Acting for Film

The first thing any director intending to work with actors on a film needs to understand is that acting for film is the most technically demanding and often least rewarding work an actor will do (not financially, but in terms of satisfaction with the actual process).

To understand, it helps to compare the work with an actor’s job in theatre. On stage an actor will take between two and six weeks rehearsing a play, get familiar with the character, the plot, the set and then perform the piece from beginning to end in one uninterrupted flow. So, when in scene four the actor is telling his friend that he’s just been told that his sister is really his mother; the actor has just experienced that scene immediately beforehand. To get to this performance the actor will have been guided by a director whose primary training has been in literature and acting (and will probably be an actor themselves).

In comparison when working on film, the actor is usually given a day’s rehearsal (if that); no time to prepare or get familiar with the character; is required to do the same scene over and over again (identically) and all this is done in the wrong order – which means that on the first day the actor is supposed to bring forth a believable emotional response at the climax of the film but hasn’t acted in any other scenes leading up to this moment, yet. On top of that the vast majority of the day isn’t spend performing, but sitting around waiting for technicians to do stuff that seems to take forever; during which time the actor may well be learning lines for their next production. To get through this complex procedure the actor is likely to be directed by someone who can tell you the compression rate of every current video codec and whose current reading is "Advanced FCP editing techniques" but is unlikely to ever have read anything in their life about either acting or acting technique.

So how should we really approach the issues of acting for film especially in an amateur environment?

We can break these issues down into three broad areas-:

The Script and the Subtext

The Actors and the Director

The Process



The script is a document that outlines every aural, visual, behavioural and lingual element required to tell a story. A script shows what the audience will see and hear. The script is not a description of camera angles and shots.

An actor has no right to speak a line until he has discovered the reason for saying it.

The reason or motivation often comes from subtext and the actor must always think the subtext.

Actors need to deduce the subtext from the script and it may take some time for an actor to fully understand their role and their relationship with others.

It is also vital that the Director and the Actor interpret the subtext in the same way.

Let’s look at the importance of understanding the subtext behind the line "It’s raining". An actor would say the words in a completely different way if they were actually thinking:

  1. We’ll have to move the party indoors.
  2. Now these flowers will grow very well.
  3. No, you can’t go outdoors to play.
  4. I told you that ought to have got the roof fixed.
  5. I love to walk in the rain.

A further exercise might be to consider the following sentence – "Your mother wasn’t like that. She was a kind woman".

Try emphasising different words within the text to derive different meanings.

  • Your mother wasn’t like that. She was a kind woman – denying that the mother was unkind
  • Your mother wasn’t like that. She was a kind woman – accusing someone of not being as kind as mother
  • Your mother wasn’t like that. She was a kind woman – used to be kind. Isn’t at the moment


There are distinct differences between the ways an actor performs on stage versus on film.

Stage actors usually have big voices, gestures and facial expressions. They are used to projecting and using lots of space. The audience’ attention is usually on the person speaking or using the most gestures.

When converting an actor from stage to film the director has to persuade the actor to do the following:

  • Lower the voice level
  • Get physically close to other actors
  • Remember that diction in film can be too good
  • Understand that a film actor is often most interesting when seen listening or thinking
  • Mark your script to show how the character should be acting and feeling (for shooting out of order)
  • Be always thinking and processing
  • Remember that very small gestures often tell the story better

What do Actors expect from the Director?

  • Positive Decisions
  • Security
  • Praise
  • To be listened to

Actors Ask themselves questions:

  • Who am I?
  • Where am I?
  • What am I doing?
  • Why am I doing it?
  • When am I there?

Need to know their objectives:

  • What do I want?
  • Why do I want it?

Need to understand their motivation:

    • Why does my character say or do that?

A few tools which can help a director to direct an actor:

Problem 1: The actor does not start the shot in character.

Solution 1: Get them to imagine where they’ve been and what they’ve been doing before the shot starts.

Problem 2: The actor can’t get the line right no matter how hard they try.

Solution 2: You could discuss the role/character with them more fully, but if they really can’t get it or if there is a time issue agree a quick line-fixing solution/compromise.

Problem 3: The lines should be highly emotional but seem flat. The actors cannot get energy into their lines.

Solution 3: Get them to deliver lines holding a chair above their heads or to deliver the lines whilst trying to push you down the room with you resisting. This usually changes the dynamics to a more animated performance. (I’ve not tried it but I’m told it works!)

Problem 4: The actor is not staying character throughout, especially when not speaking. (You can play the "take" back without sound to see when this happens).

Solution 4: Ask the actor to vocalise his thoughts to you first and then re-shoot.

Problem 5: The relationship between two characters isn’t believable.

Solution 5: Get them to talk to each other outside the shoot. Get them to improvise scenes from their shared history. Ask them to stay in character for a set period and interact.

Problem 6: The actor can’t "get under the skin" of the character.

Solution 6: Ask the actor questions in character and ask him to answer in character. Ask him about his family, his friends and what work he does etc. Look at his mannerisms – how does he talk, walk etc.



The Audition

    • A complete script is available for the actor to read.
    • Full reading or screen test to take place.
    • The actor is fully advised of his commitment to the film including the required number of days/weeks or months.


  • Read through with all actors. A third party should read all other directions.
  • The Director sets the scene – uses photographs or plans to indicate the locations.
  • Identify any issues the actors have and resolve these as quickly as possible.
  • Create a common understanding of the characters/situation.


  • Go through actions/movements with the location pre-marked out.
  • Look out for things that don’t work and resolve them early.
  • Aim to have learnt most of lines (90%) at this point.
  • Your actors should by now have a high degree of confidence, good knowledge of their character and belief in you as a director.

On location - First Line Up

  • At this point the actors see the set and make minor adjustments to how the action works.
  • The director establishes exact marks for the actors to hit.

On location - First Camera Rehearsal/First take

At last we get to the cameras! You should have done enough work with the actors now to feel confident that they will do the job well and don’t need much more from you. You can now concentrate on everyone else.


It is said that actors are the one necessary evil in any production and also that they are the most important piece of kit on the block. Whatever your view both actors and technicians must come together to produce the best results.

Many technical fixes are now available during editing. Changes to light, sound, colour etc are all a possibility. But you can’t fix the acting unless you re-shoot or make a cartoon!!

This all seems a lot of effort and you may be wondering how you will fit it all in, but remember the more work you do in advance the less time you waste on location.

You may even find that the acting quality meets the quality of the film!

Jane Andrews - June 2007