Lecture at Berkeley City College: The Relationship Between Director and Actor

Yesterday, I had the privilege to speak to a directing class at Berkeley City College that revolved around the relationship between a director and actor. It largely revolved around basic acting principles and terminology so that the directors could have  a vocabulary with us just as they do cinematographers, editors, costumers, etc. 

Below are notes I typed up for the lecture and I believe them to be helpful to any actor or director who is beginning their journey. It revolves around communication and as collaborative art form; theater or film, knowing how to communicate with others can help solve problems quickly and efficiently. So here are the notes:

Four (Five) Simple Things (Actors Look for In Directors)

-          Aside from being a decent, compassionate human being, there are 4 director specific things an actor looks for in a director


-          Trust DPs and Gaffers to do their jobs, trust the actors to do their's

-          Create an environment that we can work in safely; especially intimate, sensitive or violent scenes


-          We want to be able to trust that you know what you are doing or are confident enough to say when you don’t so we can work on the problem together

-          Not only up to us make it happen, a conversation about the character and our acting

-          You need to be the beacon of calm within the storm

-          Patience to get the shot right as well as the wherewithal to know when you have the shot

-         Unfair to have this responsibility? No. It is your job. You are the Captain of the ship, you direct us to where we need to go, but you also don’t go around hoisting the main sail or running up to the crow’s nest

Communication and Direction

-          Silly, but most film directors do not direct actors. Content to leave them be.

-          Tell DP to soften or rack, tell editor to tighten up a cut; same with actor

-          We want to be directed so the cohesive film isn’t dragged down by our performance

-          Perception of acting: Anyone-can-do-it and mystification

-          Different styles, there is still the underlying foundations every actor goes through to create a character; Roger Deakins and Rachel Morrison. Different styles of DP, still communicate with base language

-          Different people, actors are typically empathetic beings so we feel a lot. Again, creating an environment in which actor can work and understanding how each of us work.

-          Foundation is where you can communicate with other departments, which includes actors

-          Given circumstances, objectives, actions



-          1 step audition? Do it in person and give direction. Minimum two times

-          Give sides ahead of time. No one is going to do their best work in an audition

-          Get a feel for that person

-          No one knows what you want from a character

-          See if they can actually take direction and see if they can transform


-          Do it before the shoot

-          Helps everyone. Line up shots, when we get to set, we can produce at our best without having to ramp it up by rehearsing on set

-          Builds relations between actor to actor and some of the crew.

-          Get on the same page, figure out how you work and how they work

-          You get to find where the builds and tensions are in the scene. Be able to highlight them better

-          10 hour shoot days, we can finitely produce so much. Doing prep work makes sure we aren’t dying by hour 6 having down rehearsals on set


-          Communicating with the actor

-          Applies to auditions as well

Given Circumstances

-          Who, what, where, why, when, hows of a character before the story starts.

-          Any RELEVENT information to the character’s journey WITHIN the story

-          We start mining for what is on the page, then we use our imagination to fill the rest

-          Simple and uncluttered so messages can be communicated clearly


-          From moment, scene,  act, to ultimate objective by the end of the story

-          “I want____” or “I want you to___” or “I want to ___ to you” create active dynamics between characters as opposed to passively waiting for things to happen

-          Something the AUDIENCE can see and/ or hear

-          Did the achieve it? Yes? Yeah! No? Try again (if they are able)

-          Characters want things desperately

Actions/ Verbs

-          Chasing objectives through actions informed by given circumstances

-          I want you to smile. How would a character go about doing that?

-          On set, you want an actor shift from poking to something more intense, but you can’t find the word. Solution: I want you to poke her more intensely (gets the point across) OR Actions: the Actor’s thesaurus ($20, physical) or the app ($8, has a search function)

-          Specificity leads to simplicity leads to clarity. Simple does not mean easy

-          Full 180 of an action but don’t know where to go and you don’t want the thesaurus? Memorize these 13 verbs:


Ignore ---> Erase


Flirt ---> Seduce


Dispirit (Deflate)

Ask ---> Beg (stronger)

Convince (never EXPLAIN, because it is vague)





-         These base verbs were thought up by William Ball, co-founder of American Conservatory Theatre, as the 13 basic verbs in which other verbs branch off from

Other Aspects


-          More sadness. More anger. Happiness. Etc.

-          Vague. Why else is it ineffective direction?

-          Focuses on the interior of the character. Emotion is a reaction to something exterior

-          Business of selling emotions. The outer most layer the audience receives

-          Superficial. A veneer is not backed by something internal of the character.

-          Smart actor translates this. Untrained does not

-          Being direct when you direct leads to simplicity and therefore clarity

-         Threatening coldly to angrily. Emotion? No


-          Angrily cannot exist on its own, needs a verb and by doing so creates a more specific action.

-          Threatening someone angrily is by and large eviscerating them


Movement and Speech

-          Also valid directions. A trained actor is like a violin and its player. You ask for a Ca above the bar, they provide you with the C above the bar. You ask an actor to saunter, they provide you with a saunter BASED on their understanding of what sauntering is.
*Same goes for actions, given circumstances and objectives. The actor provides THEIR understanding of it

-          Without line reading or body demonstrating. Qualities: strutting vs. gliding, reedy versus authoritative

 Reminding the actors of the situation

-          Where are the characters in terms of the story?

-          Open to having conversations with actors as things are getting prepped. Don’t pass up the opportunity

-          Human psyche questions: “Why haven’t you left?” “Why did you allow her to leave?”

-          Considering these questions, helps actors get into a good mindset before shooting



-          Project is “unpaid”? Our payment as actors is the final product. Finish it.

-          If you list payment to be COPY/ Credit/ Meal, a copy of the finished project is part of the payment. If an actor is so inclined, they have the legal precedent to come after you

- That being said, if you are holding footage for festival runs, that is understandable, just let the actor know so they aren't left in the dark


Anyway, those are my notes from the lecture, including bits that came up in conversation during a Q&A.


Until next time, stay goofy and keep hustling,

James Aaron Oh