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Bringing out the best in an inexperienced actor?

by on Jan.25, 2010, under Questions

“I just read an interview you gave some years ago.  I wish I’d read it before I started making my own movie!  I’m turning a short play into a film.  It takes place in two rooms with five actors and we’re making it on a shoestring.

My question is this — What can I do to bring out the best in one of my actors who has less training/experience (…and it’s obvious)?  I cast him too hastily, on someone’s recommendation, and now I’m not sleeping well.  There is no turning back on my shooting schedule–my DP and lead are already committed to other projects.  I know, stop whining and be glad I have the opportunity, right?  Any ideas on what I can do to make the best out of this situation?”

– (name withheld by request)

Thanks for your question.  I wish you the very best with your film.  I know what you mean about getting a lot of people to come together on a shoestring (or no string at all) to make a film.  I’ve been there.  Many great films have been made that way, so you’re in good company.

One thing I’ve learned is that two elements make or break any film: script and performance.  Just about everything else we do as filmmakers is about maximizing these.  So if you know you’re going in that an actor in your cast really isn’t up to snuff, then you really aren’t serving your film by keeping him in it.  Your best option is to recast the part immediately.  I suspect that deep down, you know this is true but it’s hard to actually do.  Tough!  It’s your film–the hard decisions fall on you.

While it may sound heartless to fire an actor working for free (who’s probably a very nice guy), think about all the other people lending you their time, talent, equipment, and money to let you create your film.  You’re not really respecting their contributions if there’s something you know you could fix but are unwilling to.  You aren’t even doing this actor any favors, by keeping him in a role that he’s not ready to tackle.  Eventually, he’ll see his performance is dragging down the film–and that could be more disheartening to him than being recast.

I realize that this is going to be difficult to do–I don’t envy you–but it’s your best option if you still haven’t started shooting your film (or his scenes).

Of course, sometimes you can’t recast an actor.  I’ve been there, too.  Either you find out after cameras are rolling, or maybe that actor is an integral part of what pulls the production together.  I wish I knew tricks for suddenly turning a bad actor into a good one.  Unfortunately, I think it’s a craft where a person just has to put in the time.  There are no true shortcuts.  (Ask an actor.)  It’s almost impossible to make an untrained actor actually be better during a shoestring shoot, with all the other demands you’ll have as a director.  Sometimes more rehearsal helps but often it just makes things worse.  If you’re stuck with someone who’s inexperienced, you probably need to concentrate on minimizing the damage they do.

  • Get the actor to be himself.  Not play the part, just “play” himself in the story situation.  He’ll be more natural this way.
  • Shrink the part.  Give away as many of his lines as possible.
  • Cover his scenes in singles rather than wide masters or two-shots.  This way, your bad actor won’t ruin other people’s performances, too.
  • Set up his single and have him run the lines 20 times while you’re rolling video.  (Don’t do this if you’re shooting film as it’s too expensive.)
  • Turn off the tally light and shoot his rehearsals without his knowledge.  Just stand out of frame and have him practice the lines, not really perform them.  Have the rest of the crew take five while you work on this and maybe have the DP stay to “futz with the camera” (while he’s actually operating).  This could make things seem a lot less forced and more natural, if that’s the actor’s problem.  You can also have a conversation, tell a joke, whatever, and “steal” natural expressions for his reaction shots.
  • Get plenty of reaction shots from everyone else in his scenes, too.  These will help you cover when you’re stitching together a bad performance into a good one.
  • Hire a great editor.  Many performances are found (or made) in the edit bay.  Sometimes you string together several different takes and find one that works.  Maybe his voice is fine but expressions are overwrought.  Cutting away to reaction shots from the other players will help.  Stitch in a few of your stolen reaction shots from this actor, and you could be on your way to a nuanced performance (supplied by your editor, not the actor, but who’s to know?).
  • A good composer wouldn’t hurt either.  A great score can make good performances great and bad performances tolerable.

That’s what I’d do (and have done) to help maximize a poor performance.  But I can tell you from experience that it will all be a lot of grueling turd-polishing compared to just casting a good actor instead.  A talented, experienced actor brings the character to life.  They take the story in new directions and add and invent bits of your story world.  Keeping someone in the part who isn’t ready not only makes work for you on set and in post, but it also costs you the opportunity of what a truly talented actor could bring.

Somewhere near you is an actor who would bring so much more to this part.  Someone who might take your film to new places.  If you respect actors and their craft, you really owe it to yourself, your team, and that talent actor to put him in the part.

Good luck!


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