How to Direct Actors: Advice from Actor-Turned-Director Nick Sandow of The Wannabe

On a typically tight indie production, getting any rehearsal time at all is an uphill battle.

You’re dealing with actors’ schedules, budgets, producers, agents—it’s all a bit of a mess, and no one but the actors themselves are willing to help you pull off rehearsal. Luckily, actors can bring way more to a piece than just a full emotional life and smart blocking.

Start to engage the actors early in the script rewriting process because there is often a lot of time then, while you’re waiting for the money to roll in. Get an early commitment and you can start the working process right away and develop a language and mutual trust. I let my actors know that any idea they bring to a script is on the table. The script becomes ours; it’s a total collaboration.

This way, when we do get into that awful, cramped rehearsal period, the actors have already taken ownership of what exactly each scene is trying to say. By then, we’ve built an atmosphere where there are no mistakes—just lots of questions. When I myself act, if I feel safe, I’m free to explore moment to moment instead of questioning what my next line is, where it is I belong in space, and what is ultimately supposed to happen in the scene. It all just happens.

If you are lucky enough to land a bigger name actor with a small window of availability, get them on the phone as early as possible. I begin by mining his or her specific understanding of the role. I do lots of listening without trying to push my ideas too early. Going through each scene, I ask the simple questions: What does the character want in the scene? How is he or she going about getting it? Why does the character want this? Where is the character coming from and going?

I like to have these conversations in private with an actor so as to not overly influence the other actors in the scene. And make sure everyone understands that these answers aren’t definitive. The value of this process is in the search. Hopefully, as you seek to answer some questions, more are raised…

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