Directing Actors: Common Conflicts and How to Avoid Them

Working with actors is a director's most important duty. Here are a few tips that might make that a little easier.

Like many who become interested in directing films, the thought of bringing written words to life on the big screen is an absolute thrill. You get to work with cameras and lights and do the little rectangle thing with your fingers so everyone knows you're the real deal. But what about the other side of directing: the human side where you have to direct actors?

This is certainly every director's primary task, but it's also the one that can be the most confusing and difficult to perform correctly. In this video, filmmaker Rubidium Wu of Crimson Engine offers a bunch of great advice on how directors and actors can collaborate to avoid the many pitfalls of this very dynamic, but very tricky creative relationship.

Directors bear so much of the burden of making a film. They're involved from the time the script is accepted to the moment of the film's release and are responsible for making sure that the rickety boat that most film projects are don't end up sinking. So yes, if you're directing a film, you're going to need to employ tons and tons of skills to get the thing made.

However, we all make mistakes, especially in the pressure cooker of film production. You're going to make mistakes with your DP, your 1st AD, your editor, and yes, especially your actors. But most actors you work with, regardless of experience level, are going to be forgiving of the many sins you're bound to commit on set, like not having answers to important questions right away or, *wince*, reading lines. However, you don't leave yourself a whole lot of room if you don't come to work with respect, not only for them as a human being, but for them as a creative, as well. That might be the single most important "skill" you have as a director, the ability to respect others.

More often than not, respect tends to take you much further than sheer talent and experience, so when you work with your actors, be sure to always come correct with respect, patience, and a willingness to collaborate.

Respect aside, here is the practical advice Wu shared in the video that you can use to become a better director:

  • When you're not getting what you want from an actor, be patient and work through it.
  • Respect your actors' territory and expect yours to be respected as well.
  • Understand your actors' process and share what yours is, too.
  • Protect your actors. Don't let the DP, other actors, or any crew members get in the way of their work.
  • Don't allow anyone else to direct your actors.
  • Don't give direction in public. Take your actors aside to give them notes.
  • Don't overdirect. You hired your actors to do a job, so let them do it.
  • "Get in the pool." Don't make your actors feel like they're performing for you. Instead, take part in the creative process together.
  • Don't give line readings. Just don't!
  • Give plenty of time to rehearse.

Wu also shared a handful of acting tips, which are not only helpful for actors but for directors wanting to know what kinds of standards they might want to put in place before shooting starts.

  • Be on time.
  • Know your lines and queues.
  • Don't be married to your performance.
  • Stay focused, even when the focus isn't on you.
  • Stay off your phone.
  • "Stay in your lane."

What are some other helpful tips for directors working with actors? Let us know down below.     

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Your Comment


I'd like to give a few more suggestions you can add in the tips of an actor.
1. Listen to your director. Whatever happens, you still need to listen to your director even if you think otherwise. It can be good if your director gives you the creative freedom to do something you would think is "better" but most of the time, the director knows what he's doing. Listen to him.
2. Don't fight your director. Respect him always.
3. Apart from respecting your director, respect everyone in the crew and always be nice to them. Never forget to greet them a hello or a good morning when you see them.
4. Be natural. Don't be scared on set.

March 15, 2018 at 12:33PM, Edited March 15, 12:33PM


The only thing I take issue with is, "Don't give direction in public. Take your actors aside to give them notes." An actor is a craftsman like anyone else on set and should be able to take direction on set like you would any other crew member. Only in the rare case where it's something very sensitive would I discuss with them in private, otherwise, it's a massive waste of time to do that for every adjustment.

March 15, 2018 at 12:49PM


Hi, I'm in no way an actor... but let me give you some acting advice. UGH, director-splaining

March 15, 2018 at 3:14PM


How is this a constructive comment? You're in the WRONG business my friend...

March 16, 2018 at 9:28AM

Chris Kas
Jack of all trades

Wu understands that in screen acting the actor's process requires maximum subjectivity and vulnerability. Giving direction adjustments in private (which may only mean quiet tones on set) respects the creative space. It does not drag the actor into objectivity and it does not ask the actor to put on a 'public' face in between takes. This is the mark of a good director who understands the acting process. I know I'm working with someone I can trust when a director talks to me like this.

March 16, 2018 at 12:08PM

Ross Brannigan
Actor, Lecturer in video production

I guess this all depends on how you interpret, in private. I'm a director who operates his own camera, and has a very small crew, so I'm usually near the actor and don't need to shout. When I hear, in private, I interpreted that as off the set away from the other crew. No, you don't want to scream direction over a megaphone from across the set for a quiet, emotional scene, but if you're halfway across the set to begin with that's probably a bigger problem. Most directors I respect either stand next to the camera, or operate it themselves, so they can be in constant dialogue with their actors.

March 17, 2018 at 8:56AM