The actor/director relationship is one of the most interesting, mystifying dynamics in all performing arts. It’s peak creative symbiosis—a delicate balance that often spells triumph or defeat for any given project. We hear a lot about actors and directors who love working with each other, and collaborate year after year on project after project, just as much as we leer at the horror stories of actors and directors who clash on set and become cautionary tales. It would seem as though this aspect of artistic collaboration is captivating to those inside and out of the industry. And with good reason: when you consider what a successful relationship between actor and director can produce…
Working with directors is one of the most important skill sets an actor can develop in their career. While no two collaborators are the same, and all of the professionalism in the world can’t save personality clashes or a lack of manners, there are things you can do to maximise your chances of a healthy working relationship with your director on set or stage.
Before we jump in, allow me to do something I’ve never done in the fifty-something plus articles I’ve written for StageMilk: hello! My name is Alexander, I’m a director who works across stage and screen. While I’m writing this article from the perspective of my own discipline, it is primarily intended for any actors looking for the hacks and know-how on working with directors. As we cover these points, I’ll pipe in with any personal experiences or learnings I think might be helpful. I’m relieved to say there is little magic to the process—although there might be a bit of luck involved. Mostly, though, it’s about preparation and damn hard work. I’m game if you are?
However long you might have been attached to a project, your director probably has a few months or years on you to know the world inside and out. So the minute you get The Call from your agent, down that celebratory champagne in one big gulp and get straight to work on preparing.
Analyse your script. I can’t stress this enough. Right there on the page, the writer has given you and the director the same bread crumbs to follow through the forest. Sure, you might end up on slightly different paths, but this will at least ensure you’re headed in the same direction. There is nothing worse than an actor who hasn’t bothered to prepare for the role, either by skimming the script or not knowing the larger ideas that bind the work together. It’s a sure-fire way to be written down on that list all directors keep: of actors we simply can’t trust in a professional context (no matter how brilliant you might be). If you have any reservations about your script analysis skills at all, jump on the link at the top of this paragraph and give yourself a refresher.
In preparation, consider doing some character creation exercises, plotting out actions and working out what your objective is, scene-to-scene. You might also want to run lines with a fellow actor, but be careful of doing this without a director present. You don’t want to start making choices about a character/scene that they’ll only undo later in rehearsal or filming.
Do Your Research
In preparation for a role, there are other things that you might wish to consider beyond the project directly in front of you—things that might help you understand how your director likes to work. In short: research your director, their influences and how they’ve worked in the past.
Are there examples of your director’s previous jobs you can track down? If it’s Steven Spielberg, you might only need to travel to the nearest streaming device in your household. If it’s a less established an up-and-comer, you might need to settle for a bootleg of their last show, 0r a short film of theirs they posted to Vimeo back in film school. What can you learn about their style? What strikes you about the way they direct actors, or light a particular scene, or rely on music in a moment when you might have made a different choice as a performer?
Do you know anybody who’s worked with this director in the past? Buy them a coffee and chat to them about that person’s process. How do they work best? What stresses them out? What areas of their process are weakest, and may need extra attention from you lest they be forgotten?
Another field of research you can do is to identify the existing influences on your director. I regularly ask my actors to watch or read certain books or films, or direct them to particular styles/periods/directors for them to be immersed in. The only thing to remember with this point is that if you ask for recommendations, make damn sure you get around to watching/reading them. You don’t want to arrive on set and have the director use a short-hand or reference you don’t get because you didn’t bother following up on something important.
Make Bold Choices
I’ve dropped this point here, as it straddles your preparation process as well as your on-set/floor conduct: make bold and interesting choices when it comes to your character. Do be certain they’re 100% justifiable within the context of the story and script (always be ready to point to the page as to your inspiration), but give the director interesting provocations they can work with.
Making bold choices—even if they turn out to be totally wrong for the scene—shows a director that you’ve cared enough to offer up something interesting. A lot of younger and emerging actors I’ve worked with think of themselves as blank slates when they sign up to a job. They might have the lines down, sure, but there’s nothing beyond that they can offer. Funnily enough, this doesn’t make the director’s job easier. Instead, it goes against the notion we’re collaborating together, putting the pressure on the director to do one half of your job. Show us something. Make it weird. Make it unexpected! More often than not, it’s in those moments that the “Aha!” happens and the scene is unlocked.
Take Directing Notes
This is one of the most important parts of an actor’s job, and it’s vital to working with directors. We’ve actually written on this topic elsewhere in greater detail (where I pop up, again, to offer up a few personal notes as a resident StageMilk director).
Let’s run over the key points:
- In auditions, be prepared for a director to change your performance significantly with a few short words. This is because you will have the least context and understanding of their vision for the character yet. Try to stay pliable, responsive and don’t take it personally.
- In theatre, directors have much more rehearsal time to work with you—sometimes months before you ever set foot in the actual venue! Be prepared for the director to overwhelm you with notes, so write everything down (either on the script or in a notebook). They may want to try different things as their exploration continues. Try to stay pliable, responsive and don’t take it personally.
- In film, directors have a million people coming at them from every direction. They won’t have as much time for you as either of you like. Do your best to action their notes meticulously, and trust in the process of filmmaking that allows for trial and error, and the technical aspects to support and leaven your performance. Also, try to stay pliable, responsive and don’t take it personally.
I’d say the most important thing to remember is not to take it personally. A note isn’t an indicator that you’re terrible, it’s a director’s way of them helping you strengthen your performance.
Taking is its own skill, its own art. The more you work with a director, the more you’ll begin to understand how they communicate. Feel free to clarify a note, just don’t question or refuse one. And remember that directors are human: as you’re trying to find your way in the project, so are they. And the pressures on them are always tenfold.
Be an Uncomplicated Actor
Okay, bear with me. I’m not asking you to excuse bad director behaviour: don’t ever put up with that crap (see below). What I would ask you, though, is to maintain perspective. While you are undoubtedly a vital part of the creative process on a film or stage production, you are still just that: a part. Know where you fit in that ecosystem, and remind yourself when your director is stressed or frustrated that their problems often compound by the second.
Here’s a personal case study:
One thousand years ago, I was directing my first short at film school. It was a no-budget affair with every favour called in. In addition to directing, I’d also written the piece, produced it and played myself in a moment of meta-theatrical inspiration I assure you was more cool-than-cringe in the early 2000’s. We were out of time, we were losing light and location and we were yet to film the most complicated shot of the movie. I was buzzing around the various departments, I’d finally gotten the lighting right and the sound recordist happy and the camera set up. I barked to my actor: “You know what you’re doing?”, and he took me aside. With all the warmth and support he could muster, he said: “No.” I’d not spoken to him at all that day.
My point is this: he could’ve been a real dick in that moment. God knows, he had every right to be! But he saw a young artist struggling and chose to be the bigger person. The better artist. Nathan: I’m reaping the benefit of that lesson learned to this day. Support your director, learn to recognise when they’re struggling, and make yourself an uncomplicated part of the equation.
And this is a great lesson to learn beyond simply working with directors. Be the actor people love to work with. The one who is patient and kind, who can sit waiting for the perfect shot or for the lights to be readjusted onstage. When being driven to set, sit in the front of the car and speak to the assistant driving you there. And give your directors space when they need it, let them know that it’s okay and that you trust them. A good reputation is invaluable in our industry. It’s a very small place, indeed.
Stand Your Ground
This isn’t to say that you have to take everything lying down. You are going to disagree with your director, and they’re not always going to be right. Learn to find those moments in which you are able to explore a different solution to a problem presented by a scene, or ask to try something different with a particular take. I’ll tell you this much for free: it’s not going to be during a take, or spoken in a combative tone. On some occasions, you may even discover that your director was right all along. In which case: problem solved!
Clashing and disagreeing with a director requires trust and respect from both parties. Usually, it comes later in a working relationship, perhaps even on a second or third collaboration. When you can sense a director is going to be a problem for you, one that discussion or deliberation won’t fix, your best defence mechanism is to be professional. Show up on time, totally prepared. Make those bold choices and follow those notes to a tee. Be uncomplicated on stage or on set, especially for the crew (who will likely be copping it far worse than you if the director has a temper).
If a director exhibits inappropriate, illegal or dangerous behaviour, this is something you need to call out. In a professional context, report such behaviour to producers immediately. Systems of power that target survivors of abuse are by no means dismantled in Hollywood (or the equivalent); they are, at least, far more visible than they have been in the past.
Those mythic actor/director relationships—the Scorsese/DiCaprios, Peele/Kaluuyas, Cassavetes/Rowlands—don’t come easily. Not without years and years of continued work and developed understanding. But if that’s your goal, look out for the kinds of artists you respond to: seek out your dream director and ask to work with them. If it works well, ask to work with them again.
In my own career, working with the same actors on multiple projects is always a pleasure; it’s wonderful to have them know my work and understand what I’m looking for—sometimes before I even know it yourself! So keep the above advice in mind. Cultivate trust, respect and kindness. And all the hard work you can muster.