The fundamental relationship between director and actor is one of trust. The actor trusts that the director knows what she’s doing and will support and lead the actor to an authentic and appropriate performance. The director trusts that the actor has the emotional resonance and skill sets necessary to become the character. Each is helping the other find and hone performance to best serve the story. They need to believe in each other, lean on each other, to achieve the best results.
Recently I directed something in which my relationship with an actor was definitely not one of trust. The actor had a wall up which I could not breach. It wasn’t personal; I was in a long line of freelance directors who had the same experience on this show. It was disconcerting, though. I’m a director who prides herself on creating that intimate relationship with every actor. It is not normal for me to be ignored and even rejected when directing an actor.
At first I thought, maybe it’s my pride that’s the problem. Just because I get along well with most actors doesn’t mean I should automatically get along with every single one. So I redoubled my efforts. I don’t mean that I was a subservient ass-kisser. I mean that I really tried harder to effect change in performance where I felt it was necessary. But I was trying too hard, and I was too focused on getting my own way, rather than serving the material. The wall just became higher.
Then I thought, I need to get my ego out of the way. “Be the love, be the light,” became my mantra. I can’t control how this person behaves, I can only control my behavior. So I’m going to be love and light and wear this person down with truly-felt sunshine. I’m going to break down that wall with smiles and hugs and acceptance. That didn’t work either.
But it was my job to make the best episode possible. So it was incumbent upon me to direct to the best of my ability. And that meant offering notes and insight no matter how it was received, and staying the course until I saw the realization of those thoughts. “I’m not going to crumble,” I thought. “I’m not going to just give up and let the wall stand in the way and let performance suffer. I’m going to be my own wall of integrity. I’m going to not say ‘Cut and print,’ until it is what I need it to be.” That resulted in a few standoffs, and in all honesty, a few scenes that required judicious editing to achieve the result the script demanded.
But ultimately, my pursuit of excellence (or at least, better than acceptable) work elicited grudging respect. I’ll never be this person’s favorite director, but at least there’s trust. The actor knew that I was focused on telling the story and trying to make it the best episode possible, especially in performance. It wasn’t personal, it was professional. And that’s trustworthy.