Directing Actors For The Screen - Part 2

Directing Actors For The Screen - Part 2
Stephen Wallace directing Bryan Brown and Chris McQuade at the time of Love Letters From Teralba Road. Circa 1977. 

Stephen Wallace directing Bryan Brown and Chris McQuade at the time of Love Letters From Teralba Road. Circa 1977. 



Actors can come from anywhere…from their agents or from casting agent recommendations, from audition notices posted on the net and on noticeboards, acting classes, from your friends or acquaintances. As a director you should make it your business to see as many Australian films and as much local theatre as you can. Watch as many show reels and/or actor graduations as you can. There are no short cuts to finding good actors.

If possible, do not cast from show reels, you-tube or performances you’ve seen, although you CAN do this successfully sometimes, but bring the actor in for a live audition. Actors don’t mind this, unless they are big stars, they know it is part and parcel of acting. Auditions help you see how appropriate the actor is, how skilled they are and what their personalities are like. All are important.

It is fatal to cast an inappropriate actor in a role and it’s amazing how many directors do it. You must have a clear idea of your characters and what you require of them before you start casting, although you should always be ready to be surprised by an actor. Unless you are simply looking for a box office star the question to ask is not: ”is this actor pretty enough, likeable enough or a possible lover for me?” but only:  “can this actor bring the qualities to the role that the script demands?”

You also have to make a judgement about the actor’s skill level and what you might require of them. Skilled actors can save you a lot of trouble. If an actor is appropriate but seems unskilled then you have to make a decision about whether you can guide them to the performance you need. It’s always a risk with untrained actors.  George Whaley, the theatre and film director, used to say to his AFTRS classes : ”when in doubt cast the (trained) actor.”

How do you tell if they are trained? Well, you can ask them where they trained but usually it’s obvious from their professional attitude, their work without fuss or excuse and rare false moments on screen. Judgement of this comes with experience.

An actor’s personality is of less importance but worth noting. You should feel you ‘would like’ to work with them, if you sense trouble ahead (ie like a clash of personalities) there usually will be. Of course you have to learn to work with temperamental actors but it’s best to know about their problems beforehand, so you can work out strategies. (More about this next issue).

I always find it best to interview an actor before they do an audition, if humanly possible. It will seem like a waste of time but it becomes very clear in an interview whether the actor is unsuitable for you and actually avoids time wasting later. It allows you talk to the actor about the script and about the scenes you are giving them. Always try to give them two scenes with at least one of the scenes an emotionally challenging one.

Never talk about “my script”, talk about “the script”. If you have a copy of it or a copy of the scenes then place them (or it) symbolically on the table between you and actor. That is, keep the script impersonal…it’s the ‘work ‘you’re doing together, it’s not ‘precious’ or ‘owned’ by you. Let the actor feel part of it.

It’s a good idea to let them read the whole script.

The actor also needs to have time to prepare for the audition so try to give them the scenes at least two clear days ahead of the audition. Do not dictate how they should perform the scenes but rather talk about the nature of the script and the sort of film you want to make.  Let the actor feel free to be creative.

The Audition

You must have an appropriate venue for the audition. If you can’t afford a rehearsal hall or room then at least use the tidiest and quietest room in your own house or flat. Actors don’t mind where they audition as long as it’s as impersonal a space as possible (ie don’t make it in your bedroom, better to be in the kitchen or lounge/living room). If you are working with a casting agent (and have the money to do this) they will generally have their own rooms.

The space needs to be quiet so the actors can be heard and you can concentrate.

If you are able, try to see as much of the recorded work of the actor as you can, before the audition. Be selective in who you audition (they must be a real chance for the role) because you can waste an awful of time auditioning wrong actors.

At the actual audition you must, of course, have a camera and someone to operate it. Record the name of the actor on film before the audition so you don’t get confused. It’s best if the actor has another actor to play against. If not an actor then someone who is familiar with the script. 

Allow the actor to do their version of the scene before any direction from you, preferably without a rehearsal. This way you can see what they have to offer.  This can be both surprising and rewarding. You can then direct a different performance from the actor and check how they respond.

If an actor is given enough time and information to prepare scenes then you can be certain that what they offer you in an audition will be what they can offer you in the film. 

Always be polite to actors, even if you are not going to use them, you may need them again. Inform all actors or their agents as quickly as possible whether or not they have been cast.

You can ask an actor also to do improvisations or monologues. You can do call-backs. Actors will always come back for a second audition. 

You don’t have to rush your decision.

Judgement about who should get roles is a personal, instinctive thing. It can’t be taught. You may have disagreements about casting with your producer, production company, casting agent or, if directing television, the television station. You may have to fight for your choices. You won’t always win but it’s important to get as many as of the actors of your choice as you can. They will be part of the way you direct, part of your personality and part of your survival as a director. 

There are ways of fighting and manipulating to get the cast you want but you have to work that out for yourself. There’s no point alienating the TV station or your producer but you have to learn to be persuasive. Your survival may depend on it. If it’s your own film, of course, there’s no problem.

I’ve run out of space so script analysis and rehearsals will have to be discussed in the next issue.

NEXT : Script Analysis (for the actor) and rehearsal techniques.