How to direct non-actors

Mar 22, 2018

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Unless you’ve managed to raise a significant budget for your projects or are lucky enough to be working with an established producer or casting director the chances of you having to work with non-actors on your projects is very high. If you’re in New York or Los Angeles you might be able to find amazing undiscovered talent who already have the acting chops to make your project sing, but usually even in larger cities you get at least a couple actors who are either really green and need some direction or are acting in a project for the first time.

One of the greatest benefits about working with professional actors is that you don’t really have to give them much direction. Over the years that professional actors have worked they have usually learned how to read a script and analyze what it is they need to bring to the table to make their character come alive. But with non-actors you have to do most of the heavy lifting for them if you want to end up with a performance that doesn’t feel completely stale.

There are a few techniques that you should know if you plan to work with non-actors that will make their performances better and help you keep your wits about you on set as a director. While not every one of the techniques listed below will be something you can do in every situation, hopefully you’ll find at least one tip or technique that will help get the performance you are looking for on your next project.

1. Be flexible on your script

If you are the writer of a project or the writer on your film is someone you have a close relationship with the best thing you can do for non-actors is be a little loose with the script. To be super clear – I don’t mean that you should tell them to just improv – non-actors are usually horrible at improvising. What I mean is that if they’re having trouble with a particular line and rewording it or even cutting the line is something you can consider without ruining the story, then by all means do it.

The other thing you can do that is quite effective is change the role to fit the person’s natural personality a bit more. I’ve done this several times. I’ve rewritten entire roles in pieces to make the character align more with the person’s natural demeanor. The less a non-actor has to reach to portray the character the better. That way you can say things like “well how would you say it” and their natural response will actually be usable in the film – whereas if you have them playing something foreign to their nature they’ll be fighting their instincts on every line.

2. Develop a relationship with them before the camera is rolling

Whether you are working with professional actors or people who are acting for the first time, one of your biggest jobs as a director is to create a safe place for your actors where they feel comfortable experimenting. As the director you have to reign them in when they get a little too far out of bounds, but if they don’t feel comfortable trying new things you will never get a relaxed, natural performance out of them.

One of the ways to develop this safe place is to befriend your actors and let them know that their performance is what all of this commotion on set is all about. For professional actors you can build this relationship by talking about the craft, their past work, or what some of their favorite films might be. Finding common ground so you can speak the same language is key.

With non-actors it’s important to engage in the person’s everyday life. If the person is an underwater welder, ask them about their job. If your actor is a stay at home mom, ask to see pictures of her kids and find out what kind of after school stuff they do.

Building these relationships before the camera is rolling gives you that trust where they feel like they can show you a piece of their soul that the camera loves to capture. Also, if you hit a wall on a particular scene with an actor’s performance, it’s always helpful to know a little bit about their life so you can use their own experiences to drum up the emotion you are looking for in a scene.

3. Tell them to do less

Most of the time non-actors tend to over act. Audiences have an amazing ability to assign emotion to actors faces even when they are completely barren of anything. I remember watching George Clooney on Inside the Actor’s Studio talk about the long shot in the taxi cab at the end of the movie Michael Clayton.

The host, James Lipton, asked him what he was thinking as the camera stayed on his face for what seemed like an eternity and George Clooney said he was simply trying to ignore some fans who were screaming at him through the window. It got a big laugh from the crowd but it goes to show you that with the right script and camera angle, you don’t need to do much for the audience to read into an actor’s expression.

I’ve told that story to non-actors on set and they tend to relax and chuckle. Essentially you want them to do less. Depending on the person you can give them direction like “just be still and think of nothing” or even something really specific like “I want you to look at this one tile and just think about how many people must have been involved in manufacturing that.” If you find their overacting the problem is usually that they’re thinking too much about the scene so throwing them curve balls like this might help get their head out of the scene a little more and give you something subtle and grounded.

4. Line Readings are okay with non-actors

One of the worst things a director can do for a trained actor is act out the scene for them. This includes saying the line in the tone and delivery that you’re looking for from your actor. Literally saying the line the way you want it is called giving the actor a “line reading” and it pisses most actors off because they want to bring their own craft to the role. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. Richard Burton famously asked for line readings from his directors all the time. He would say that hearing the delivery a director wanted was a really quick and useful way to communicating for him.

It’s totally okay if you’re on your tenth take with a professional actor to ask them if they would mind if you gave them a line reading – most of the time they’ll say yes. But don’t make it something that you pull out of the gate before you’ve even see the actor’s approach.

With non-actors, however, and especially with kids doing line-readings is kind of expected and something that most non-actors find very helpful. It’s a lot easier for them at times to just mimic something than try to figure it out on their own. Of course, in order to give good line-readings you still need to know what you want as a director and be able to play it out for them so you might want to brush up on your own acting skills before making this part of your routine.

5. Have fun

The last tip I’ll give you is to have fun. You might be working with the next Marlon Brando. Your little film just might be the thing that discovers the next great acting talent but if you show them a rotten time on set they’ll never come back. If you’re using non-actors chances are that they’re also working for free and it is just human decency to try to make sure everyone has a good time when they’re volunteering for you. You’ll also find that when people are having fun on set the days tend to go faster, the performances are looser, and the films end up being better (at least most of the time).


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