Directing Actors for the Screen - Part 1

Directing Actors for the Screen - Part 1
Stephen Wallace Directing on Turtle Beach with Gretta Scaachi

Stephen Wallace Directing on Turtle Beach with Gretta Scaachi

How do you get truthful, resonating performances from actors on the screen?
Is it just the hit and miss magic of individual actors or is there a method, a method that can be learnt and applied by any director?

While you CAN’T manufacture the magic of some individual actors you CAN apply a method to your whole approach to acting and actors, a method that will get you solid and consistent results. Individual brilliance can result from this but that is always a matter of the actor and the work that they are prepared to put in.


I believe that the work you put into actor preparation as a director can give you truthful, resonating performances at every level while giving all the actors the assistance they need to also be exceptional. Most of the time in filmmaking you don’t need exceptional acting, you need good everyday acting. There are no guarantees in acting or in directing acting, it’s always a gamble, but you can lessen the odds by having a method in the work you do.

In this series of articles I will go through one method, the method I have developed in my
own work. I don’t want to dictate it as the only method, there are several, but this is the method that has served me well for 35 years. I offer it as a starting point for beginners in your own search for your individual method. I will be specifically talking about four overlapping areas:

A. Understanding actors
B. Finding and auditioning actors
C. Script preparation and rehearsal techniques D. Judging performance

A. What is an Actor?

Ross McGregor a director friend as well as an acting teacher once, told me ; “You know, there is no such thing as an actor. There are only human beings trying to be actors”

You cannot treat anyone claiming to be an actor as a machine, even if they are experienced and famous. Most actors cannot just turn on a brilliant performance at any given moment any more than you can. Firstly they have to be suited to the role. Secondly they have to be given time to prepare. Even then it can be hit and miss.

Actors are extremely vulnerable to you as a director. During rehearsal and the shoot you are their eyes and ears, their only mirror and they rely instinctively on your judgement. It’s easy to demoralise them with careless comments. You need to understand not only what to say to them but how to speak to them in a language they can understand and to speak in a way which is encouraging.

Actors have to go through emotions and mental processes in playing roles that ordinary people, including directors, could not handle or even find socially acceptable. In front of the world they watch themselves grow old on the screen. They watch themselves scream, make love, grimace etc., every blemish in their bodies magnified.

They have to confront uncomfortable feelings in themselves, weaknesses and obsessions that no one else has to. Many actors also have blocks and insecurities in their personalities that make certain parts difficult for them to play. They expect sympathy and understanding from directors about this as well as insight and assistance in coping.

Actors are complex people in the business of exposing themselves emotionally and physically to the public. It’s a myth that actors hide behind their characters. Acting is a process of revealing. The only tools that actors have to work with are their own personalities and their training. Actors are directors friends, sometimes friends for life. If you understand this, you are on the way to understanding how to work with actors and how you have to relate to them to get good performances.

All actors are different, have different training and different ways of approaching their roles. As a director you have to be able to quickly discern their method and be as open and supporting to them in their way of doing things as you can. They in turn will be open to you and your way of doing things. A perfect collaboration will result in the best performances. But bear in mind that the director is in charge and actors expect the director to be in charge.

B. Finding Actors

Actors and would-be actors are everywhere.

How do you find these actors? You can start with audition websites, you can put up signs at theatres and the various acting schools or begin approaching individual actors agents’ or hire a professional casting agent.

Whichever way you go you will have to start holding auditions. Auditions are a skill in themselves. You can hold them in your own home, in a community hall or theatre or a
space provided by a casting agent. I once held auditions in a park! The most important item you will need in the audition is a camera.

How you run auditions, how to prepare the actor for them and how choose between competing performers and choose a balanced cast will be the subject of part 2 of this series.

At the beginning of your career you will often use close friends, family or willing people off the street to work in your productions. Often these people can be quite believable on screen, acting without artifice or pretension. Remember though that these sorts of actors are not trained and can only play themselves, not characters. Also their performances will normally be very flat, monotone.

Sometimes this will work well for you but mostly it is limiting. Also when you begin their will be a lot of young actors around you, some just out of acting school, all willing to work for nothing. You can be lucky and find good actors this way but you will be limited by their ages and again they will have difficulty playing roles away from their own personalities. The opportunity to pay actors opens up a wider range of ages and levels of experience.