A Director on Acting

February 27, 2024
I think all directors should try acting. At a friend's suggestion, I took an acting class right after I got out of NYU Grad Film School. My first scene partner was Chris Noth. We rehearsed under a tree in Riverside Park in 1977. I had no idea what I was doing, but the teacher, Frank Corsaro, encouraged me to continue. So, I did. I studied acting for over eight years, meanwhile painting apartments and occasionally shooting feature films. I had to miss class for three weeks to shoot Stranger Than Paradise, but Jim Jarmusch gave me a small part in the film, which helped a little bit. I played an airline ticket agent. I still wonder if Esther Balint is looking at me confused, thinking, "Why is Tom not behind the fucking camera?"
A year later, I wrote and performed a one-man show called "Johnny Suede," based on some monologues I'd written in my acting class. That show eventually went on to become my first film.
But, the one thing that always stuck with me was how it felt stepping out in front of an audience for the first time. In that instant, you feel utterly vulnerable and defenseless. You're being called upon to come alive emotionally right then and there, and if you can't, you've got no place to hide. It changed forever how I talk to actors.
Every member of the film is important and deserves respect. But actors need something more. They are the only ones whose job is not technical. They are required to bare their souls in front of everyone. And it's usually in the midst of chaos, with people rushing, screaming, furniture being shoved around, and grips driving screws into the ceiling right overhead. Yet, the actor still has to bring it. And then do it again. And again.
Once you get a sense of this, it's easy to understand the importance of creating an environment where the actor feels safe, trusting, and free. That's part of your job. At the very least, hold all work during rehearsals. No yelling, no walkies, no ladders going up, no cellphones. And no expecting the actors to get it right the first or even the third time. Sometimes there is no right. Sometimes, you have to let the actors find it so that you can find it yourself. Create a place where anything can happen with no judgment. A place of joy, of discovery. Of patience. Of generosity and complete encouragement to take any and all risks.
You're not babying them, but then maybe you are. You're not giving them special treatment, but then again, maybe you are, and that's OK. Because ultimately, if by some miracle a single acting moment comes alive under this excruciating and fantastic endeavor, then guess who wins.
You do. Especially if you get it on film.

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Independent Filmmaker & Musician