HERE'S WHAT HAPPENED
I got bumped from an extra to a primary on a shoot with a well-known NFL player. I didn't have any lines, nor can you really even see my face on the final cut, but it allowed me to interact with this player directly, which meant the director was interacting with me a lot about the take.
He wanted me to try different options, which is typical for most shoots. For example, he told me my hand-on-hip placement made me feel sassy, so he wanted me to try a shot without my "sassy hands."
Halfway through our scene, the director gave me a note, but I wasn't clear about what he was asking. I asked a clarifying question, but his answer was very rushed because the landscapers next door did not care that we were shooting a commercial, so we were trying to quickly get the shot between lawnmower noises.
I needed to ask him one more question to make sure we were on the same page, when the 20+ extras on set all decided to chime in at the same time and say, "Nooooo!" as if they were about to explain it to me.
Once we receive a booking, our professionalism needs to amp up, not fade away into the relaxation that hits once the casting process is finished. We need to know what I like to call "set etiquette." Based on this story, I want to call your attention to one thing in particular that we should avoid doing as actors since it will make everyone feel very awkward.
Sometimes actors will interject on set on behalf of another actor in an effort to be helpful and supportive. However, instead of helping the other actor understand the note, it can actually create more confusion.
If we hear a miscommunication between the director and another actor, I really think we should avoid the temptation to intervene. If another voice is added to the mix, it can distract the actor taking the direction.
It could also accidentally give others the impression that we feel we "could do this better." Even if that isn't true, we won't really have the opportunity to explain ourselves.
Lastly, it's the director's job to help the actor "get it," and it's not our job to help them with that process. I realized that I did this on a shoot recently, but while the director was chatting with another crew member. In my mind, I was just offering what I thought I would be capable of doing as the talent to help get the shot, but I could see in the (super nice!) director's face that I was just adding another voice to the mix. I stopped talking ASAP.
The director needs to build their own relationship with each of the actors, and that communication style may be different with each talent. When we interject during a director's conversation with another actor, we are interrupting that relationship-building process that is crucial for the two of them to figure out together. Give your fellow actor the same space you need to navigate that relationship.
Time is another key factor. Remember when I said the director's answer to me was rushed? Time is money on set! There are also a number of scheduling goals that we may not know about as the talent. For example, the NFL player on our shoot was late because he had a prior appearance that went long, which meant the shoot was already behind schedule.
The production company also pays for a specific block of time for on-location shoots, so going over means more money to the property owners, or the possibility that the property owners say, "Sorry, we need our space back now that the contract terms have been met." When we add our two cents here-and-there, it eats up valuable shooting time.
Let's focus on what we should do instead. I want you to be a fly on the wall, and listen to the conversations for a few reasons that will make you look like a smart actor.
1. LEARN HOW THE DIRECTOR COMMUNICATES
You need to know a director's style in case you work with them again in the future. Understanding how to navigate each director's style will make them more likely to work with you because they know it will save them time on the next shoot you do together. Sometimes I work with directors that love to joke and laugh, but that's not always the case.
I've worked with one director in particular that keeps everybody on their toes. He does not have time to waste. On both of our shoots, he jumped behind the camera ready to roll, and his crew started scrambling.
When they said, "Oh, are you ready to shoot already?" he replied, "Yea, that's what we're here to do. Let's go." Haha! This director is a no frills kinda guy. It would be a total nuisance for me to crack jokes with him because he would feel like it's a waste of time. If I want to communicate him, it just needs to be about the shot.
However, I was on a commercial shoot this week with a crew, director, and client that were very intentional about keeping the environment upbeat and fun. We had lots of good laughs, and it was ok for me to crack a joke if I wanted. The other crew members were very supportive and affirming toward me behind the camera if they liked a shot, so it wasn't just about making great time (although that was still important!).
It's ok if you don't connect with a director. It's probably going to be miserable for the two of you to force working together again anyway. Ultimately, just focus on being yourself while being wise about how each director likes to communicate, but don't get your feelings hurt if a particular director isn't requesting you. It's better for you to have a handful of directors and producers that freaking love you than to painfully force a working relationship with people who don't get you.
2. LEARN FROM OTHER ACTORS
If you listen instead of interject, you may learn a thing or two from your fellow actors. The way another actor communicates, especially a more established actor, may inspire you to communicate in a way you didn't know you could. I want to share two examples from my acting life that will be beneficial to you, too.
By the time I started my acting class, my coach had a handful of actors ask him to stop them in the middle of their scene if he sensed anything inauthentic instead of letting them finish. I didn't know this for a while, so my acting coach would stop my scenes ad ask me a lot of questions, most of which I thought were rhetorical.
I'm also a stickler for "right answers," so I wasn't sure what he wanted me to say. I wasn't sure what the "right answer" was, so I would just stand there (which was very out of character for me) waiting for him to make the next point.
Then one day, I watched a veteran acting student interact with him, and the lightbulb dinged. This actor shot back his opinion to give our coach insight on why he made that choice, then my acting coach responded, "Oh, ok so you..." and I remember thinking, "Wait, what just happened?"
Our coach really did want us to answer his questions as a means of helping us "get it." He was trying to figure out what was going on in our heads so that he could better communicate his point, understanding that each of us would have a different perspective and communication style.
He also welcomed our disagreements so that we could wrestle through how our personal lives were impacting the scene. I would never have realized all of that without listening to one of my fellow actors. What if I interjected, "These questions are rhetorical"? Wow. Listening helped me learn how to better communicate.
Let's look at an example from a shoot. I had the privilege of working with Rob Treveiler on an industrial right before he started to get a lot of attention for his role as the sheriff on Ozark. Industrials are a different beast since you're typically reading from a teleprompter instead of looking at your scene partner and building a connection.
So I was confused when Rob (who was looking at the teleprompter and not me) said, "Wait, no let me start again." I thought it might have been part of the script, but then I realized he just didn't like his take. He requested to start the scene again, but he didn't ask. He instead confidently stated his request so that he could protect his performance.
You never know what you my learn from another actor's communication style if you simply listen. You may not always decide to communicate in the same way that another actor does, but you may accidentally get inspired.
3. LEARN WHEN TO HELP
You may work with an actor that you know or an actor that respects your work who wants your advice. Only give your two cents if another actor specifically asks for your advice, and try to do it privately or after the shoot has finished.
I suggest that you tell them to always discuss their thoughts with the director so that you don't accidentally disrespect the director. I learned this the hard way during college when I played Anybodys from West Side Story. Again, you need to consider the director's personality, but it's better to play it safe in this situation.
Anybodys desperately tries to be "one of the guys" in the Jets during the entire play, I think to get close to Tony. A lot of people asked me if I thought she was a lesbian, but I think she's madly in love with Tony. (There's a reason it's just her and Maria present at Tony's death in the stage play.) So there was always an element of me trying to protect him or impress him throughout the show.
During a very intense scene, the Jets attack a female character, Anita. Our rehearsal blocking had me participate in a majority of the attack, which felt awkward to me, and also not like something that would impress Tony. Eventually, another girl from our theatre department mentioned that it did not feel right to have a woman participate in that type of violence and harassment against another woman.
I agreed, but instead of speaking to the director about it, I just made the shift during rehearsal. He questioned me, but because he thought I did it based on someone else's advice, he was livid. He quickly reminded me that he was the director, but he calmed down once I explained that I personally felt that way about the scene and took responsibility for the change.
It taught me a valuable lesson about being careful as to how or when I give advice to another actor. It's probably ok if you get asked a question about acting technique or how you would handle a situation, but always respond with "I" statements based on your experience versus "you" statements that tell the other actor what to do.
Let's commit to being actors that are quick to listen and slow to speak next time we're on set. What about you? Comment and share a lesson you've learned while on set.
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