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Thoughts on Being a Filmmaker’s Actor


Johnathan RhodesI've worked as an actor on a number of film sets and with a wide range of directors and filmmakers.  It's an exciting place to be and when you hit the scene right, there's no better feeling in the world; despite shooting out of chronological order and out of emotional continuity.  Each day, each scene, each take, brings its own challenges for the actor - and when you're tackling these challenges with a good team of people who are all heading for the same goal it's a very rewarding experience.


when you hit the scene right, there's no better feeling in the world

It's a curious business, filmmaking, as it combines art, technology and throws a lot of people together in a small space who need to make demands on each other. Carefully laid plans can be thrown out of the window and an actor may be asked to deliver something unique under strained circumstances.  Cast and crew are all expected to improvise at times. 

Jonathan Rhodes in Deadpan Valentine

From my experience there are a number of things that filmmakers and actors can think about to make the process enjoyable and fruitful and exciting and pleasurable.  A film is a statement; a creative, collaborative process.  The actor and the film maker should work together to ensure that the finished work isn't just the product of a budget and a schedule.  The first time I walked onto a film set, the director said to me: "I know you've not done film before. There'll be all manner of technical stuff going on and people all over the place, but understand me when I say that I am here for YOU."  She was considerate; it also gave her licence to use all manner of tactics to get the best out of me on set, but there are a few common things worth thinking about to make the filmmaker-actor relationship a brilliant thing.

How can a filmmaker make an actor's job easier?

Be clear about all the information the actor needs and supply it in good time before principal photography:  Information from character details to scheduling and locations to costume requirements.  A filmmaker will have a huge number of things on their plate to worry about - the actor will have far less of the pressure of the shoot hanging over them.  The actor can use their time to work on the info given to them and be better prepared for the shoot.

creating a character can only be a solitary process for so long

Find some time in the schedule to rehearse before the shoot : This may not always be possible, but any actor will be grateful for some rehearsal time; creating a character can only be a solitary process for so long.  Frequently films are shot with no rehearsal prior to the shoot - of course the scenes will be marked before a shoot, but it is so valuable for the calibre of the finished product that the actor has had a chance to run through even just the simplest character hooks with the filmmaker and other actors before a shoot.

Explain problems and delays as and when they arise: There are inevitably changes and delays on a film shoot and it is always helpful and appreciated when an actor is kept informed of changes so that they can prepare for another scene if needed. If an actor knows that they have a two hour delay, they can then choose to put some of that time to good use. If they don't know the parameters of the delay, boredom will strike and the actor may moan.  The last thing a film set needs is a moaning actor.

Make sure the 1st AD can keep focus on a set: Filmmaking is a fun process and should be enjoyed - if a cast and crew have had a good time and laughed a lot during a shoot, the results will naturally show in the finished film.  But there are times when everyone needs to focus - an unfocused actor can throw the front end of a technically brilliant scene and waste time.  Everyone likes to have fun, but ultimately it's only the actor who is exposed when the camera rolls and they may not always be confident enough to impose onto others and ask for quiet.  So it will help if the 1st AD is sensitive to the focus levels needed.

Keeping in focus in "Carrier"

an unfocused actor can throw the front end of a technically brilliant scene and waste time

Let the actor know what the schedule for the next day is: It sounds stupid, but sometimes a filming day will end and the actor won't have been told what the next day's shots are.

Let the actor know what size the shot is: It will help an actor enormously, especially if they are new to filmmaking, if they know whether the scene they have been working up to will be shot in a wide or a close first.  An inexperienced actor may blow their performance in the wide and have saved nothing for the close - if they know the coverage, this is less likely to happen.

How can an actor make a filmmaker's job easier?

Understand how to REPEAT a good performance: It is a primary skill of a film actor to be able to understand when and how they arrive at the killer performance that has those unique and indefinable qualities that makes a scene really live.  As intangible as this may seem, it will be of immense help to a filmmaker if the actor can repeat their performance for the next take when the boom won't be in shot and the lighting will be perfect.

Have awareness for the people around you: Everyone on a film set is as important as the next.  By nature, actors have a different build of ego, and this can affect those around them.  In my experience, the actors that understand how their job is ultimately a product of the people around them, are the actors that enjoy the filmmaking process more and have a better working relationship with their directors.  Which leads to a smoother shoot.

Be responsible for your own continuity: It will be a massive help to the script supervisor and the continuity person if the actor is able to instinctively know where their hand was when they said such-and-such a line, and what they said before they took a drag on a cigarette or a sip on a drink, or on what word of the line the axe severed the neck.  Without it becoming the main focus for the actor in the scene, it just helps save time and leads to a collaborative effort.

Jonathan Rhodes feeling the squeeze put on his charcater in Deadpan Valentine

Have sharp instincts for character ideas and suggestions and know how to improvise when necessary: Pertinent ideas and suggestions on character will usually be welcomed by a director, depending on their inclination.  An actor should have a grasp on the character that means they can offer ad-libs and scenarios if need be.  But be careful!  The director should have a firmer grasp on the bigger picture and improvisation is not always suitable. 

pertinent ideas and suggestions on character will usually be welcomed by a director

Be aware of the size of the shot: As an actor, it is natural to prepare for a scene and for a lot of the inevitable energy to be dispersed the first time the scene is performed. If the first shot of the scene is a wide, then the actor runs the risk of losing the emotional energy when it comes to the close-up; where it really matters.  If the actor can measure their performance to some degree by the coverage list, less time will be wasted on set.  The actor should also be aware of the size of their movements within the frame: larger gestures are good in a wide, but not in a close!

Create an emotional continuity chart: We all know that a film isn't shot in chronological order. To help the filmmaker and themselves, the actor could figure out the emotional journey that their character makes through the story of the film, separate the emotional states into ‘stages' and list all the scenes that correspond to each ‘stage'.  Then with quick reference, the actor can keep to their own rules about the state of the character within the relevant ‘stage' and the emotion will remain consistent when the editor comes to piece it all together.

The actor should take control of their own image on the screen as the filmmaker will not always have the time to do so.

More images of actor Jonathan Rhodes can be seen on his Gallery