You’re finally on set and about to shoot the big scene… but your lead actor won’t come out of their trailer.
Or they insist on changing the dialogue. Or they no longer want to sit in the car you have prepped for them.
There’s no time for this! What can you do?
Second, don’t kill your lead actor. It’s not worth the prison time and unfortunately, you’d just have to recast that role anyway.
Now, there are times when a firm hand may be necessary. There are times when you may need to raise your voice and tell an actor or the crew that they need to stop fucking around and get to work. But that shouldn’t be your first, second, or even third option.
So let's discuss how to avoid becoming that director who yells.
How to Approach the Problem
It’s helpful to come to conversations with actors, particularly when they’re being difficult, with the understanding that they’re scared. Even if they’re being strident or obstinate, it’s usually coming from a place of insecurity. Even though you're putting in way more hours behind the scenes, they are the ones who are going to be up on the screen.
For better or worse, they become the face of the show. As writers or directors or producers, we’re concerned about so many variables that it’s easy to forget that the actor is in that very vulnerable position. Others (us) have the final say in how they look and sound, so it can feel like a highwire act for them.
So what do you do to help talk them down?
If they’re up on a highwire and frightened, then try and be their net. Let them know that they’re safe and they can trust you. Explain to them that you understand how they’re feeling and that you have their back. You will make them look good. You’re on the same team.
This may not always be easy because you’re under a lot of stress and they’re making your job harder! At this moment, you may be the one doing the award-worthy acting by pretending to be calm and easygoing. But the reward of a comfortable, open, and accessible actor is worth it.
Editing Is Your Friend
Let’s say being nice and friendly and acting like a human cup of chamomile tea hasn't worked at all. The actor still won’t come out of their trailer or they refuse to do the line as written. Remember that there’s always an opportunity to reshape their performance in the edit.
For example, an actor constantly changes a line that needs to be said the way it’s written on the page. If you can get them to give you variations on the line or even portions of the line that you can cut together, then you don’t need to fight with them. You can move on and know that you’ll fix it in post, as they say.
Or, if your actor continually likes to improv in the scene and it throws everything off, why not tell them that they're doing an incredible job and their improv is incredible, but.. maybe they could move their improv to the end of the scene?
Then you can let them riff to their heart’s content once you have all you need and feel good knowing that you can snip all the excess later.
Pick Your Battles
You're almost setting up a new scene, and you’ve planned to have your actor sitting at a bar. The dolly is laid, the lights are set, and everything is ready to go, but suddenly the actor feels like they’d be better standing up at the jukebox.
What to do? You can ask them nicely to please do it as planned. Or, you can take your DP aside and see how difficult it would be to switch up the shot. Maybe it’s only 10 minutes. Great. Maybe you let this one go and let your actor feel like they have a win?
But what if it’s going to take an hour and the trucks are off-site, etc.? Then maybe you stand firm on this one and explain to the actor that, regrettably, they will need to make it work because of all the issues it entails. And then maybe you sweeten the deal by explaining that if you took all that extra time to change the shot, then you wouldn’t have time for their close-up or the number of takes they’d like.
If you’re directing try not to approach the set like a dictator. Instead, think like a politician. As often as possible, convince your actors and crew to follow you rather than ordering them into line.
The Big Guns
And if none of that works, if the actor is still being impossible even though you've tried to accommodate them, call in the producer. Ideally, you have an engaged, creative, hands-on producer with you. But even if that isn’t the case, the producer is the one who cuts the checks and everyone, especially your actors, knows that.
If you’re calling in the producer to tell this problematic actor to get their shit together, they will usually know that there’s more than simply creative preference on the line. They will understand that this is not about you as the director or writer being a diva or being difficult, but about the thing we all secretly care about—money.
And as an actor, one thing you know not to do is to mess with getting paid. That's one of the reasons why producers can be so valuable.
Directors and writers and actors can sometimes have a contentious relationship. They’re all pushing and pulling, trying to craft the story as they see it. But the producer is often above it all. They are there to make sure everyone gets paid, fed, and that the project gets completed on time. A good producer will keep their powder dry for when they need it.
So, if none of your kind words, cajoling, or scheming works, do what you must and call the damn producer.
Do you have any advice for working with difficult talent? Leave it in the comments!