There are many responsibilities that fall onto the shoulders of a director. One of the most important responsibilities they have is to direct the actors of a film. How do great directors bring out great performances from an actor? What is the relationship between director and actor? How should a director communicate with an actor? In this article, we will answer all of these questions and lay out actionable tips on how to direct actors for film that will help any director get the best performances. 

Watch: How to Direct Actors — 23 Directors Explain

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How to Direct Actors for Film

1. Get to know your actors

The first step in learning how to direct actors for film is understanding that filmmaking is an intrinsically collaborative art form. And through collaboration real relationships between people develop.

How do actors and directors work together to produce the best work? Far before getting on set with your actor and shooting, it is important to first get to know them. How do they work? What inspires them? What is their background? What is their process in approaching a role?

These are only a few questions you may want to ask when first meeting your actors. Getting to know them on a personal level and establishing a relationship will help your actors be more comfortable with you as they work. It can also give you a better understanding of how to best direct them. 

Learning How to Direct Actors for Film

2. Be their resource

Once you’ve had at least a meet and greet with your actor, they will begin preparing for the role. Every actor approaches a role differently. Some are classical actors while some may be method actors. All great actors will undoubtedly have questions for you.

Whether it be about the story, the character, or the world of the film, directing actors involves questions, answers and discussion.

It is important to be a resource for an actor and allow them to ask whatever questions they need to properly prepare for the role. Some directors go as far as providing music, historical letters, or characters within cinema for inspiration. 

To get a better idea of what kind of materials might help an actor, check out this video in which Quentin Tarantino and Leonardo DiCaprio breakdown the main character of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and the inspirations behind the role. 

Leonardo DiCaprio & Quentin Tarantino: How to Direct Actors for Film

Tarantino introduced DiCaprio to various past characters in Western television shows and films to give insight on the character of Rick Dalton. Not only did this give DiCaprio a direction, but it was an effective way at getting on the same page for both director and actor.

Working with Actors on Set

3. Create the right environment

After all the preparation and pre-production, the day will finally arrive that you and your actors step on set to finally shoot. Before saying “action,” it is important that you take any necessary steps to create the right environment on set for your actor. This will vary from genre to genre and actor to actor. 

For example, a serious environment on set may be more important for a method actor in a dramatic film. On the other hand, comedic actors may benefit from a relaxed, lighthearted set. Whatever the mood may be, it may be a good idea to communicate this with your crew so they may also facilitate the right environment for your actors. 

How to Direct Actors for Film

4. Find the directing sweet spot

There are a few mistakes new directors often make. The most common mistake is that new directors either direct too little or direct too much. Directing too little may look like giving zero feedback, information, or directing to an actor. Directing too much looks like a director that tells an actor how to feel or exactly what they have to act like. Both can confuse an actor and take away from a great performance. Instead, you must find the sweet spot of directing actors.

Finding this sweet spot takes time and practice. Many great filmmakers have very different directing styles. This video by The Discarded Image breaks down the varying processes of a few of cinema’s greatest directors.

How do actors and directors work together

As you can see from the video, how directors work with actors varies greatly. Finding the sweet spot of how you direct actors will depend on your artistic preferences, the scene, and your actor. If they are asking questions, odds are they need a bit more direction. If they are lacking variety, authenticity, or spontaneity, you may need to reel back your notes. This step requires the most amount of practice as well as trial and error.

How to Direct a Scene

5. Do not limit your actor with specificity

Speaking of too much direction, one of the most common ways directors can limit a performance is by being too specific. Telling an actor, “You’re feeling angry in this scene” or “I want the audience to feel your anger” can limit how your actor interprets the scene. 

This can lead to a lack of variety and/or spontaneity and ultimately a worse performance. You may be thinking, “Well how do I bring out a great performance without being specific?”

If the following filmmakers weren't open to improvisation and spontaneity, we wouldn't get these iconic moments.

Directing actors means letting them go off script

This leads us to our next tip which is effective at creating authentic performance — building the circumstances around them. 

How to Direct Actors for Film

6. Establish the circumstance of a scene

Rather than establishing the emotions your actor should be feeling, establish the circumstance of a scene. Renowned acting coach Sanford Meisner defines acting as “Behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” To behave truthfully, you must allow your actors to feel genuine emotions under the circumstances you create.

To establish the circumstance of a scene for an actor, you must communicate three things to them: their character’s goal, the obstacle, and the stakes. With this information, actors can interpret the scene without limitations. 

Working with Actors on Set

7. Trust your actor

One of the most important components of great artistic collaboration is trust. And trust is a two-way street. This means that if you wish for your actors to trust you and your vision as a director, you must also trust them as an actor. 

If an actor tells you that there is a line that feels consistently awkward or unnatural, be open to what they have to say and consider a rewrite of the line. After all, they are the ones performing it and if they feel unnatural saying the line, their performance may come off unnatural as well. This is also relevant when it comes to blocking

At the end of the day you have the final say as the director. However, trusting your actors instincts and being open to what they have to say will make the process and the result much better. 

What Makes Good Directing in Film

8. Allow your actors to experiment

A big part of trusting your actors is trusting their desire and ability to try new things. In other words, allow you actors to experiment. Some of the most memorable performances in cinema have come from improvised scenes.

One of the biggest advocates of allowing actors to improvise and experiment is Martin Scorsese

In fact, encouraging actors to experiment is a key distinction to Scorsese’s directing style. To get a better idea of how much this impacts Scorsese’s best films, check out our video analysis of the director below. 

How to direct a scene  •  Subscribe on YouTube

Not only does this experimentation produce something spontaneous, but it produces something authentic which ultimately connects with an audience. Actor’s often experiment and play off of one another which leads us to our next directing tip. 

How to Direct Actors for Film

9. Utilize other actors for real reactions

Another way to elicit great, authentic performances is by utilizing other actors in the scene. This works in a cause and effect manner. 

Rather than giving an actor the effect you desire, create a cause to achieve this effect. This cause can be achieved through another actor. For example, if an actor must be surprised in a scene, direct another actor to do something spontaneous that elicits surprise. 

A great example of this technique, can be found in Wolf of Wall Street. In a scene where Jordan Belfort has lunch with his boss, Belfort is first introduced to the absurd, wild culture of Wall Street. Take a look at this video that compares the screenplay of the scene to the actual scene. 

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)  •  Working with actors on set

Did you notice all of the unexpected lines and actions from Matthew McConaughey? Leonardo DiCaprio’s genuine reactions are elicited by McConaughey’s improvised performance.

Scorsese’s willingness to experiment and let actors play off each other bettered both McCoungahey’s and DiCaprio’s performances. 

What Makes Good Directing in Film

10. Acknowledge the work of an actor

As the director, what you say directly after a take is just as important as what you say before. No matter how great or poorly a take goes, it is always important to acknowledge the work of an actor. Here is director Michael Hauge explaining why this is so important for great performances.

How to Direct Actors for Film by Mark W. Travis & Michael Hauge

To recap the video, it is best to assume that most actors are trying their best with the information they have. Simply saying, “Thank you” or “Very good” before any notes or feedback makes the actor’s effort acknowledged. 

This is important because it helps create a safe environment in which actors do not become insecure or self conscious because of a bad take. Jumping immediately to criticism after a take can make an actor shut down and lead to a poor performance. This also helps actors be more receptive to criticism or feedback because their efforts are acknowledged. 

Guide to Directing Actors

11. Be mindful of your actor’s time

While this may be a more logistical tip, it undoubtedly affects the quality of your actor’s performance. No one likes waiting for long periods of time. This is especially true for actors who spend time and energy getting into character. Be mindful of your actor’s time and try to stay true to their call times. This will help keep your production on track and help bring out better performances. 

The key to this is effective production scheduling. While this may be out of the jurisdiction of the director, it is important for the director to communicate the importance of call times to whoever is making the schedule. Utilizing software like StudioBinder’s production scheduling app can help you develop a schedule that is optimal for your talent.

How do Actors and Directors Work Together

12. You’re in this together

At the end of the day, it is important to remember that both you and the actor share the same goal of telling a story to the best of your abilities. Together, you are simply trying to figure out the best way a film, scene, or even take should play out. Even an auteur director like Quentin Tarantino understands the importance of an actor and director being on the same level.

In fact, it's an integral part of Tarantino’s directing style to put himself in the shoes of an actor and collaborate together. 

Quentin Tarantino Explains How to Direct Actors for Film  •  Subscribe on YouTube

Putting egos aside and allowing the collaborative nature of film take place is the best way to tell a great story. Knowing this relieves pressure from both you and the actor, bringing out both of your artistic potential. 

Up Next

What Does a Director Do?

Directing actors is only one responsibility that falls onto the role of the director. What other responsibilities does a director have and how do they achieve them to produce a great film? We answer both of these questions and more in our next article that demystifies the role of the director. 

Up Next: Director Duties →
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