As an actor trying to break into the film or television world, you spend endless days and nights dreaming of the moment you can finally step onto a set. But what happens when you actually get there? Do you know how to conduct yourself professionally on camera and off? Do you know the faux pas to avoid so you don’t give away your status as a newbie? Do you know when to pipe up and, conversely, when to zip it? Do you know how the actor’s role relates to the director and producer?
It’s OK if you weren’t able to answer “yes” to every one of these questions—even Meryl Streep once walked onto a set for the first time. (Though she was probably brilliant on that day, too.) We’re all allowed to start somewhere, and Backstage wants to make sure you are starting with as much information as you could possibly have. Here, we’ve rounded up an actor’s most useful tips from on-set professionals across all facets of filmmaking, so all you have to worry about on your first day is knowing your lines and locating craft services.
What should a first-time actor know about being on set?
“Preparation is super important. And be nice! Be nice and friendly to everyone, because everyone is always under so much stress. Learn as much as [you] can, observe, and then [you’ll] be called again. That’s something to always keep in mind: If you’re generous with your time, with your willingness to do things, people remember that and people acknowledge that.” —Patricia Riggen, director
“It’s a double-edged sword. I had one actor, he kept wanting to come in and change every single thing, and I was like, ‘We already discussed this with the showrunner,’ and it went on for weeks. Then I was like, someone needs to tell him this is where we’re at. But other times, I’ve had actors be so amazing in that process, where it was such great collaboration and their input was amazing. That’s the joy of film in general: None of us are creating in a vacuum. If someone comes forth with a great idea, that’s awesome. You can’t have a big ego when you’re collaborating with 200 people to make a movie.” —Joanna Dunn Thompson, production designer
“When I’m in producer mode, I’m kind of the problem-solver, and I need to be someone who stays calm and who my actors trust to simply handle things. When you’re the director, it’s a much more emotional and intimate relationship with your cast, because you’re crafting moments. You’re crafting emotional details that require you as a director to get into the emotional life of your actor…. Producing never feels like that; producing feels like more of a cerebral job and directing feels like more of an emotional job.” —Shawn Levy, director and producer
“Don’t block the other actor’s light—ever! We light it in such a way that it should never happen. If you feel like you’re shadowing even a little bit, shift your weight to the other side of your body just a hair. It doesn’t take much, [and] you can definitely tell when an actor’s not quite as experienced.” —Chris Birdsong, key grip
What can actors do to improve their performance on camera?
“A lot of times, what I will do is explain the shot to them because you realize sometimes maybe they don’t even know what you’re trying to get. Sometimes I’ll say, ‘As you lean over, I’m going to lean over, too, so I can get your hand.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, OK.’ I remember working with Kate Capshaw on ‘The Love Letter.’ She was turning to kick something, and I was like, ‘Kate, turn the shoulders, not just the neck.’ She was like, ‘Oh, my God, thank you!’ When you turn the neck you get all those wrinkles.” —Tami Reiker, director of photography
What is “blocking”?
“All the time [we change a shot’s blocking due to an actor’s performance]. And then we have to step up to the plate and adapt, because if a certain blocking doesn’t feel real or feels forced to the actor, the truthfulness of their performance and the authenticity of the scene is out the window. If the actor doesn’t feel comfortable doing something, it doesn’t come from within and it’s a waste of time to shoot it like that.” —Manuel Billeter, director of photography
Will actors’ performances change in postproduction?
“I feel, truthfully, that editors have a great deal to do with an acting performance, and when we’re lucky, we have a complete plethora of material to work with. It comes down to some choices that editors and directors make with the material they have, and, honestly, it can change things night and day, left and right, up and down. You would be very, very surprised how different something can feel with tweaks in editorial. I consider that when I work with the actors. They are the people that I spend all day with.” —Dylan Tichenor, editor
What will give an actor’s inexperience away?
“Body continuity issues can make it very hard to cut a scene. If an actor is in completely different places in the room depending on the shot, editing becomes much more like assembling a puzzle rather than building a great performance. I want to choose my cuts based on dramatic reasons, and it’s hard when you are forced to make those choices based on continuity.” —John Petaja, editor
What do all experienced actors know about being on set?
“An experienced actor can adjust his or her technical performance to help out with sound the same way that an actor with experience can hit her mark, find her light, or deliver her lines on time. An experienced actor can also maybe adjust the timing with which they set down a glass or adjust the diction of a delivery to help with sound delivery, all the while maintaining the art of their performance.” —Ben Lowry, sound mixer
Is it OK for actors to ask questions?
“I want [actors] to have as much freedom as possible. Many actors are aspiring producers, writers, and directors themselves, so they ask questions, and I share my knowledge. They tend to ask what lens am I on, what do I see, what are the parameters of the frame? The multiple cameras [and] simultaneous shooting [on this project] allowed for fewer takes, and I think most actors can appreciate that.” —Daniel Patterson, director of photography
“The truth is, performances are universal, so it doesn’t matter if you’re working in drama, sci-fi, whatever. It’s the performance you’re going for, and that’s a universal truth. You look for truths. You look for what feels most honest, so maybe surprisingly, editing doesn’t vary much from show to show or genre to genre. I’m just looking for what rings most true to me.” —Tad Dennis, editor
Should I speak up if I have an issue?
“I’m on the set every day, and as the actors come in from makeup, if they have an issue about anything, they’ll say it—[only] if they feel you’re going to listen to them and not dismiss it. I think they should feel free to talk to you—and they do talk. It’s important to make them feel comfortable so that they know we’re all on the same page and that you’re on their side.” —Patrizia von Brandenstein, production designer
“A big issue is actors on their phones while we’re trying to do the application because they tend to put their phone down in their lap and then they’re always looking down. That makes it harder because we need them to focus and we need them to either lift their head or look up because when you’re gluing pieces on the face, it has to be in a neutral position. When they’re constantly looking down at their phone, it takes much longer.” —Sean Sansom, FX makeup supervisor
What should actors do before showing up to set?
“[I want] them to bring something to the table and care about their character as much as I do. They have to live it and live within it. It definitely differs whether someone is portraying a real-life character. If it’s someone living or who has lived or has any historical resonance, [I need] to know they’ve done a great deal of research and are committed to really embodying the character.” —Anthony Hemingway, director and executive producer