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Directing Actors – Vinny Murphy

Resources_Dir_132 - Vinny MurphyAs an actor, before I ever directed, I was often asked by directors for advice on directing actors. I was shocked by the questions they would ask. ‘What do you do with actors?’ they’d say. ‘I’ve heard they have their own language you have to learn,’ they’d say. A lot of these people had been to film school and some had made a few shorts already. They seemed to be dealing with some strange alien life form. I’d ask what had they done with these strange ‘others’ before: they either couldn’t remember or they said they’d done nothing – basically they didn’t know what had happened. It still holds true today that colleges spend very little, if any, time on this obviously extremely important aspect of filmmaking. It seems to be the last thing anybody making their first film ever thinks about. ‘The director got sucked into the camera’ is an old way of saying the director didn’t deal with the actors and, from what I hear and see, there are still directors getting sucked into all sorts of old and new cameras all over the country.

Why does this happen? I think the main reason is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of this ‘other.’ It’s much easier to talk to the DOP because you’re talking about tangibles. The job of a director is so huge and so full of pressure that it’s very tempting to look for excuses when something isn’t working. It’s great, you can say ‘the actors just aren’t getting it, what’s wrong with them?’ and hey presto! If those useless actors aren’t getting it, what can you possibly do? The point is that it’s the director’s responsibility to create a situation where the actors can do their most interesting work. It’s not just when you talk to them, it’s the entire situation the actors find themselves in. If that responsibility sounds both huge and vague, then welcome to the world of film directing!

Question: How do you direct actors? Answer: ‘I don’t know.’ – Jim Sheridan

What Jim Sheridan meant was that he doesn’t have a technique that fits any situation. Every film is different, every actor has to be worked with differently. It’s much too personal an activity to be able to apply broad strokes. The worst thing an inexperienced director can have anywhere in their head is the notion: ‘They’re actors, they should be able to do anything.’

My favourite bad move by an inexperienced director is where they go over to the actor, talk at them for five minutes (or more, which is worse!) and walk away with a satisfied look as if they’ve just completed their part of the bargain and now it’s up to the actor. For a start, an actor can’t really take in that much information in one go. The actor is not looking at the script the way a director or a script editor looks at it. If I look at a script that I am about to script edit, I can read it and understand it very clearly. If I am given the same script because I’m going to be acting in the filmed version of it, that’s a horse of a different colour altogether.

Reading the script

When I’m script editing I’m looking for the high view – how the thing is structured, exactly what is it the writer is trying to say and how to make that clearer. The script editor has to be a bit hard-nosed about it, cold. So it may look like I’ve suddenly become stupid when I’m an actor and I’ve just been given a script. It’s not just that somewhere I’m thinking, ‘Oh shit, I have to perform this’, it’s that my entire relation to that script is different. I’m looking for clues to help with a very different process. My thinking isn’t so clear because, whether I’m aware of it or not, what I’m trying to do is to sink down into the script. I’m looking to go down south, to find the warmth of it, the moisture of it. Maybe, in a way, I have to become stupid in order to grow down into the script before I can grow up through it again.

Whatever way you look at it, when an actor is given a script, it’s a very different process to that of a director. And a director needs to be drawn in to the vortex that is the actor. How far to get drawn in depends on the job, but there has to be some drawing in going on – what else is there? So the director gets drawn in to the actor’s vortex and knows the actor is going to get drawn in to the director’s vortex. Knowing how much of this vorticity business you are up for is something you can only find out by doing it.


When it comes to directing actors, maybe it should be called indirection. If you tell an actor what to do, they will try to do what you tell them, unless they’re really good, in which case they will try to turn what you say into something they can work with. No actor can ‘do’ a direction. There is no tube through which a direction travels from the director’s head into the actor’s soul. What the director says will have to find a filter through which the actor processes the information and turns it into something which can be used. If the director gives the actor an image (in the widest sense of the word) the actor can take that and get something from it. What it is that they get and how they translate that into action is the mysterious part.

‘…psyche knows more what it wants with itself than I may be able to imagine or interpret.’ – James Hillman

The psyche of the actor knows more about what should be done with the scene than the director. So the job of the director is to access that and not engage the actor in a discussion about the craft. You’re trying to get the actor away from the craft. Instead of giving a ‘result’ direction like ‘be more angry,’ you might, for instance, ask if they’ve ever been so pissed off (try to avoid the word ‘angry’ – it has too many bad performances attached to it already) with someone that they wanted to physically hurt them. Now, hopefully a bunch of images floods into the actor’s head – not just one specific memory that they’ll re-enact, but a vortex (again) of images that will bring up physical, emotional and psychological activity relevant to the situation. Or maybe you’ll do something totally different. What matters is that you see a move in the actor’s eyes or something that indicates they’ve got something from you.

Over thinking

A particular actor who had a fair amount of experience was new to my classes. We did a scene where part of the exercise is that I don’t say a single word about the script and we shoot the first take. The scene was complex. It was about the character’s resentment towards his sister for not helping out in caring for their sick father, his own feelings of guilt for not doing more himself, his attempt to understand her and then his disgust when she refuses to commit to helping again. None of this was immediately apparent from reading the script and he thought it was about him flirting with her. He ‘thought’. There’s your problem right there, buddy. He read the script and then decided what he was going to do in advance. For the next take I told him to stop thinking and planning ahead. He gave the same performance again. I talked a bit more about not deciding anything and just listening to what she’s saying and to what he’s saying and to do it as if he’s no idea what’s going on and to just be open. We shot it the third time and he gave this incredibly complex, rich, moving and slightly scary performance – everyone in the room was in thrall to it. I asked what had he gone through during the take. Not what did the scene now mean or what did he ‘think’ of it but just historically, what had actually happened? In explaining, he gave a perfect account of all the complexity that was supposed to be in the scene.

What had happened? He had connected to the images that came to him and had stuck with them. Instead of drawing from the shallow well of what we can ‘think’ up he had drawn on the bottomless pit of all that’s unconscious, and that had guided him to a truly marvellous performance.

I’m not suggesting directors shouldn’t say anything to actors and then expect amazing performances, but that the actor needed to find it for himself. Otherwise he would have ended up trying to squeeze what I had told him out of the script. Squeezing a script is never a good idea. A script is supposed to set up images that get things out of the actor, it’s not for the actor to try to grab things out of the script.

The environment

In this country, like most others, actors find themselves turning up on set, maybe having done a play (which is a different discipline altogether) two months ago and a film the month before that. They turn up on set with no continuity of practice, no juices flowing, no warmth, no moisture. They’re dry, cold and fearful. And on a bad set what happens first thing? They’re told what to do. ‘You stand over there and say your first line, then go over there and sit down at that table for the rest of your lines.’ They rehearse; the director tells them that it’s not what they want. ‘Be more angry when you say that.’ They do a take. Nobody says anything – now they feel even colder than when they walked in! And then next take is bad – but of course it’s bad, how could it be good?

‘I’m gonna spend loads of time with the actors on set’ is a phrase I’ve heard an awful lot. It never happens because you can’t spend loads of time with anyone when you have a hundred things to decide, fix, oil, shape, manoeuvre and get out of the location in twenty minutes. But you have to keep the actors warm and moist! Even the biggest Hollywood stars all turn to the same place when they hear ‘cut’ – the director. That’s the only place they can find out whether they did good or bad.

A director needs to establish their own brand of relationship with actors beforehand and keep that warm by talking to them, not necessarily even about the scene. If you are talking about the scene, talk to one actor at a time – this way, you don’t end up with the actor trying to prove to the others that they can do your direction and the relationship stays intimate. Most importantly, the actors aren’t supposed to know exactly what the others are going to do anyway.

So directing actors becomes not so much about using your imagination, but keeping the imagination of your actors alive. It’s the director’s responsibility to create a situation where the actors can offer their most interesting work.  This isn’t their ‘best’ work, because it’s not about being good or bad. It’s about being either engaging and arresting or just adding to the numbness that is available on and off the screen everywhere.

This article first appeared in Issue 132 of Film Ireland Magazine.