor can be made to look good by technique, for example keep the bad actor in long shot when saying a good line. The line still works and the actor does not spoil it. A good actor can be ruined by the same technique. A physical actor, like Robin WIliams, constantly held in close-up will appear to be over-acting. An essentially still actor like Lee Marvin would be wasted in long shot. So, there are techniques to make actors look better or worse.
As Dave wrote, it all starts with the story. I have listened to so many arrogant Hollywood 'stars' relate how they didn't know what was coming next, how they decided to play a scene or write a page of dialogue. They did it all by themselves. They decided the character, the story lines, the action as if a writer was never involved. I have never heard a real actor make those kind of comments.
A bad story story, is always that. A bad production is always that. What a good director does is blend a delicate mix of everything good, and when you have a bad actor you may have to dig deep to find it but you will find something. The real trick is to put all the good bits on film. I am a firm believer in the grammar of film and, like launguage, bad grammar spoils the message. Then, as per the three part theory, (with which I agree) a final product is distributed. Which brings me to my final point, good directors are born, not made!

February 25, 2011 at 4:03AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

John Gardner

Love the practical details, John.

One of the things that makes directing so difficult is dealing with a large number of personalities -- each of whom has something to offer, and varying amounts of talent and commitment to the project. Being able to work with people is as important as the artistic vision part of it.

February 25, 2011 at 3:06PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I agree with that Raafi. A director is the ultimate manager of all things and that includes the personalities of the actors. Professional actors will always give you a performance but what they also frequently do, but not always, is hinder the process with their personality. The tricky part is putting the personality to sleep to allow the performance to shine through. Stage actors do just that all the time. Many screen actors are different - particularly Americans. Europeans suffer from it less but I think most directors waste a huge amount of time dealing with personality traits, problems and tics. Who'd be a director!

February 28, 2011 at 2:02PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

John Gardner

Great series !!

Although i agree that some directors are quick to blame the actors for their failings, some actors just plain suck :)

February 25, 2011 at 7:53AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Wow, I never knew that this was possible.

March 4, 2011 at 9:02AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I agree with nearly all the incites in this article - as an actor, more Day-Lewis less Keanu, I often need the directors eye to make sure I don't sway or over play on camera. So often these days Directors have no idea how to direct or manipulate artist's into directions that they are missing. in a single take, without enough rehearsal on the scene, the actor can fall into playing the scene as written, and we all know good actors bring layers to every scene, but they need 'Directors'to help them accomplish this sometimes, or at least to let them know when its not right.

October 25, 2012 at 2:49PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM