The Importance of Understanding and Working With Actors

Filmmakers tend to focus on the technical processes of film, but think about your favourite films – isn’t the reason behind their success often to do with the performances on screen? *All hail Meryl* Of course, learning the technical aspects is important, however, in our experience, many filmmakers (especially in film schools) who want to be directors don’t necessarily appreciate the importance of learning to work with actors. There are many different styles of directing, but you will only develop your own unique style and get the best from your actors by knowing how to work with them. Seasoned thespians and waffle indulgers, Kathryn Butt and Dušan Mrđen, try to give you an insight into how to approach the art of acting whilst making your film. After attending last week’s Directing Masterclass with Ate de Jongwe’re here to compare notes on what we learnt and our experiences of working with actors.


Take some acting classes

D: Have you thought about taking on some acting lessons? Find a theatre group in your town, get out of your comfort zone and do some stage performing. I know that this might seem like a stressful situation for some people, but immersing yourself in acting can be a very liberating experience. You will be able to learn a lot of people skills and understand the human psyche in far greater detail. I took acting lessons for years and it helped me on many different levels in life. Now I take improv lessons to get my creative juices flowing and also because it’s awesome and I get to meet many fantastic individuals. What you will also gain from all of this is the knowledge of how actors think and what their process is like – this definitely comes in handy, especially if you want to get the best performance out of your cast.

K: I agree, I came into film from a background of acting when I was younger, and it really helps you understand how actors work with a script. It makes you aware of practical issues, and it helped me appreciate the need to work with actors on their character’s motivation in order for them to make the most of the lines.


Do your research

D: Take a look at some famous actresses and actors talking about their experiences working with directors while shooting films. In this star studded roundtable, actresses Elisabeth Huppert and Annette Bening have a very interesting take on the language between the actor and director. While this is a very interesting approach to consider, when you are starting out you have to take note of the fact that your actors might not be Academy Award winners with years of experience. If you are working with inexperienced actors you need to understand how to approach them. Listen to different directors and actors speak on the films they’ve done and educate yourself on the types of actors that exist.

K: Just because you have experience directing in one genre, you’ll need to adapt your style for directing different ones. Just as directing for the stage and for the screen is different, don’t be afraid to try different approaches when you’re starting out. Also, on the topic of non-actors, sometimes inexperience can work in your favour. On a student film I worked on, I cast my flatmate and another of our friends in a short comedy piece. They knew each other, and the character dynamic I wanted was two people on their first date. I sat them down before the shoot with a loose script (most of the comedy was visual) and told them they were on a date. Instantly, the dynamic of awkwardness arose which worked perfectly for what I wanted, as I needed their to be palpable awkwardness, almost cringe-worthy for the scene to work. As a student filmmaker, I recommend embracing non-actors if there’s a role that fits them, as sometimes you can create incredible performances – maybe you could even kick off their acting career too?!

Here’s RPattz dropping some knowledge on why working with non-actors is refreshing:


Build a relationship with your actors

D: Spend time getting to know your cast, and build some sort of relationship with them before hand. When you get to the set it’s going to be much easier for them to entrust you with their talent and their emotions. This way you will have less stress and will be able to get exactly what you need, or hopefully even more than you bargained for. Many film students I have encountered seem to struggle with being open and are intimidated by actors. This is completely understandable because actors wear their emotions on their sleeves. If you are open and honest you will have absolutely no trouble getting exactly what is best for your film.

” For me it is a mixture of just meeting up regularly, talking, reading, going through notes they may have and any notes that I have for them. This is all before we even get close to getting on set … That’s a real privilege as an Indie filmmaker to have actors who are willing to give that much time because they believe in the project and the material. ” – Indie Director, Joseph Adesunloye on working with his actors

K: It helps to know what you want from your actors before you begin, but you can’t tell them how to do their job. Putting in some time and working with them to develop a shared vision for the character will work better than arriving on set and telling them what you want them to do. It’s as much their project as yours, so let them explore their character and they will undoubtedly bring elements to the scene that you didn’t expect. You can’t work with actors in the same way you work with camera and sound equipment – so don’t try to.


Try and make time for rehearsals

D: Rehearsals are an absolute must. With saying that, I understand that they are also a luxury when it comes to filmmaking. Still, I try to find time to have at the least one rehearsal with my cast before shooting. Your actors need to build chemistry, and trust me – that translates to the screen. While having read-throughs and rehearsals, you can find out many things you haven’t considered while writing your script or working with your screenwriter. The input of the actors regarding the journey of your characters is absolutely necessary, since as we all know – filmmaking is a collaborative process.

” Each cast member will read the script from their own character’s point of view, and early readings tend to produce divergent, contradictory interpretations. You won’t have all the answers ready, nor should you try. This is intensely creative and collaborative work, and your function is to shepherd your ensemble toward shared understandings. No matter how much work you put in, probing and intelligent actors will take you into unexamined areas, and that’s part of the excitement in ensemble work. ” (Rabiger, M. Hurbis-Cherrier, M. 2013. Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics. 5th Edition. United Kingdom: Focal Press)

K: It can be hard to get everyone into one space at one time, but even if you do it a few hours before the shoot on the day, your shoot is likely to go a lot smoother. Trying out different line deliveries and staging can take up a lot of time on your shoot, so testing these out before and deciding on blocking can save you so much time and help you prepare your equipment beforehand. Practicality and time equates to a lot when making films on a budget, so anything you can do to save time and money is worth doing.


Casting process

D: When you are doing auditions it’s always good to get an experienced casting director or producer that can help you find the best ensemble. Be very clear and organized when posting your casting call, and make sure your casting director replies to all of the e-mails and questions regarding your film. If they didn’t get the part, send them an e-mail thanking them for the audition. This might seem boring, but it certainly means a lot to the people trying to break into the industry.

K: It’s also useful to make a note of people you saw audition but didn’t cast, as they may be perfect for a future role. Also, make a note of people you’ve worked with before and maybe get hold of other directors whose films you’ve seen for contacts of their actors to see if they’ll audition.

(Extra point for actors)

D: I would also like to emphasize something for the actors out there who are struggling. I had the opportunity to watch many extremely talented actors and actresses perform in the audition room while I was casting for my films. In most cases if an actor is not cast, there are a lot of different factors that go into making a decision. From my point of view it is usually about the whole ensemble and how everybody fits together. My casting director and I sit down with the producer after seeing the performances, try to figure out which of the actors could have the best chemistry and which performances would match together on screen. iT can also be good to have a second round of auditions where you can mix the actors and have them perform together so you can see which combination works best. Don’t be afraid to speak to them openly and explain this. There is nothing worse than not getting back to the actors and not giving them a valid reason as to why they weren’t cast.


Have a look at this video of the group of talented actors and comedians I had a chance to work with while directing Method Man at London Film Academy. Tom Hartwell, Victoria Jeffrey and Alasdair Shanks briefly speak about their characters, the process of how they approach their roles and our experience on set.

Method Man – Cast Featurette from Dušan Mrđen on Vimeo.


Want to learn more about directing? Why not attend one of our upcoming courses:

Hands-On Directing: Part One, Hands-On Directing: Part Two, Let Me Direct Masterclass

Find out more about Kathryn Butt here!

Read another one of our joint articles here!

Head photo taken by the fantastic Ed Aldridge of Dean Street Designs



Dušan (pronounced (Scooby) Doo Shawn) joined the Raindance team as Campaign and Community Manager in 2018 after pursuing an extensive career in reviewing cheese. After acquiring a BA in Media and Marketing in Serbia, he completed an extensive year in filmmaking which lead to an MA in Film and TV Production from the Cambridge School of Arts. You can find him vigorously supporting indie filmmakers whilst pursuing a career in acting at the same time.

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