Don’t actors know that you have a million other things to do on your movie? They’re not the center of the universe!
Wrong—they are. Or rather, you need to make them feel like they are if you want to get the best performances out of them. Even if you have only 15 days to shoot your whole movie, like I had on my latest feature, Rainbow Time, you can’t let things like scheduling woes poison one of the most sensitive aspects of moviemaking: the acting.
To get to the heart of what actors truly need from their directors—as someone on both sides of the fence—I interviewed my Rainbow Time co-stars (Timm Sharp, Melanie Lynskey and Jay Duplass, who also served as executive producer with Mark Duplass), plus actor Steve Zissis (who co-created the HBO show Togetherness with the Duplass brothers), to be brutally honest about their innermost desires.
Linas Phillips (LP): What do you wish first-time directors knew when talking to actors?
Jay Duplass (JD): Every actor needs different things. I’ve learned this more from being a director than being an actor. Some actors just want result-oriented direction, like, “I want you to come in here, scream and yell, and when she says this line, I want you to cry.” Some actors just do better with that, because they get confused if you talk too much. Then there are other actors who, if you tell them what you want it to look like, it will totally destroy them.
LP: Why does it destroy them?
JD: Because I think a lot of actors feel that if you “name” a thing, then that thing can never be perfectly executed—so they want to feel like whatever they create in the realm of that emotion will ultimately be the perfect thing.
LP: What do you hope to get from a director? Melanie, what do you like about working with Jay, for example, who directed you on Togetherness?
Melanie Lynskey (ML): He does something that all my favorite directors have done, and you did on Rainbow Time: Let the actor come into a very, very safe environment. There’s a sense of “let’s just play it out.” Whatever you try is gonna be acceptable. And then when you start to work on the scene, everyone’s opinion is as valid as each other’s. You understand that these directors really knew from the beginning what they wanted, but they’re letting you bring your stuff into it, and they’re very open to seeing a version that’s potentially more interesting to them than the one that they imagined.
JD: Certain directors just want you to be a puzzle piece. They don’t want you to be in charge of your character or have as much ownership of what you’re doing.
LP: What can a director do to gain your trust?
ML: I need to feel like they trust me and I need to feel that I’m not being micromanaged. It’s really tricky, honestly, because I can be very protective of my work, and sometimes I come in with such a strong point of view that it can be difficult for people to bring their own as well. But I really need them to, especially if somebody’s a writer-director—I really need to know that I’m making them happy and I’m giving them what they want. So it’s about being brave and being open. Brave enough to say, “Here’s my vision of it,” [only] after you’ve seen what that actor has to offer.
Timm Sharp (TS): My advice is to not be afraid to “direct” actors. Oftentimes, first-time directors are working on a lower-budget project and the actors they get are essentially donating their time and talent. Because they don’t want to “ask too much of” someone, that tends to make directors afraid to give any acting direction at all. Don’t get me wrong—making sure your actors are comfortable and safe is very important, but trust that they agreed to it because they believe in the project. Don’t let them down. If at the end of the day the project suffers because the director was too afraid to give an actor direction, it’s a big waste of everyone’s time and money.
LP: What happens when a director is really rigid and won’t let you do a scene the way you imagined?
JD: I’ll just ask for one take my way. If they’re just really adamant about doing it their way and it’s very different from what I think is the most interesting choice, I’ll say “OK, let’s do these takes, but you have to give me one.” And then I’ll get maybe one take at the end and I gotta try to do it all [in that take].
LP: What is an example of something a director has said to you that felt insensitive?
Steve Zissis (SZ): When a director points out that what I am doing is not working.
LP: But isn’t that concise and constructive?
SZ: Not in a good way, because it may cause the actor to get in his head and fill the actor with doubt. It’s better to be concise with what you want to achieve, rather than point out what’s not working.
LP: So what could the director say in that situation?
SZ: A director can do a little bit of fudging of the situation, without criticism. Suggesting, “OK, we have that version. Now let’s try this…” It keeps everything very positive and it keeps the flow going.
LP: And it’d be cool if the director were rooting for your version as much as theirs.
JD: Exactly. Hopefully they want you to surprise them. But most directors are not like that. That’s why Mark and I rarely direct an early take. One, we love to be surprised by something magical that we couldn’t have imagined. Two, we know that the actor has been practicing this in the mirror, and you wanna give them a chance to express their thing. Three, from a directorial point of view, the most important reason is that we’ve learned that if you want to change what an actor wants to do, it’s much easier and quicker once you’ve allowed them to express what they’ve come to express.
So if an actor comes in with, like, the letter Z and you really want the letter A from the very beginning, if you just say straight up, “We don’t want Z. We want A,” you’re gonna spend 10 takes moving that actor to A, with them feeling like they never got to express what they created inside of them. Instead, you give them one or two takes of Z, and they feel honored. They feel like we got to see it and if we still don’t want it, then they’re way more game to just say, “OK, we did that; let’s switch tracks. We’re doing A now.” And they can switch tracks immediately.
LP: What do you do with a director when you get the sense that they’re unprepared or they don’t know what they want?
ML: I never say “yes” to something unless I have a very clear idea of how it resonates with me and what I want to do with it. But it can be frustrating, especially when you see people wasting time. When you see someone taking an hour for an insert shot, you know, rearranging objects in the room [laughs].
LP: “Sorry, we only have one take for you!”
ML: I worked with this one director—there was a scene where I was like in some sort of body of water and it was night and it was fucking freezing. He jumped into the shot and was messing around for so long and I was standing there, shivering. I was like, “What is he doing?” Someone said, “Oh, he’s just rearranging some blades of grass.”
It’s something I see happening when people are overwhelmed—they just start obsessing about tiny details. And you want to just like clap your hands in front of them and say, “There’s a bigger picture. What’s the story you’re telling? What are you trying to say?”