Jamaica has a long history in the threatre, and as such most Jamaican actors are trained for that style of acting. Because theatre performances are done in front of a live audience, where each member of the audience may not have the same visibility, the acting has to be bold and exaggerated so that the audience can pick up on every little nuance of the actor’s journey.
However, this style of acting is not suited for film because it’s too over the top. The beauty of film acting is that the camera becomes the eye of the audience. It is a window through which each audience member sees the exact same thing as the next, up close and personal. How each audience member interprets what they see is a different story all together, but they all see the same thing. The camera is able to closely follow the actor’s every move, picking up, if that’s the director’s wish, on every little detail on his or her face and body language, as well as in the actor’s surroundings. With such close observation of the action unfolding, the actor’s performance can be more organic and true to life.
The acting in most Jamaican films that I’ve seen is quite theatrical. It’s not that the performances are overly or collectively bad, it’s just that they are too overpowering for film. Theatrical acting on film tends to take the focus away from the story and that’s the last thing that you want.
Therefore, this is where the (Jamaican) director’s most challenging task comes into play. Motivating, inspiring, coaching his/her actors to give a performance that is subtle (non-theatrical) but powerful, and not distracting in a way that causes the audience to lose sight of the story.
Providing good direction for actors is an art form in and of itself. It’s something that many directors struggle with (me included), even some of the greatest and most seasoned in the business. Many film schools have courses that are squarely focused on Directing Actors. It’s a skill that anyone wanting to be a GOOD director must work at. Nobody expects you to develop it overnight, but it’s important to be aware of it and continually work at it.
Here are a few tips for working with actors:
1) Have several one on one meeting with your lead actor(s). Discuss the character together at length, outline all the essentials of the character – where he’s from, what his childhood was like, his relationship to people around him, is he educated/uneducationed, was he abused as a child, is he well-travelled … every single thing that will inform the actor of WHO you want this person to be. Your job as the director is to lay the ground work and provide the actor with the tools he needs to build the character. Don’t try to dictate what the character’s behavior should be like – that’s for the actor to determine.
2) If you’re able to, have a table read of the script (all of it or important scenes) with all your main actors several weeks before you shoot.
3) When you arrive on set rehearse the scene with the actors a couple of times, but don’t overdo it. When you’re ready for the take you want the performance to appear natural on camera, not rehearsed to death. So one or two times should be enough. Or if you prefer have as many rehearsals as you like, but film every single one of them. Life is such a bitch that you always get the best performance from your actors when the camera is NOT rolling. So whether you’re rehearsing once, twice or 10 times … film it because the rehearsal performance may very well turn out to be better than the “official” take.
4) When directing your actors DO NOT attempt to show them how to play the character because really if you have to do this why have actors? You can play the part yourself.
Get in the habit of communicating to the actors what you want by using ACTION words. Examples of action words: Beg, Frustrated, Angry, Seductive, Desperate etc.
You can also have them IMAGINE a scenario that will cause them to have the emotional reaction you’re looking for in the scene. The point here is don’t do the actor’s work for them … some actors will lose respect for you if you do because they’ll think you’re an amateur OR they’ll tune you out which is just as bad.
5) Another thing of EXTREME importance when dealing with actors is that you should never ever embarrass or humiliate your actors in front of others. No matter how frustrated you are with their bad attitude or how horrible you think their acting is, BITE YOUR TONGUE and calm down. Once you’ve calmed down take the actor aside – preferably into a private room all together – and speak to them one on one. Ask them what isn’t working for them and how you can help. LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN. If it is within your power to give them what they want, do it.
6) Don’t be rigid & inflexible in your approach to directing your actors. Listen to the suggestions and concerns of your actors and do your best to meet their needs. Actors can be, and often are, emotional, insecure, cantankerous creatures who will hold a grudge against you if they feel slighted. Depending on their professionalism or lack thereof, this may or may not affect their performance, but you want to be on good terms with your actor at all time so you can better influence them to achieve the performance you want. But in order to have that influence over them they need to feel safe and loved by you, their director.
As a Director I’ve Come Across 4 Types of Actors:
The difficult actor – a great performer when they apply themselves, but also someone who typically doesn’t like taking orders/direction from anyone, wants to do their own thing. Can cause a lot of problems on set. Diva.
The level-headed actor – professional, active listener who responds well to the director’s direction.
The needy actor – the actor who constantly needs the director’s attention and approval. Sometimes this actor is difficult to direct because they end up not responding well to direction even though their # 1 aim is to please you. For eg: they’re playing the scene X way and you ask them to try playing it Y way. Some needy actors will continue playing the scene X way even though THEY think they’re playing it Y way, like you’ve asked. It can be frustrating for you as the director, but get over it. Either find a way to get them to respond to you or leave them be and pray that you can salvage the performance that you want in the edit (post – production).
The inexperienced actor – someone who has never acted before and requires on the job training. This actor will naturally need a lot of attention from the Director. The only time a director can justifiably SHOW an actor how to act out a scene is when they’re dealing with completely green, inexperienced actors. And even so, the director shouldn’t go overboard. Adapt and respond to the actor. If you see that he/she intuitively picks up on what you want from them, let them figure it out rather than show them. As the inexperienced actor develops and grow, s/he will fall into one of the above categories.
INSIGHT: Professionalism in Showbiz
In showbiz, regardless of who you are – Actor, Director, Producer, Cinematographer … whatever, your greatest asset is your reputation. When you are known to show up on time, when you come to work prepared to jump right into your role, when you’re hard working despite adverse conditions and without constant complaint, when you try to get along with everyone even though they might be bitches and bastards, when you’re able to take direction, when you don’t take criticisms personally, when you don’t gossip and bad mouth people behind their backs you’ll gain a reputation as a consummate professional and everyone will want to work with you. Nobody is expecting you to be a saint or a pushover, but don’t let bad attitude and HYPE define your career before it has even started. In general the Entertainment business in the West is relatively small. In Jamaica/the Caribbean it’s even smaller. Develop a professional attitude from DAY 1 and you’ll get far. Don’t and everyone will know about you soon enough. See where that leaves you.