Natural Selection: Six Tips For Getting A Natural Performance From Your Actors


Allow me to, once again, set a scene for you; imagine you’re Liam Neeson. That’s right, you have a very particular set of skills, skills that make you a nightmare for Albanian criminals (but if only you had given up your watch, you could’ve done more!). It’s a sunny March day in the bella citta that is Rome, Italy, and your 6’4’’, Irish self is enjoying shooting some baskets between shooting some scenes for Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York.” At one point, your film buddy Daniel Day-Lewis comes up to join you. You greet him warmly but find that he continues to call you “Priest” (your character’s name in the movie), speak his New York accent instead of his natural British, and be extremely hostile during your game of one-on-one. Suffice it to say, your leisurely shootaround has turned into a veritable Battle of the Five Points on the basketball court. This, my friends, is acting to the extreme.

Thankfully, in commercial video production, the chaos that accompanies method acting isn’t something we deal with often (i.e. Jared Leto’s gifts of rats while portraying the Joker in abhorrent “Suicide Squad,” or Robert DeNiro shaving down his teeth for “Cape Fear”), acting and performance is still a pivotal factor. We’re not looking for method actors (especially you, Jared, what were you thinking?) but we still need natural, believable, and realistic performances for the people we film. Since you’re typically dealing with non-actors, it’s important to know some key techniques as to how to really coax the proverbial acting milk from their proverbial acting utters. Of course, seeing how we of course have all the answers, here are six tips to help you get some good performances from your actors, whether they’re pros, “pros” (Jared. Leto.), or not actors at all.

They Can Take Our Lives, but They Can Never Take Our Freedom! -- Freedom in Script

The big, bad, venerable Marlon Brando, one of the the most acclaimed actors of all time despite his occasional air of entitlement (i.e. his flippant massive weight gain for “Apocalypse Now”...the horror) had a very peculiar method he would employ on top of his usual method madness. Often, he would have his dialogue displayed on cue cards off camera, or even go to such lengths as have the actor he’s speaking to in his scenes wear his lines. He did this because he only read the script a few times, not enough to memorize it, and wanted his dialogue to be as natural and realistic as possible, as if it was improvised.

While we aren’t looking for improvisation (sorry, Larry David), it is a great idea to give your actors a little wiggle room as to what they’re suppose to say. Some projects may be a little more rigid in what they need to hear than others, but your actors need to sound believable. You don’t want them to pull a “Westworld” and sound too artificial like a deactivated android. They need to sound conversational, but not too conversational. Stick to the script, but feel free to give some wiggle room if you think it’ll make the final product more real and authentic.

Clear and Present Danger -- Clarity and Firmness in Direction


When director William Friedkin made a little horror movie known as “The Exorcist” in 1973, it was a truly tyrannical experience. When Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn were injured on set, instead of helping them, he actually filmed their pain for the sake of realism in the film. When an actor playing one of the priests in the film was having trouble convincingly acting sad, Friedkin slapped him in the face as hard as he could and then immediately began filming, capturing how jarred the actor was post-assault.

While Friedkin was...extreme, to say the least, he did practice a key concept in getting a good performance from your actors; being firm, and being clear. (Having said that, if being firm and clear were a yellow lab puppy, Friedkin was doing an impression of a Great Pyrenees). With non-actors and actors alike, clarity is extremely important. I doubt very much that Stanley Kubrick was probably like “Alright, now you’re going to act sad.” Specificity is essential, and being firm in how you convey that is just as important. Yes, you want to be all friendly with your actors, but at one point you may have to say, “Alright, let’s cut the chit-chat, I need (blank) from you.” Occasionally, it’s alright to go a little mad with power.

I Have Become Comfortably Numb -- Keeping Your Actors Comfortable

While many directors like the aforementioned William Friedkin frequently revel in the incessant torment and abuse of their actors (such as Kubrick scaring Shelley Duvall while filming “The Shining” to the point her hair fell out, or Roman Polanski getting into physical fights with Faye Dunaway while filming “Chinatown”), when you’re dealing with commercial video production, such psychological abuse isn’t (usually) necessary. The entire process of video production may be a form  of psychological abuse in itself, but you shouldn’t wish it on your actors. It’s important to keep your actors comfortable; in a comfortable temperature, sitting on comfortable furniture, just feeling agreeable and loosey goosey (“Lucy Goosey”? Is this saying based on a person? Who knows?). A lot of people are fans of these latest fads called “water” and “food,” so having some of that nearby isn’t a bad idea either. You don’t need to go over the top and sing “Bella Notte” to them while playing an accordion and serving them pasta, but make sure they’re good and cozy.

All Your Perfect Imperfections -- Dealing With Imperfections in Post Production


If you’re shooting an interview with someone about the nature of a new line of bumpers that’s sweeping the nation called “Rubber Baby Buggy Bumpers,” or if you want them to describe Sally’s routine daily actions and she happens to sell seashells on the seashore, there’s a solid chance that your actor isn’t going to Barry Bonds it out of the park on the first try. If you’ve ever watched the behind-the-scenes of a film or television show, or been involved in a shoot, you know a term commonly tossed around is “we can fix it in post.” And in the case of these tongue-twisting, laboriously labyrinthine, chaotically convoluted interviews, post may be your best friend.

Although you’re probably not going to be regularly dealing with tongue-twister interviews, there are going to be cases where your actor may be struggling with certain aspects of the interview. Be patient with them, and trust in the editing process when all of your filming is said and done. Obviously it’s pretty difficult to polish a turd, so don’t just settle with something terrible if there’s nothing there you think you can work with. Think of a production as a room; if it’s going a bit rough, your thoughts should be, “Well, it’s a bit of a fixer-upper, but we can manage,” not, “Well, there’s a massive mountain of trash in the middle of the room and the ceiling is gone, but we can manage.” But no need to demand full blast perfection when there’s always post to potentially right the ship. Having said that…

Safety Dance -- “One More for Safety” vs. Repetition

There’s a particularly odd saying that’s gone out of style as of late but that I still use on occasion; “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” It may seem particularly odd, given why would anyone want to even look a horse in the mouth, unless you worried that it had something in the back of its throat because it sounded a little … hoarse (I’m … I’m sorry). In reality, supposedly you discover that the horse is defective in some way by looking in its mouth, and the person who gave you said horse may be offended.

So, if you have just nailed an interview, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth and continue to force the matter in an endless cycle of repetition. So, if you have just nailed an interview, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth and continue to force the matter in an endless cycle of repetition.

Instead, take the glorious gift that has just been granted unto you, and run with it. There is a concept, however, known as “one more for safety,” which is pretty self-explanatory; get one more shot … just to be safe. Who knows, maybe you’ve got an “Abbey Road” scenario occurring and you’ve got a rando walking in the background of your perfect shot. But just one more for safety is enough. Using another, more macabre horse phrase, don’t beat a dead horse.


Come On, Baby, Light My Fire -- Keep It Light

No matter your subject matter, whether you’re shooting a video about how to properly power rank kittens from “adorable” to “reality-shattering adorable,” or a shoot where you’re interviewing the Grim Reaper himself about how he feels about what he did to Mother Teresa, and Ghandi, always remember -- in commercial video production, keep it light. This is essentially the gist of the all of these tips; if you can achieve a general light repartee and attitude with your actors, you’re going to get good returns. As the incredibly wise songbird of a generation Justin Timberlake once said, “what goes around goes around, goes around, goes around comes all the way back around.” Even if it’s serious subject matter, if you have a good relationship with your actor, you’ll still get great material. If you’re making a video about potatoes and your actor has a country accent and calls them “taters,” don’t scream at them and tell them “THEY’RE CALLED POTATOES!” Such vehement vegetable vitriol will not be conducive to a good relationship, and your finished product will suffer the consequences. Think of like the opposite version of Ghandi’s “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” You’re giving out eyes, instead of taking them. Everyone would enjoy an extra eye.


And after that extremely bizarre way to end a blog, that’s it for this week folks! If you liked what you read or were fascinated by how significant a misfire it was, check out the rest of our blogs on our website! Thanks for reading!