All posts by Eric Schumacher

Directing New or Inexperienced Actors

I have been an actor for most of my life. I am deeply, madly, passionately in love with the art of acting. I have also been directing for quite a few years on productions both large and small and have worked with actors of all skill levels. I am frequently tasked to direct new talent and it always pleases me to see them come through with a performance that they are surprised and pleased by. However, even experienced directors can struggle when working with inexperienced talent. Over the years I’ve learned some key things that can make that experience much smoother.

There are two common types of inexperienced actors: actors who are looking to make a career at being on-screen talent but simply don’t have a lot of experience, or in some cases, not a lot of training under their belt yet, and actors who have no intention of becoming the next Marlon Brando or Helen Mirren but are performing in front of the camera as a spokesperson for their company.

Your approach will be a little different between these two types. The career actor is likely hired by you and presumably has at least studied the art a little and may have some experience or common frame of reference to work with. The completely untrained talent who hasn’t devoted much energy to considering the ways of an actor may have no point of reference at all and will have to be led by the hand.

Consider the following in working with either of these actors:

1. Build Trust. Even for a seasoned screen actor, acting is not easy. There’s a great deal of pressure to give a perfect performance in a very short amount of time. The less experienced actor has a greater risk of being paralyzed by stage fright and may find it hard to relax enough to connect with the material or the audience.
A bond of trust with the director is very important to any actor. A skilled actor is used to working on many sets where they receive minimal guidance from the director. It is not the best circumstance but it is common. If you are directing a brand new actor however, you must establish trust as soon as possible and never let it be diminished. The new actor needs to trust you enough to let their guard down, lose their fear and let go of their worries of looking foolish. As quickly as possible, demonstrate your competence, experience and knowledge, and make clear that you have the actor’s best interests at heart. It is also important that the actor see that you have control of the environment and work well with your crew. This bond of trust may be the single most important factor in bringing a good performance out of the actor.

2. Give a Set Tutorial. Give your inexperienced actor a primer on how a set works, before you start production. Explain what each person’s roles are and teach the actor a little bit about set culture before they set foot on the set. I learned this the hard way. If you work in film and video all the time it’s easy to forget that people who do not work in that environment have absolutely no idea what the crew is saying a lot of the time. They don’t really know what the expectations are or how important it is to very quickly follow certain directions. Take a step back to basics. Be prepared to explain other things to your talent as need be. It will help them to relax.

3. Give your Crew a heads up: Make sure to talk privately with your entire crew and inform them that you will have an inexperienced actor on your set. Remind them that they must not show any signs of frustration with the actor’s inexperience, even if it puts you behind schedule. We all know that making film or video is very difficult work. Production crews often work long backbreaking hours and they do occasionally need to blow off some steam. Even on the best sets, tensions can sometimes run high. It’s important that crew says and does absolutely nothing that might break the confidence of your actors. Criticism delivered at the wrong time and in the working way can absolutely destroy even a seasoned actor’s confidence. Imagine what that can do to someone who is already terrified they may be making a fool out of themselves. Encourage the crew to help you to maintain a particularly positive environment and make sure that you are the best example of that.

4. Know your Technique: Know your basic acting technique well. In fact, it helps a lot if you are an expert actor. When dealing with new or inexperienced actors you may spend 50% of your time teaching the actor techniques for relaxation, focus, enunciation, natural delivery, accessing emotions, and set etiquette. It truly helps to have a breadth of experience and knowledge to pull from to figure out which techniques will best help the new actor in the moment. It also helps to have teaching experience. You must be able to disseminate that information respectfully and effectively. If you don’t have experience as an actor, you may want to either have an experienced actor on the set to help coach your actor (under your guidance) or at least consult with you. I’ve done this on occasion for other directors.

5. Rehearse: Rehearsal is a luxury we rarely have in the film or video world. Schedules and budgets often make it impossible. That’s a sad statement but it’s often true. If it is possible I push hard to get rehearsal time with my actors regardless of their skill level. Through the rehearsal process, you can determine what the strengths and weaknesses of your talent are and start building that trust with them. You can also see what their natural emotional tendencies are and where you can push them. This is useful and important for skilled actors, but for an inexperienced actor the power of rehearsal time cannot be denied.

6. Regular Encouragement: Make sure to encourage your talent. Many directors when working with skilled actors have a practice of not commenting on an actor’s performance unless something in the performance needs to be changed. Unskilled actors in particular however need encouragement. They have no contextual experience to determine whether their performance was effective by themselves. Regular encouragement will help build confidence and allow your actors to take direction and suggested changes without taking it personally.

7. Breathing: Remind your actors to breathe. Teach them basic breathing exercises and make sure that they practice them periodically. Nervous people tend not to breathe deeply enough which makes them tense and makes it hard for them to think well.

8. Patience: Have patience with your actor. They will sense your frustration which can undo all of the work you’ve done in building up their confidence and establishing trust. Curb your own frustration and see your inexperienced actor as a puzzle that you must solve. Be excited for the opportunity to help take someone from fear of performance to joy and let your actor see how proud you are of them when they nail a performance or take direction well.

Working with new actors can be extremely challenging but it can also be a wonderful experience, like watching a flower bloom. As an actor starts to learn their stride and you guide them there you can develop an unshakable bond with a fellow artist. That is after all what a director is: a leader. The director is the creative head of a production and is responsible for guiding every department into creating a cohesive and great product. Do your best to do it with grace and style so that everyone feels good about the experience including the inexperienced actor, who may begin their work with you feeling truly frightened and end the experience feeling fulfilled and empowered. As the director, it’s your job to make everyone look good.

Would you like additional tips on the subject? Feel free to contact me at Seelie Studios.

May your filming always be awesome!

Eric Schumacher
Creative Director
Seelie Studios, LLC
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