For whom the Toll Bells – Actors

Way back when I was a young guy, I thought an actor was much like a pose-able self propelled mannequin. To get them to act, you just yelled at them until they did what you wanted.

Suffice to say, this is not how I view actors these days. An actor is vital to the film, and in an audition I’m looking for more than a face and voice that matches the character. I’m also looking for someone I can direct. It’s no good if I can’t connect with an actor, communicate with them. I was reading an article in “rolling Stone” about Kevin Smith, who said on “Cop Out” (I think it was Cop Out) he did not connect at all with Bruce Willis, and it was a miserable experience.

So what I need in an actor is:

1. Well, they’ve got to “fit” the part – this is either the most important or least important part. Least important because – and I’m sorry to all my friends out there who are actors – there are just so many actors that there seems to be a very large amount of actors who will physically fit almost any part. Most important because (for most roles) if you don’t fit the part, the audience won’t buy it. I know an actor whose agent has cautioned him not to lose the weight he carries because there is concern his roles will dry up, even though his weight was causing increasing health concerns. Yes, in a lead role, you may cast counter type, but the audience needs certain supporting roles to fit the part physically. Yes you can point to examples where actors didn’t fit a physical archetype for the supporting role, but those are few.

2. Instincts – they have to have instincts for the role. I want their choices to be close, and then we can get them right where they need to be. I know this seems like “type casting”, but I think it is valid. However I want to point out a friend of mine who is an Actress. Jody does comedy, and is funny, and I had a short, and didn’t even consider her, because it was dramatic. She came in to audition and did a dramatic reading, and just destroyed me. She didn’t get the part (because I needed a mom and a kid and one actress had a kid – so them’s the breaks.) I have written a role and “Oscar moment” scene for her into my indie chick flick, because she was so amazing, how could I not. She’s also in my recent short “Hellion” – I went SAG because she is SAG, and so worth it. Any Hoo – Instincts for the part are important.

3. Directability – While probably not a word. I need to be able to connect and direct an actor in their performance. We have to work on it together. I need them to “get” what I want, or be able to say, ” Hey I don’t think the character would do that” – NOT OFTEN – just when necessary. It is the actors job to make it make sense. It’s a weird thing to do you know, when you think about it. I have to explain to the actor why their character would do something, and then they have to perform that, but their character doesn’t understand why they are doing what they do. The character isn’t saying to themselves, oh yeah, I’m late so I’m running, oh but I’m hungry and there is a hot dog cart, but that’s off my diet so I pause, because I’m conflicted – not too conflicted, but still a little, don’t telegraph the “confliction”, etc. etc. etc.

On “Hellion” The actress I felt was best for the character didn’t have the best “Scream” During the audition we spent about 5 minutes working on the scream. I had to learn to give her direction in screaming – which was not to scream in fear, but scream instead as if it is an attack on what is scaring you. I was about to give up on her for the role, but then we hit on the “motivation” for the scream. It made all the difference. It made the scream effective, and what I needed. Yes, I suppose I could have dubbed in a scream, but I felt that wouldn’t be fair to the other actress (instead I gave her an on camera cameo just because her scream was so good.)

So, the point of all this? How does this tie in with the consequence of media? I once worked with Roberta Wallach, as the D.P. on a short film, she came to me and asked me to make sure her close-ups were not done at the end of the day. She had a tremendous point. At the end of the day, everyone is tired, and it can really show on an actors face, even if somehow they find the energy for the performance.

This consideration is something that is lost or ignored, especially on low budget. Worked on another shoot, and there was no A.D. – no one to look after the actors and the schedule. The actor had to wear a special contact lens. You know I try to consider that when setting up the shots, but production didn’t hire an A.D., and the actor put the contact lens in way too soon, and spent two hours in unnecessary discomfort verging onto pain. It affected their performance when they finally got in front of the camera, and how many shots we can get.

So when we start losing crew members, and experienced crew members, it affects the whole project. Damn we shot 10 of the master, but now we don’t have time for inserts and only one take of each close-up.  It’s the same battle on every shoot – an extra take here, means one less take of something else. Doing extra masters, is going to lead to exhausted actors at the end when they are doing their close up. Cutting crew, extends the day, cutting positions means that someone isn’t thinking of that, or that someone else has to start thinking about more things, that often can be contradictory. So it isn’t only for the actors that it takes a toll, but they are the ones on screen, looking like they were hit by a truck.

Thanks for reading.


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5 Responses to For whom the Toll Bells – Actors

  1. Maria Olsen May 4, 2011 at 2:29 pm #

    Steven – how did you get to be so wise about actors? If only everyone in production was like you…can’t wait to work with you =)

    • sgladstone May 4, 2011 at 2:47 pm #

      Thanks Maria – I’ve watched some really good directors work, and far too many bad directors work. Plus I’ve taken an acting class or two so that I could communicate better with the actors I work with. Plus working with good actors has its benefits. I once worked on a show and on it Quentin Crisp was interviewed, and he was asked which he liked working in better – his reply was “Oh Movies of course. They Give you a mark. You start there, say your lines as you walk to your next mark, then they say cut and you do it all over again.”

      I think Debra Winger said it very well – The filming of the movie used to be the payoff of for all the work that you did preparing for the role. I’m paraphrasing her.

      From a technical perspective – as the D.P. I have to give the actors a space in which they can perform. Working with the director we can and ought to make the camera frame, and moves integral to the performance. All too often because of, budget, time, other things, this doesn’t happen.

      As a director, I’ve learned that if I’ve cast well, and I need something from an actor, almost always it is better to tell the actor what it is I need , for example some kind of physical transition within the scene. Then I trust them to find and do what is needed, much more organic than my just telling the actor – over here at this line, scream at the other actor or smash the glass on the floor. There is a learning curve of course, but it leads to a much more satisfying way to work as well.

  2. Maria Olsen May 4, 2011 at 3:00 pm #

    oh yes, trusting an actor to find the specifics themselves after you’ve told them what you need is very important. i do, however, find that i adjust my own directing style depending on the level that an actor is at. some need to be told exactly and others just need to be set free…it’s a director’s job to figure out which is which…

    • sgladstone May 4, 2011 at 3:16 pm #

      Yes, but I cringe when I see the director pull a cattle prod out of their script bag. There is just no place in the business for that anymore.


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