Directors look for different qualities in the actors they cast. I know for a fact that Elia Kazan would cast based on preferences that Werner Herzog or Stanley Kubrick would not have. There is no right or wrong, however I felt the need to explain the qualities I look for. Perhaps it can help the actors who audition for us and then go on to work in our films.
1. Be yourself
This is the most important of all for me. I cast you because of who you are. This is the reason I would prefer to get to know someone before casting or working with them, to hear their thoughts and see the actor in action as a regular human being. I cast you because you’re interesting, without putting anything on or pretending… you’re interesting. I like your voice. I like your face. I like the way you move. So please just be yourself. Talk like yourself and act like yourself. And for the most part, I place people in roles based on who they are and how their own attributes connect with that character, so even more reason to relax and just be you. This, I believe, creates a more natural performance.
Not long ago I sat with three actors for a rehearsal. It was the first time we went through the script together and one of these actors struggled to find the character’s voice. She kept trying this or that. Finally, she began to explain to me her thoughts on the character, speaking in her own voice. I stopped her mid-sentence and said: “Do you hear how you’re speaking to me now? That is how the character should sound. Exactly how you sound when you aren’t thinking about it.”
2. A Good Attitude
I care about your attitude as much or more as your talent. Again, I cast based on who you are. Therefore an actor who reveals a negative attitude or behavior in the audition (or thereafter in rehearsals and on set) will quickly fall into the category of actors I don’t ever want to work with, or will never work with again. I don’t care how talented, experienced or famous you are, if you bring a bad attitude to my set, to quote a bad attitude actor (Christian Bale): “We’re done professionally”.
Filmmaking is really hard work and therefore it’s important to be surrounded by people who have a good work ethic and positive behavior. This doesn’t mean you need to be smiling all the time; it means don’t be a grouch, don’t be an egotist, and to put it plainly, don’t be a pain in the ass.
Wherever you come from, whatever classes you’ve taken or directors you’ve worked with, when you make a film with us for however many days or months we work together… you are in our world.
I prefer actors who surrender to that world and to me as director/producer. Does that mean I want puppets? No. I want thinking, feeling, strong-minded actors. However, I do want actors who trust me, with their performance, with their strengths and weaknesses, and who will go with me wherever I decide to take them. No matter how well an actor knows the character, I know that character better because a director (a good one) is holding the entire story in his or her hand. Therefore, I’m present to guide you, encourage you to explore, move this direction or that, and ultimately tell you yes or no. In order to successfully do that, you have to surrender to the story, to the film, to me.
I recently worked with an actor who fought me at nearly every corner. This actor did not trust me or my instincts, though ironically I believe we were on the same page 9 times out of 10. The performance delivered by this person was amazing. However, I know for certain that if the actor had trusted me and surrendered to my instincts as a director, I would not only have let them explore, but I could have helped them push the performance to greater heights.
4. Know Subtext
There is the text (what is happening on the surface and in the lines) and the subtext (what is happening beneath and between the lines). To put it simply, this is the unspoken, the unwritten, and for this director what makes a good scene, a good performance, and a good film.
The actors I like to work with read a script and look for the subtext because the screenplays I write or select contain layers beneath the surface reading of the scene. The depth and insight with which an actor approaches a script is important to me, far more so than how good they are at reading lines. I would rather work with a smart person who has never acted before (but knows how to look for subtext) than an experienced and “talented” actor who doesn’t know how to read beneath the lines.
One of my favorite actors to work with throughout these last five years of Running Wild Films was a philosophy professor who had never acted or taken an acting class. But he knew subtext. He was perceptive about the script and human behavior. Because of this, he was cast in our first three feature length films and I would have continued to cast him if he had not moved out of state.
I want to work with passionate people, cast and crew. A passionate actor, by my definition, is one who studies his or her craft. Now I don’t mean they take a bunch of classes, in fact I’m wary of most acting lessons and the actors who have learned from them. What I mean is that you study actors, go straight to the source. When I felt myself drawn to Gene Hackman, I plunged into his work head on in an attempt to find exactly what I liked about his performances and how he was doing it. I not only watched his films but read interviews he’d given and picked up what I could.
I find there to be a discouraging lack of curiosity among the actors I’ve encountered. They don’t show any desire to look hard at the work of the greats (be it Bogart or Brando). To put it simply, they’re still watching movies as an audience member. And as my partner in Running Wild Films once told me, when you become a filmmaker (actors included) you give up your right as an audience member. Now you MUST watch films differently. Now you must study them and explore their depths. This is passion for film and your craft.
I would be more likely to cast someone with an insatiable appetite for acting (and studying the work of actors) than a complacent “talented” actor.