Emotional Preparation: An Actor and Director in Conversation
Peter: When we started writing this book you mentioned that you wanted it to be for both actors and directors.
Amy: The idea is that we want directors to read this book too, not only actors. Because I feel that directors really need to learn how to work with actors. A lot of young directors know everything about the technical side of filmmaking. They know all about composing beautiful shots, moving the camera, how shots will cut together, the rhythm and pacing of scenes but they often don’t know how to direct actors.
Peter. So, what do directors need to know about actors in order to work with them?
Amy: Well, first of all, they need to know about the vulnerability of actors. To be an actor and to perform another person’s life requires an incredible amount of concentration and sensitivity. I know that it’s very difficult to be a director but it’s extremely difficult to be an actor.
Directors need to understand what actors go through, what they’re afraid of, what they want, what they’re trying to achieve, and how they go about doing it. Recognizing and appreciating all of this will really help directors improve their working relationship with actors.
I know how to help actors to get where they need to go because I’ve been an actress. Sometimes I have to try different methods. Not every actor is the same. If one technique doesn’t work then I’ll move onto something else and see if that helps.
But if directors don’t have the techniques that we talk about in this book, if they don’t know what’s possible, how can they help an actor? They’re going to go for result oriented acting. They’re going to say, “well, I want you to cry at this moment and I want you to get angry here”, because they have a vision of the scene, they have the result. They can visualize the scene on the screen.
But that’s not enough because the actor has to start from the beginning. The actor has to go through the process. The director already has the result. So, what directors have to learn is how to go through the process with the actor to get the result instead of trying to get the actors to deliver the result without going through the process. And our book gives you that; it gives you the process.
Peter: To come back to one of the things you mentioned, what are actors afraid of?
Amy: Failing. Not being good enough. A lot of actors choose this profession because they want to be accepted, desired, admired or loved. So, when they don’t do the job well enough and get criticized, they lose faith in their work and they start stressing about things. That’s why going back to relaxation is so important because stress in this profession is extremely high, even for actors who are very famous.
Some actors get very sick the night before they shoot, or they lose their voice. There are a lot of people on set, everything goes so fast, time is money, actors have to be able to deliver what the director wants in a very short time frame. All of this can cause actors to get anxious or nervous. So, relaxation is a key element to eliminate that stress.
If, as a director, you know that an actor is fragile even if they seem very sure of themselves, then you’ll know how to work with them, how to talk to them, how to not put them down. You’ll use words that are encouraging and not a language that is critical or judgmental.
Amy: What did you learn as a director when you started studying acting in my school?
Peter: Before I came to the Bilingual Acting Workshop, I read a lot of books about filmmaking, about directing and the subject of working with actors came up a lot. One director, I think it was Richard Linklater, said, if you want to learn how to work with actors, go take an acting class. Put yourself in front of the camera. See what it’s like for them. If you understand what acting is and what it takes, then you can have a dialogue with your actors, you can discuss what you need from them and if they’re having trouble you can suggest ways for them to get there.
Taking acting classes really gave me an insight into what it is that actors go through. The anxiety and vulnerability that comes with being in front of the camera. The impression that you’re constantly being judged all the time. The fear of not getting it right. You mentioned it already but acting is really hard. It takes an awful lot of courage to go deep inside yourself, be incredibly vulnerable and then offer very personal and private emotions. Directors need to understand what actors go through. Fear and stress block everything that you try to do as an actor. So, one of the best things that a director can do for an actor is help them to relax.
Amy: How would you use the techniques in this book to get your actors where you want them to go?
Peter: If I see that an actor is stressed or worried, I’ll get them to do the relaxation techniques; to breathe, to make sounds, to find the stress in their bodies and work to reduce it. It’s imperative that actors feel relaxed going into a scene. Otherwise, they tense up, their throat tightens, they struggle to move properly.
I like to use substitution because it gives actors something very real and tangible to work with. It allows them to bring aspects of their personal life into the work and creates very emotional connections to the other characters in a scene. Personal object is another great way to evoke emotions for an actor. We all have very personal objects we hold onto throughout our lives and they always evoke very specific emotions for us. They can be a really powerful way of triggering an emotion for a scene.
The animal exercise can be really effective in adding layers to an actor’s performance. Just by adding a certain animalistic quality can bring it to another level. I always try to add the Scene before the Scene because it’s important that an actor knows where the character is coming from, what they are bringing into the scene so that they don’t come in cold. I love the idea that characters have secrets so I encourage my actors to explore what those secrets might be and to bring them into their work.
When it comes to very strong emotional moments in a scene, it really depends on the actor. Another thing that directors need to know is that all actors are different. No two actors will respond in the same way to a suggestion you give them so it’s very important that you get to know your actors. Find out who they are, what they feel, what they want and how they grew up. Some actors respond really well to affective memory but it’s not for everyone. As a director, you have to protect your actors at all times.
Amy: Why do you think this book could be beneficial for directors?
Peter: It’s really important for directors to know about emotional preparation because you need actors to go into themselves and find strong, intense emotions and then offer them to the camera. If they don’t then you won’t get the scene that you want, you won’t get the emotional depth that you need to tell the story that you want to tell. And if that’s missing then it’s problematic because the story is going to suffer and the film will suffer as a result.
It’s your job, as the director, to not only make the day in terms of shots but to shape and guide the actor’s performances. If you know how to help them then they will give you what you need. Working with actors is a collaboration. It’s a wonderfully creative process that touches on the deepest aspects of who we are as human beings. It’s always a process, not a result. The techniques in this book allow you to find ways to tap into the deep well of emotions we all share and then, once an actor is infused with an emotion, capture that magic on screen.
Extract from the forthcoming book Be Your Own Coach: Emotional Preparation for the Film and TV Actor and Director by Amy Werba and Peter Meagher.