Directing tips: Working with actors (part 2 of 3) - Wants, Behavior, and what not to say.

(Excerpt taken from my new forthcoming book, "Making Your First Blockbuster" to be published early 2019 by Michael Wiese Productions)

It's worth remembering that any character in any scene is always wanting for something. Always. Nothing else matters. Even if they get what they’re after, their “want” is now replaced with something else. Ultimately it doesn’t matter what color tie the character is wearing, what car they drive, or how they like to hold their teacup; what they “want” is the important thing. This is what drives them. The want is the objective. You might hear an actor ask, “What is my objective?” Or the classic, “What is my motivation?” It’s the same thing. I’d be a little nervous if an actor asked this, since they obviously hadn’t done their homework! However, if they need a little nudging or a reminder, then this is what they’re asking for. So the “objective” or “want” is the thing you’re always after, but how they play this objective is the key thing.


A little history: Constantin Stanislavsky was a Russian actor, director, and teacher born in 1863. He changed the way a lot of actors approached their craft by developing new methods of working. Stanislavsky spoke of the “Given Circumstances.” The Given Circumstances refer to everything that the character has ever done, their physical form, where they are mentally, and their current environment. So if our main character hates water after a near-death experience, and someone suggests going on a boat, this character is going to react a certain way. If Character A is about to go on a long road trip with friends, and finds Character B (who they dislike immensely) is also in the car, they are going to deliver their lines to them in a way corresponding with their history.

Emotion comes out of the given circumstances in addition to the action that is played in the moment. It’s worth noting here how little work the actor really has to do. Don’t forget the audience knows the characters given circumstances, so they’re probably ahead of you in knowing how the character will react. The actor’s “reaction” or line doesn’t require the given circumstances to be embedded within it, or that it be used to telegraph to the audience what they’re thinking. The trick is to let the audience and camera do most of your work for you. That’s good acting!


I first read about using “Magic as-if” in Judith Weston’s excellent book Directing Actors. As-if is a nice tool to use with actors that might help get the performances you’re after. It’s a tool to make small adjustments to actions that may need tweaking. The as-if doesn’t have any direct relation to the scene in question, but what you’re after is the result of the associated behavior.

"Any thinking or process the actor participates in must result in a behavior; it has to be physical so the camera can film it."

In a scene from a World War II film I made for ITV television, a soldier and a young war widow dance at a Christmas party; she hasn’t danced with anyone since her husband died in battle. The young solider approaches the widow and asks her to dance, to which she agrees and he takes her hand and walks to the dance floor. The scene wasn’t quite working and didn’t have the emotional significance that I was after so I told the actor portraying the soldier to “play the scene as if her bones were made of glass.” His behavior now changed. As he offered his hand to the widow and guided her to the dance floor, he was incredibly gentle, kept his distance a little as to not scare her, and made sure he supported her all the way. The direction resulted in a behavior that now showed us how emotionally fragile she was and that he needed to treat her that way physically to reflect that. As-ifs are slightly abstract, but help convey feeling and direction to the actor.

Behavior is perhaps the most important thing an actor and director need to be concerned about. It is all about what the camera sees. Any thinking or process the actor participates in must result in a behavior; it has to be physical so the camera can film it. So don’t tell your actors what their characters are thinking, tell them what to do, and any instructions from you as a director should result in or a change of behavior.

In Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Spielberg had a scene where a 5-year-old boy had to react to seeing an alien off camera. Spielberg needed a look of wonder and surprise and a few gradations in between. To direct the young actor traditionally by telling him to look surprised and in awe might have provided mixed results. Instead, Spielberg opted to dress up in a gorilla suit and dance around behind the camera. At the right moment when the cameras were rolling, Spielberg then removed the gorilla mask to reveal to the boy it was actually him under the suit messing around and the boy’s expression changed accordingly. This provided the required behavior of joy, wonder, and surprise needed for the take. Now, I’m not saying dress up in a gorilla suit or go to bizarre lengths to get the required results from your actors, but what can we take from this about behavior and directing actors? You need to trust your adult actor to deliver his or her performance, making them angry or uncomfortable on set to provoke their character’s anger isn’t the way to go. Whatever process you choose, only the end result matters. The audience doesn’t care how you get there.

Behavior in the actor can change as new information arrives in a scene. An actor could stop drinking, turn their head, or open their mouth, anything that is physical to help demonstrate how they feel. So it’s good to find an action or a piece of business that shows they’ve received new information. Hearing the information with no visible change in behavior is as good as no information. Here’s a quick and easy example to demonstrate this. Imagine if a character picks up the phone and receives bad news. If we don’t hear the other person talking, how could we show the bad news? If the character picked up the phone with a somewhat neutral expression, it might be hard to tell what they feel about what they’re hearing. However, if they picked up the phone still smiling from a previous conversation, the story is told when their expression changes and the smile slowly fades. It’s all about characters’ behavior.

I’ve used looks and glances from actors in scenes that they were doing after I’ve called cut, or even between takes when the cameras were still rolling. They weren’t necessarily thinking about the scene at hand, but that look they gave the other actor and then off into the distance was perfect for a reaction to the other actor’s third line or whatever the case maybe. I take that look and cut it in and like magic, we get the perfect performance.

Intellectual chitchat between an actor and director can lead to “paralysis by analysis.” Too much thinking! Actors have been cast because they have the looks, qualities, and talents you want for your roles. Some actors don’t feel that they have done what is required if they don’t do this extra discussion work. Pack what you need to go on vacation; there’s no need to bring your entire wardrobe.

All good screen actors know how little they actually have to do. They know the audience will project the exact amount of emotion onto the blank canvas and believe the actor’s performance. In his book On Directing Film, filmmaker and author David Mamet gives a wonderful example of two animals in the forest. Cutting together a shot of a bird eating a worm and stopping to look up, with a shot of a deer walking and stopping to look up, suggests “danger in the forest.” The director doesn’t need to talk at length with the bird about how he hasn’t eaten for days and when he glances up to look scared. The movement and juxtaposition of the two images tell that story. To add to it would be overdoing it.

If your actor is doing it right, don’t meddle! Let them be. Don’t feel the need to direct too much. Too much direction can mess things up. If the scene calls for the actor to walk down the corridor and open a door, that’s it. The actor, if they’ve done their homework, knows what has happened in the previous scene, so they work that in. It might be the case that they need a gentle reminder, but not much.


Action verbs are a wonderful tool that not only can be used for directing your actors but if you require something different from them and want to step it up a gear. Let’s say they’re asking the other character to stay in the relationship and not leave their marriage. Maybe you start with the verb convince to get them to stay, but you want it a little louder and more intense. You could plead with them to stay, or raise the stakes further and beg them to stay. Or the opposite: maybe your scene involves a character asking questions of another and the actor is coming at the scene a little hard and overdoing it, so you ask them to quiz the other character rather than to interrogate them.

Action verbs enable the actor’s focus to be solely on the other actor in the scene. It stops them from thinking about themselves; are they good enough, am I standing with my good side to camera? As soon as each actor’s attention is on the other person in the scene, it makes the whole scene stronger. Verbs help the actor play their character’s want or objective with an emotional center, which is what you’re looking for. Other verbs you might find useful include: instruct; intimidate; confront; suffocate; seduce, appease, inform, attack. As a director, part of your homework can be to go through the script and label what verb or verbs each character might be playing. It might be one per scene or maybe two or three. Then when in rehearsal or on set, you can give that clear direction to your actor. Keep it simple, though; don’t fall into the trap of giving a verb for each of the 25 lines in the scene! Each verb will cover a series of lines until the scene changes gear.


“Result direction” is when a director asks for what they want in a literal form: “Say it louder.” “Walk faster.” “Turn your head on that line . . .” Result direction is considered a no-no and bad practice, but I admit to using it myself on occasion. There are moments when you might need to use result direction. Maybe time is pressing, or you’re working with young children. However, result direction usually results in mechanical, contrived movements. Using action verbs helps the actor portray the emotion and “want” of the scene with their body language, delivery, tone, volume, and eye contact, all in the correct proportions to each other, to give a convincing and realistic performance. Result direction breaks these elements apart and treats them separately. “Speak louder, don’t look away, point!”

I’ve also heard directors say, “Give it more oomph!” or “Now give the scene a little something . . .” or “More energy this time. Make it sparkle . . .” If you know what any of these mean, then please let me know. These are generic catch-all directions that don’t really mean anything. I’ve watched actors’ faces when they’ve heard these directions, and they are normally followed by a confused look and more discussion...

"Making Your First Blockbuster" is due to be released early 2019 from Michael Wiese Productions.

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