“I do not always know what I want, but I do know what I don’t want.” – Stanley Kubrick
As actors, we naturally spend a lot of time thinking about and preparing for auditions, as that is the most stressful part of the job for most of us. It’s also the first step, the gateway into the process of acting, of really doing the job, so of course it’s a natural focus.
But let’s assume the best: you’ve gotten past the initial audition, you’ve gotten through one or two or more rounds of callbacks, and you’ve booked the role. Congrats! Now: how are you going to deal with a director you’ve likely never worked with before? What are you going to bring to the table to make your experience – and his or hers – the best one possible for all concerned? (And, not incidentally, make them remember you next time they have a project you might be right for – remember you in a GOOD way.)
Here are a few qualities that directors seek out in actors – and they feel lucky when they find all of them in one package!
1. Believe You Me…
The first thing the director wants to know is if he or she can believe you in the role. That is to say, can you bring a genuine air of a real person who seems to be experiencing the events depicted in the piece in a genuine way. Well, you say, that’s just acting, isn’t it? Well, yes and no. A big part of this discussion of what a director is looking for revolves around what you bring to the set or the rehearsal room right off the bat. For many actors just starting out, getting cast in a role is almost a setback in a weird way: once the elation wears off – and the mental counting of all the filthy lucre you’re going to bank – the less experienced actor can often find him or herself suffering from a whole new breed of self-doubt and insecurity before they even sign the contract. “Am I good enough? Will I screw up? What if they ask me to…” A million fantastical – and nonsensical – questions can assault your poor little mind, and this translates into uncertainty on set or in rehearsals. What the director wants to see is an actor who is comfortable in themselves, sure of themselves, and able to fully inhabit the character right away without a lot of coaxing. The director wants to see an actor who is not thinking about what they LOOK like in the role, but rather one who is already IN the role, at least in its early incarnation. It’s important to chase away that pre-insecurity by simply remembering one thing: they chose you. You are not only good enough, you are the ONLY one who will play this role in this production. Relax into it, learn the sides, research as much as you can – do your homework before you walk in the door and you will show them a believable, TRUE character right off the bat. And you will make your new director very happy.
2. Just Looking For a Little Understanding
Another important quality in actors that saves directors tons of time, money and aggravation is an actor who understands the role. This applies not only to the obvious – see the note above about doing your homework. You should never walk onto a set or stage without already having a deep and profound understanding of the character you are to be playing. But in addition to the normal homework for the actor that we all already know about, it’s also important to understand the bigger picture. The big picture actor is one of those rare gems that directors cherish, because he or she possesses the intelligence and imagination and empathy to see exactly where he or she fits in. If you roll up onto a set where you are contracted to play “Non-Speaking Friend #2” and spend tons of time slowing down the productions with questions about your objective and suggestions for the director about how best to frame you and show off your good side, you are likely to find yourself on the cutting room floor, if not out the door before they even start shooting “your” scene. Not only that, by not understanding that you are in a relatively simple support role and sucking up tons of time and energy, you are not only alienating the director, you’re alienating everyone else on set as well. This is not the kind of reputation you want to develop. Being tagged as a “difficult actor,” whether or not it is justified, is a label that can prove hard if not impossible to shake. No matter how big your role is, worrying about whether you personally are being shown in the best light or getting the most screen time or are in the front of the crowd violates one of the tenets of acting anyway: we’re supposed to be listening to and paying attention to others. That’s what acting is, not shoving your way to the front.
3. Show Them That Soft, Soft Belly
When dogs roll over on their backs its not just because they know that belly rubs are in the offing. It’s an ancient sign of submission that goes all the way back to the wolves: by exposing the most vulnerable parts of themselves to an animal higher in the pecking order, they are signaling there will be no further aggression their part. Now, no one is asking you to be submissive to the director. But what every director is looking for is the actor who is unafraid of vulnerability, of showing his or her softest parts and most delicate emotions to the camera, the audience, and the other actors. If you walk in the door ready to bare your soul without a lot of prompting and begging, if you can immediately make yourself vulnerable with a natural confidence and comfort level right away, you are going to make directors fall in love with you – and possibly every one else too!
4. Collaboration is Key
Here’s a corollary to the above, or a reinforcement to help you really understand that vulnerability doesn’t mean behaving like a beaten dog: good directors aren’t looking for slaves or mindless robots to carry out their whims. They, like us, are artists looking to create something magical. And magic often comes from the cracks, from the spaces in between the minds and hearts of various artists, actors, directors, writers, cinematographers, etc. The actor who has the confidence to offer his or her own ideas and engage with the production and those working on it in a way that adds value to what is already on the table is someone who will make a name for him or herself.
5. Confidence Man (Or Woman)
Above all, and intertwined among all the previous notes above, is confidence. You are a professional actor who has been selected due to your skills and your particular look and your particular energy and your unique…YOU. That’s why you are working on this particular project, and you should never forget that. The director who meets an actor who holds his or her head up, has a good idea of the character and how to access it, is confident in his or her skills, and who is ready to work together with the creative team to build something valuable and beautiful together is the most valuable actor of all. He or she is invaluable, actually, because you simply can’t put a price on making someone else’s job easy. And if you can make your director’s job easy as outlined above, you are going to make them happy, and that means you will be happy too, because you will book more work!