Friday, July 12, 2013

Advice for film actors: How to either be despised or adored by your crew

You've been cast in a film! Congratulations! It's taken a lot to get this far... and yet, there's always more.

Film crews love actors. We look forward to working with them and are always quick to give them the benefit of the doubt. We are happy to give you space to prepare and to make sure that everything is just right, so you can focus on your job. After all, the reason we got into movies in the first place was to work with great actors, not so much just to move lights around. A cinematographer friend says, "Great cinematography is 80% about performance." In other words, even if it's a bit out of focus and bumpy, great acting can often make up for it.

That said, however, there are certain things that performers do that can really drive a film crew nuts. I tend to see these things enough that I figure maybe actors just don't realize the affect it has on crews. To all those actors I've worked with in the past who think this post is about them, don't worry about it. Everyone has bad days. Hopefully this post will make your up coming shoot an even better experience.

How to be despised by your crew

Team Player. First remember that you are part of the team. Everyone on that team is working toward the same goal, and that goal is to make a good movie, in the least amount of time as possible.

Ticking Clock. Every movie you watch is more exciting when a "ticking clock" is introduced (a time-bomb strapped to the bottom of the bus which will go off in ten minutes, or whatever). Well, film crews are always working against a ticking clock. The most critical thing for a film crew is speed and making their day (combined with quality and safety). This means that the worst things a crew member can do is hold up production (not have a prop ready when it's needed, show up late with key equipment, take too long building a rig, etc), AND the quickest way an actor can make her crew not like her is to slow down production.

Not Prepared. The biggest mistake an actor can make is to not come prepared. When an actor shows up on set and doesn't have her lines memorized, she will become an immediate antagonist to the crew. This doesn't mean someone can't slip up every now and then, or struggle over some sections, that's no big deal. But the crew will know immediately when an actor just flat out hasn't taken the time to prepare to learn their lines (they've seen it too many times before). You have to understand, in most cases the crew has already been working several weeks, twelve to sixteen hours a day, before you've arrived. They know their job, and it's physically demanding, and if they don't do it right, they're let go. Then imagine their feelings as an actor comes in and is cavalier and unprepared and slows down production as the script supervisor is constantly feeding her the lines. It's insulting. Come prepared. Know your lines.

Performing for Crew. Another thing that will make you unpopular is to continue performing after "Cut" is called. You may be a great improv artist and may have the crew in stitches during your take and when the director calls "Cut" the whole room bursts into a laugh that they have painfully been holding in. Great. Some actors, however, feel they now have a captive audience and keep their show going. Not great. Don't do it. In between "Action" and "Cut" you do your job, after "Cut" the crew does theirs. If you continue to perform, inevitably some grip, electrician or PA will stop what they're supposed to be doing and pay attention to you.  You're there to work, not to entertain. Instead, once "Cut" is called, be quiet and listen to what the director is saying, listen to what the DP is saying to her lighting team. You will need to know what adjustments the lights or camera are making. You may think that you're just talking among your fellow actors, but if you're talking, that means everyone working has to talk louder. (as an aside, worry about playing to the camera, not to the crew. My experience is that things that either make the crew laugh or make the crew cry seldom work in the final edit). Be a professional actor when the camera is rolling AND a professional actor when it stops.

Forget the Gag Reel. Don't try to make the blooper reel by laughing, swearing, or being silly during a take. I see this time and again. If you mess up, just start again, say, "Going again," and go for it. Hiroshi Watanabe, the lead actor in our film White on Rice, is a great example of the right way to do this. Though one of the funniest actors I ever worked with, I only saw him break character and laugh once during our entire 25 day shoot. That's because he wasn't performing to make people laugh, he was playing a character, and the humor came from the character. Hiroshi is a pro and was adored on set.

Hiroshi Watanabe and Justin Kwong in White on Rice: two pros.

Not there to hang out. You've come to work, be there to work. Being leisurely will not win you any friends. If you know you have a scene coming up, be on hand, ready to work. Don't be in the makeup trailer flirting with the makeup artist or hanging out at craft service. Generally your second AD will always have a place where they want you, make sure you're there. And if you need to slip away, be sure to ask permission. Remember you're part of the team, and the team has a goal. Don't feel like you're being bossed around by this and don't get freaked out when a PA follows you everywhere you go. That's their job. Help them do their job and don't wander off. The Marx Brothers were so notorious about wandering off (they'd wander all the way off the studio lot for a card game) that someone eventually made cages that they would lock them in.

• I won't even comment on actors who need to go into their trailer to pout and need to be ego stroked out. The resulting opinion of the crew should be obvious. Again, you're part of a team.

No one's complained so far? If you do any of the above things, you will probably never hear any complaints about it. That's because the crew is being careful to make you comfortable and happy, so that you can do your best when you're performing. You may never hear it, but it is being discussed.

When you're working do your best work. After I've said the above, don't be afraid to ask your director questions, or ask for another take, or ask to try it another way. Whatever your method of prep, don't worry about it... even if it requires some peculiarities. The crew will not be upset if you're passionate about your work and want the film to be as good as it can be, especially if you deliver the goods when it's time... however, there are limits. Don't be unreasonable. Also, if you need something, feel free to ask for it. Ask a PA to bring you water or coffee, so that you can stay where you're supposed to be, or stay focused on what you're supposed to do. It's what they're supposed to do and what they're there for.

Paid to wait. Also remember this: an actor friend, Jimmy Chunga, got to meet James Cameron and asked what advice he'd give an aspiring actor. Cameron said "You're not paid to act. You love acting, acting is fun, you'd do it for free. You're paid to wait." Good advice. Follow that and you will be on your way to being adored.

How to be adored by your crew

You are. First, know that you already are. The crew wants to adore you. The crew automatically hopes that all the actors are super cool. Very small gestures on your part, therefore, will guarantee your belovedness.

Equality. Treat the crew like equals. Many of them have been doing their jobs much longer than you.  Actress Amy Stewart surprised me by asking for a crew list as soon as she arrived on set. She kept it with her and would pull it out and ask people things like, "So you're Joe and you're the gaffer, right?" Within a few days she knew everyone's names. She'd arrive on set and say, "Hi Joe." Wow, what an impact that had. She was beloved.

Eat with the crew. Most of the time the cast bonds quickly and eats together, which is totally fine. If however, you sometimes sit and eat with the crew you'll be appreciated and admired... and obviously, the more successful you become, the truer this becomes.

Be generous. If you're heading over to the craft service table grab some things to bring around to the crew. Ask people if they want a water bottle, a soda, or a carrot stick. Actors do have to wait around on a film set a lot. Take a moment to help the crew out (just don't get in their way if they're moving stuff). It's easy and goes a long way. One of the best actors I have ever worked with was the incomparable Debra Jo Rupp. One day, on our very low budget shoot, she treated everyone to a Starbucks run. Took orders and sent a PA off with her credit card. Just did it to be nice. Just made herself beloved, is what she did. Notice how there are chairs for actors to sit in, but not for the crew, that you are always brought through the lunch line first, etc. Film crews do all we can to make sure you're comfortable... you have a hard job, and have to really mine your emotions and be very vulnerable, and we respect that. If you just show us a nod back, it goes a long way. (Note that while you might feel it's good to insist that crew people go through lunch lines before you, or that they sit down instead of you, remember that many people are simply not allowed to do it. If you coax a PA into a chair, it might be the last time you see that PA on set).

Debra Jo Rupp and Abby Miller in Congratulations, adored.
Know your trade. You're a professional film actor. No one expects someone in their first movie to be a total pro, but work at learning to hit your mark every time, knowing when you're in the light or have stepped out of it, knowing when someone is blocking you from camera, knowing about eye-lines, crossing lines, and stepping on lines. Know what you're not supposed to touch. Also, know about the tools your crew is working with. Get familiar with lenses, cameras, lights, etc. That way when your single is being shot on an 85 you naturally have a sense of your framing. You're working with a team of professionals, be one and be adored.

Be low maintenance. Understand the type of film you're working on. I've been on small shoots where actors showed up requesting specially made breakfasts each morning (when breakfast is bagels and fruit, don't ask for a tofu scramble and strawberry smoothie). On the other hand, on a recent shoot I was on, one actor showed up with his own chair. He didn't make a big deal about it, didn't care if others sat in it or anything, he just didn't want production to have to worry about him, so every day he pulled his chair out of his car and set it up and brought it home with him at night. Now that's low maintenance, folks.

Hang with the boys. Finally, every so often, if you hear the crew is doing something after wrap, show up. On Last Kind Words (shot in the backwoods of Kentucky) iconic actor Brad Dourif showed up one night for barbecue and moonshine (it was a dry county) at the crew motel. He hung out for a few hours regaling the crew with stories about working with Werner Herzog, David Lynch, John Huston and Peter Jackson. I'm sure it didn't hurt Brad's ego, and it certainly increased his legend status with our young crew. Normally it's just heading over to the local pub for a beer or something... go for it, you will be adored and coming to work with people who adore you is really more than anyone could hope for.

So, I suppose this whole post begs the question "Do you have to be adored by your crew?" I don't know. Maybe not. Maybe it's just as well to show up, work hard, do your job and leave. Certainly if you do this you will be respected. The other question would be, "Is it so wrong to be despised?" I would say yes, because by creating tension on set you're damaging the morale and working condition of those around you. So, you don't have to be adored, but it's best to not be despised.

Now go emote.


  1. This is a truly wonderful, and informative article. Extra added points on The Marx Brothers Reference. (I'm the proud owner of The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell Documentary and all of their movies).

    I always hope not to be that actor everyone despises Duane as every quality of being an actor who ends up being loved by a crew is the same qualities that has an actor being loved by *other actors*

    I one day wish to be one of those actors you love on one of your films.

    With sincere regards,

    Shaun Landry