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How Do You Help an Actor Who Is Struggling to Create a Role?

How Do You Help an Actor Who Is Struggling to Create a Role?
Andrew Jarecki
New York; 'All Good Things,' 'Capturing the Friedmans'

I think my job usually is to be like a second instinct, brain, and conscience for the actors. I have to work at least as hard as they do, especially prior to and during rehearsal. I have to be able to come in and provide options.

For example, in "All Good Things," there's a scene involving a disagreement between the characters, where one is telling another something we all suspected was true, but the scene was not working. So I suggested, "Let's try a 'What if?': What if it's not true, what if what he's saying is a lie?" It radically shifted the scene. I like actors trying a scene one way and then another way and then another way. And if the actors are up for it and with you, they're really thrilled. It's having someone support you—you're out there and you're reaching back and someone's handing you additional ideas. If you're on the same page, then you can deliver five, six, seven versions of the scene, which can change the film.

But most important, I think you have to love working with actors. It's something I thrive on. I think this idea that actors are some kind of necessary evil is a very destructive idea; it's a stupid idea. It's like my saying I don't need this additional perspective from people that are embodying these characters. That would be suicide for me.

Steve Antin

Los Angeles; 'Burlesque,' 'Glass House: The Good Mother'

There are so many variables involved in working with actors when creating a role, and of course it's different with every actor. For me, it begins with finding out what the actors' needs are, and it's all about embracing their process. I like to study actors and learn everything I can about them, which will provide me with the tools that I need to help them get to wherever they need to go.

With "Burlesque," I approached the creation of the characters in a very collaborative way. I would explain what I ultimately wanted from the character and what the character's purpose was. We would exchange ideas and points of view. During this process, we would develop a much better understanding of the character—their motives, their past, their purpose—and every time we shot a scene, it would inform everything that followed, and the character came to life.

For me as a director and a writer, the most important element in working with an actor is to find something in that character that the actor can relate to, something that calls back to their own life experience. The challenge is to find something that they can apply to their performance, or sometimes more specifically to a particular scene. What I have learned is that actors are incredibly resourceful by nature, and often they need someone to follow who doesn't lead the way.

Mike Leigh
London; 'Another Year,' 'Vera Drake,' 'Secrets & Lies,' 'Happy-Go-Lucky'

Interesting as it is, this is actually an inappropriate question for my process of filmmaking. The problem of "struggling to create a role" never arises. None of my actors are ever in this situation. I don't simply throw them the impossible challenge of "creating a role" all by themselves and then make myself available to help them out of any difficulties. It just doesn't work like that, and if you think about it, it wouldn't make sense. How could an actor alone create a role that had a logical place in the overall context of the potential film?

The job for each actor and myself is very much to collaborate to create a character. My function as writer is to take full responsibility for the context, meaning, and themes implicit in the creative choices as to who the character is, what his or her dramatic possibilities might be, and how he or she behaves, looks, walks, talks, etc. As director, I'm there to create a safe, warm, friendly, and harmonious environment, in which the actor can take risks and be dangerous—in other words, to explore and to create. My job is to be helpful and supportive, by cherishing, not bullying.

Of course, with both hats on, my job is to be creative. For me, the journey of making the film is a journey of discovery as to what the film is, and the cast, the crew, and I make that journey together.

One other thing: No actor ever has an overview of the film. Each only ever knows what her or his character would know and no more. This discipline is adhered to strictly throughout both the rehearsals and the shoot, making it possible to explore, through improvisation, all relationships and situations with total truth.

David O. Russell
Los Angeles; 'The Fighter,' 'I Heart Huckabees,' 'Three Kings,' 'Flirting With Disaster'

I try every way possible, and every actor is different, so you have to find different ways for every actor. But the most important thing is to make everybody comfortable. I try to communicate what I feel the character is about and let them know it's okay to talk about and flail around and discover things. I want to make sure they know they don't have to walk on eggshells or try to figure it out on their own. You can be sloppy and let go and breathe, and then you're going to find it.

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