How To Be The Smartest Actor In Any Room

Recently, I was speaking to a group of actors about a movie I’ll be directing next summer, and they asked about my casting process. I told them all directors are looking for the same thing in any actor. Does the actor speak our cinematic language?

Actors would do well to remember that directors want to direct movies for one reason and one reason only. They love movies. They grew up devouring a steady diet of movies, and they want to make movies that are inspired by the movies and directors who came before them. Those directors were also inspired by the directors who came before them and so on back to D.W. Griffith and his contemporaries who first began developing cinematic language over a hundred years ago. All movies ever since have been inspired by that cinematic language, and that cinematic language has continued to be developed by each successive generation of directors and in turn handed down to the generation of directors who followed and so on.

Just as actors have a common language they share through the traditional actor’s process and have handed down to successive generations of actors for over a hundred years so have filmmakers developed their own common language which they have handed down to successive generations for over the same one hundred years. It stands to reason then that directors would be looking for actors who also understand and know how to speak that cinematic language which by the way has been spoken by generations of great film actors as well.

I imagine that most actors reading this are now asking themselves what is this cinematic language and how can they learn it. It starts with a simple question when approaching a scene. How do they do it in the movies, or how is the scene classically done when it is done in the movies? Many actors turn up their artistic noses at the thought of doing something the way it is classically done. They want to be seen as unique talents, and they want their work to be considered original. They want us to see them as actors who can bring something to a scene no other actor can when, in fact, we’re looking for actors who can bring to a scene and the screen the same cinematic understanding that great movie actors and directors have brought to scenes and the screen for generations.

Many actors also like to think that we’re looking for actors who are honest and who connect to material and who know how to be real so that we can then direct those actors how to act in the movie. They have it backwards. In fact, no director ever wakes up on the morning of auditions and says that she or he hopes an actor walks into the audition room that day who knows how to be real. What every director hopes on the morning of auditions is that an actor walks into the room who understands how to take a piece of material and play it the way it’s done in a movie. Most directors don’t know themselves how to direct actors to be cinematic, and so those directors are praying for actors to walk into the room who don’t need to be directed and the actors that don’t need to be directed are the ones that speak the cinematic language of movies already. This is what is meant by the maxim “ninety percent of directing is casting”.

“HOW TO STEAL THE SCENE & END UP PLAYING THE LEAD” (The Ebook) – Available now on Amazon & iTunes. John’s column on cinematic creation appears regularly on Backstage.