The Director-Actor Relationship

When a crew has spent all day building, lighting and framing the world around them, one misstep from an actor can feel like the ultimate disappointment. If they’re unprepared, frazzled, or lost, a set’s collective frustration becomes palpable. Because truth be told, every ounce of preparation – every dime spent – all comes down to them. A shot can look gorgeous and sound incredible, but if your performer is visibly uncomfortable or off, your perfectly-lit, perfectly focused take goes in the garbage. Too many of those garbage takes, and you’ll watch helplessly as your story goes up in smoke.

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As a director, I hate it when I hear the very difficult job of acting being trashed, or made light of by other departments. Sure, actors get cushy trailers and later call times, but their work makes or breaks your project. Taking their role for granted, mistreating them, or failing to provide them with every possible opportunity to craft a high-quality performance is cutting yourself off at the knees. The Director-Actor Relationship is crucially important – and it begins with a director doing some serious listening.

Like many filmmakers, I began my career by putting friends in front of the lens. My early work was almost entirely cast with actors I knew from theatre school, workshops or just my social circle. Part of this was, of course, driven by necessity – at the time, every dollar of every ultramicrobudget went to camera & crafty. But a lucky side effect was a lot of built-in familiarity. Rapport and a common creative language was always pre-established. Because the actors and I could get on the same page in a quick conversation – even moments before calling action – I was free to spend more time wrestling with the technical elements of directing.

When I stepped outside of this cozy comfort zone and began working with actors who were new to me, I quickly learned that I’d need to find a way to form deep trust on the fly. There was trial and major error. There were line readings. There were days where I held back out of fear and effectively stunted a performance that would’ve shone with a gentle push. There were days where I jumped around like a Muppet doing a one woman show because I couldn’t verbalize blocking.

…it’s possible that I still do that.

My advice to all directors is to rehearse, minimally, if at all possible. It doesn’t ruin the magic. It builds collaborative pathways in a time & space where getting it ‘wrong’ is allowed. If rehearsals are not an option, I advocate for a sit-down with lead actors before shooting begins, to suss out each other’s styles of communication. I personally like to know which side of their face an actor favors, if they prefer physical or verbal direction, and where we have common ground, both as artists and ‘civilians.’

Most of all, I find it essential that every performer on my set understand that their total safety is my top priority. That ‘safety’ of course applies to stunts and physical challenges, but to me, it’s also a promise that the actor’s image and talents will be well-represented. This gives both sides of the table the freedom and permission to figure out the puzzle together.

In any of these pre-production scenarios, giving your actors tonal parameters & references is crucial. And that means more than just “this is a comedy!” vs. “this is a drama.” As actress Helen Highfield puts it, “It’ll be real confusing if [a director] thinks you’re making Barry and you think you’re making Brooklyn Nine Nine.” Both acting and directing require a person to make thousands of tiny, vital choices. If you’ve communicated the tone and framework of the ‘vision’ & fostered a safe environment for your actor, you will both make choices that serve the whole of the film.

Though I still cast friends as often as I can – and feel very fortunate to know a large pool of incredible actors – I’ve now grown to relish the opportunity to form new relationships & methods of communication with performers. When those rare moments of discomfort arrive, I try to bring it back to that established trust -reminding both of us that we are all there to make the same thing. That we’re just people, with the unique good fortune to play make believe for a living.

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Maggie F. Levin is a screenwriter & director with rock n’ roll roots.  Recently, Maggie worked as a director and staff writer on Season 2 of MISS 2059 (New Form Digital/go90). She is the director of THE FRIENDLESS FIVE (Fullscreen) and writer-director of the groundbreaking VR film VAIN: THIS PARTY SUCKS (Nashville Film Festival, VeerVR & more). Other directing credits include YouTube Multicultural’s REGISTER TO VOTE IN 1:34 campaign, FAE VR (STX Entertainment).

Photo Credit: Sela Shiloni