Director’s Orders: How to Get the Most From Your Actors

What makes a perfect relationship between director and actor? That depends on who you ask. At the end of the day, a director should guide an actor through the production; giving helpful cues and notes along the way in order for the actor to deliver his or her best work.

Doug MacHugh is a long-time instructor, writer, producer and has worked as an actor for more than three decades. During IFI’s Summer Filmmaking Intensive, MacHugh teaches students how to successfully direct the actor.

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“The most important part of directing actors is trust. It is imperative that there is a collaborative relationship based on mutual respect for each other’s craft,” said MacHugh. “And, sometimes you will be surprised when an actor says something that you hadn’t thought about; offering another point of view to a situation, a fresh eye.”

To help you navigate through your own career in film, the following are more tips and words of wisdom from MacHugh.

  • There should be a sense of community and fun on the set. With all your production people, there should be a respect that becomes contagious, that comes from you.
  • Negativity and hostility just make the process more difficult. Actors sense it, and they may not know the specifics but they know that something is amiss. The more you try to pretend that everything is fine, the more they will obsess about it. Unless you are dealing with superstars, multi-million dollar budgets, and production deadlines, who says it shouldn’t be fun?
  • Never hire an actor because they look like what you think that character should be. Go deeper. Follow your instincts; your first impulse. It’s not the way one looks that makes the work what it should be. It is in the soul and what lies underneath.
  • Actors can be highly emotional, volatile, sensitive people. They need support, they need respect, and they thrive on positivity. Your relationship with your actors requires that you respect and attend to their needs. The way that you interact with each actor may be slightly different. You must adapt your direction accordingly.
  • Never tell an actor that he/she is “doing it wrong.”  You might as well just fire him/her and rehire someone else because he is now officially dead to you. Express adjustments in a positive fashion.
  • Never give line readings. It is the ultimate insult. Think of a way to present what you need as a question that helps the actor to discover, with your guidance, and support the answer.  It is not about who is right and who is wrong, it is about the success of the project.
  • Be aware of what your actor is feeling – beyond what they say they are feeling.

“This all may seem that you are pampering or catering to the actor, and perhaps you are, but ultimately you will find the benefits worth while,” advised MacHugh.


The elements of a successful movie have remained constant since the inception of the art form. The International Film Institute of New York (IFI) was founded in 1997 to provide those with a sincere and abiding interest in filmmaking with a high-quality, low-cost education in all aspects of the filmmaking process: screenwriting, directing, producing, cinematography, and editing in a curriculum combining classroom instruction and hands-on technical workshops. 

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