1. FIRST THINGS FIRST: CASTING, CASTING, CASTING.
Never hire a talent your director doesn’t want to hire. And reject the director’s choice at your or your client’s peril. The director’s criteria are based on talent, looks, camera charisma, and whether they feel they can work with that actor. The last time a client of mine turned down the director’s choice, this very famous and uber-talented director spent part of the shoot slamming the wire flying actors up against the foam walled set of the inside of a spaceship. If you can’t reach an agreement on the talent, have another casting session. Somebody better might walk through the door.
2. WHAT’S IN IT FOR THEM? WHAT’S IN IT FOR YOU?
Commercials are how actors pay the rent on their way to being cast in a feature or TV series. For them, it’s a job, a payday, a gig. For you, it’s a career and your business. So the trick is to get them to care as much as you do about your project and their performance.
At Fraser, we have fewer problems with that, due to the clients we have. We do work on important issues like child development, water, and kids in the new world of legal cannabis. Issues that an actor can care about, issues that affect their lives. It’s harder to do when you’re selling a meat sandwich that the vegan actor could care less about. Know that going in. Find a handle the actor can grab onto to make it seem as if they care.
One of the campaigns I was involved in – about meat sandwiches – was done with on camera 30 second testimonials. The approach was intended to make you feel as if you were sitting across from the person as they talked about what they were eating. It required sincerity. It required ‘real.’ But we had a hard time finding actors who could be as real as we needed. So, we searched from the legions of stand-up comedians. Why? Because they spend their professional lives being very comfortable in their own skin and are terrific with empathetic and believable performances. The skills developed in comedy and improve are priceless. And comedians are the smartest actors out there. And by the way, they might even help tweak your script.
3. MOTIVATE THE MOTIVATION.
Communicating the big idea of the video helps with thoughtful and intelligent actors. But it’s not essential. They want to know their motivations; why they are acting the way they are, what’s in it for them. It’s essential to get them into the character you want to create the drama you need. And here, you can give them a backstory that has nothing to do with the communication, and everything to do with who the character is supposed to be. Are they overworked on the job? Underappreciated at home? Did their imaginary dog just run away? Or, can you tap into what that the actor is actually going through that gives them real context to the performance. If you want a wistful performance, did their dog just actually run away? Then there is a trick I learned from a director: Before they start speaking your words, have them remember something from their lives that might lead to the performance you want. Segue immediately into the script once they get in touch with a personal memory. Watch them nail the performance.
4. PROVIDE APPROPRIATE FEEDBACK AFTER AN APPROPRIATE SERIES OF TAKES.
Let the actor run with the script. Let them get comfortable with the words. Adjust the words they are tripping over. Then quietly tell them about what you still need to feel from their performance. Have them run through the dialog very fast, unusably fast. Then get them to say it slower. The performance will be less “performed.” The brain works in strange ways, but it’s facile and good actors are very elastic in getting the best out of themselves. Of course, you won’t have any of these problems if you have cast it right in the first place. The best directors choose the talent that they know will come to the set ready to do the right thing. Let’s face it: great acting is hard. Actors deal with a ton of rejection for really dumb reasons. When they nail their performance, love it out loud. The set will be looser, the actor energized, the client happy. All good.
5. LISTEN TO THEM. GIVE THEM SOME OWNERSHIP.
Most actors think deeply about the role. When they have suggestions for their character, hear them out. If the changes they suggest make them more comfortable, the talent will find it easier to do their part well. It might be the case where the changes the talent wants are not feasible or they don’t align with the brand. In this case, be straightforward with them about why the changes can’t be made and thank them for sharing their ideas. But, you really don’t want to have these issues on the set. And this goes back to casting, casting, casting.
6. BE PATIENT. BE FIRM.
If your actors aren’t applying your feedback to their performance, it means you haven’t done a good job at conveying it. It’s your fault, especially if you cast the actor you all agreed to. Getting angry with the talent can stiffen their performance. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be forceful. It doesn’t mean you don’t challenge them, as their response to that challenge might be the performance you need. Great director’s have as many tools in their tool box to get a performance as actors have in giving one. A legendary story of one famous director is that when he demanded over fifty takes of putting down a cup of coffee on a table from a very famous actor, and the actor finally went nuts on him, the director calmly told him, “Now you know who’s in charge.”
7. AND ONE LAST THING AS IMPORTANT AS THE FIRST THING…
Bill Bernbach once said great advertising will make a bad product fail even faster. The same is true with your script. A great actor will expose the weakness of a script right away. Usually in the casting session. So, if you have a great actor, and you are still struggling to believe their delivery, it’s time to question the words you gave them. Then you need to write a better script. Allison Janney won an Oscar for “I, Tonya,” partially because the writer/director wrote the role explicitly for her. He knew what she was capable of, what words she would chew up. And though your commercial might be a gig to your just hired actor, it isn’t a gig to you. It’s your career. It’s your client’s business.