How Directors Influence Actors

In theatre school, one of my profs always said that “directing is 70% casting”. If you cast skilled, compelling performers, they’re going to make you look good. If you cast poorly, then you’re already behind the eight ball before you begin rehearsals.

Lately I’ve been thinking of writing an article (or maybe just starting a wiki page so that I can gather opinions) about what good acting is. I think we often say “oh, he’s a great actor” without really understanding what we mean.

In thinking about that article, I’m also interested in the relationship between a film’s director and its cast. This week I saw Invictus, Clint Eastwood’s new film about Nelson Mandela’s role in South Africa’s improbable run at the 1995 World Cup of Rugby. Simply put, it’s not a very good movie. The screenplay is simplistic in its approach to the complexities of a newly post-Apartheid South Africa, and Eastwood gets the pacing all wrong. He was, to my mind, simply the wrong director to make this film.

I bring up Invictus because Eastwood sometimes casts untrained or under-qualified actors in smaller roles in his films. This was the case with Gran Torino, and there are some examples in this film as well. Eastwood may also not be a particularly good director of actors (working with actors, I gather, is only one of the many, many things a film director does). In both films, I found the non-actors incredibly distracting. I can’t understand Eastwood’s decision, as the non-actors are glaringly obvious and, to my mind, detract from his films.

Acting Like a Frozen Fish

Here’s another example of a director’s impact on an actor’s performance. I recently saw New Moon (the newest Twilight movie) and Adventureland. Both are 2009 movies starring Kristen Stewart.

After seeing New Moon, the consensus was that (among many other faults) the performances were all dismal. Ms. Stewart swims through the murky film like a frozen fish, an unresponsive vortex that sucks the energy out of every scene she’s in (and this is a film without much energy to spare).

However, having seen Kristen Stewart in Adventureland (and also Panic Room, come to think of it) I see that she’s capable of more. She’s no Cate Blanchett, but those films indicated that she was at least a competent, watchable performer. So what gives?

I blame Chris Weitz, the director of New Moon and the rest of the production team. New Moon is an awful movie, beginning to end, and I must assume that extends to Mr. Weitz’s work with the actors.

There is an interesting alternative hypothesis, though. It stems from the apparent lack of description Ms. Stewart’s character receives in the novels:

First off, the author creates a main character which is an empty shell. Her appearance isn’t described in detail; that way, any female can slip into it and easily fantasize about being this person. I read 400 pages of that book and barely had any idea of what the main character looked like; as far as I was concerned she was a giant Lego brick. Appearance aside, her personality is portrayed as insecure, fumbling, and awkward – a combination anyone who ever went through puberty can relate to. By creating this “empty shell,” the character becomes less of a person and more of something a female reader can put on and wear. Because I forgot her name (I think it was Barbara or Brando or something like that), I’m going to refer to her as “Pants” from here on out.

Perhaps the filmmakers are trying to extend this blank slate to the movies? What do you think?


  1. Actually, I like Kristen Stewart’s awkwardness..I think that, strangely enough, teens identify with it…

    1. I do think casting is really important. If you don’t pick the right people, no amount of coaching, manipulation or conversation is going to make them right.

      You don’t see poor casting in major roles all that often in movies. Julia Roberts in “Ocean’s Eleven” springs to mind as a bad casting decision. She’s physically too big, and her celebrity and on-screen presence overshadow her minor role in the film. She needs to be physically attractive, certainly, but Ms. Roberts was overkill. Maybe Maggie Gyllenhaal instead?

  2. I do think that some blank-slate acting can broaden an audience, becuase people read more (what they wish to see) into “thoughtful frowns/looks” etc. However my example comes from teenage years – so perhaps it is teen phenomenon.
    Example: Benton Fraser character on Due South. For the first couple of seasons Paul Gross didn’t infuse Benton Fraser with piles of personality or attitude. I liked that Benton Fraser much more – I applied a greater depth to the character. Towards the end of the series they tried to make the character more real and less perfect- and in my opinion, it backfired because the character that emerged was not nearly as interesting as the character I already had in my head (classic problem with adapting children’s books to film).

    I was a very heavy reader as a teen (something I seem to have difficulty making time for these days). Perhaps this effect is part of the mental transition from building ones own characters to being fed characters that someone else has made and then judging good by how richly they are described & presented.

    Does this contrast still exists in books? I think yes…

  3. Last night I re-watched the original Star Wars (on VHS, without the “Special Edition” updates) and then happened to stumble upon Attack of the Clones on Spike TV right afterwards.

    You can certainly argue for the magic of casting there. Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness, Peter Cushing, and the voices Anthony Daniels and James Earl Jones brought that thing to life, despite George Lucas’s often clunky dialogue. Even Mark Hamill hits the right whiny teenager notes.

    By contrast, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, and the rest can’t for the life of them rescue the prequel movies from leaden pacing and even greater quantities of terrible dialogue, never mind too many special effects that had junk flying around the screen all the time.

    As I tweeted after watching for awhile, “Holy crap, George, you need no budget and Harrison Ford.”

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  5. I believe that you do need a good director and a great cast with great casting to make a great movie. I would also say that a great actor can make a difference in a bad movie (Johnny Depp in Once Upon a Time In Mexico).

  6. I realize that this thread is a bit old but here’s my two sense when it comes to casting.

    Percentage wise I have no opinion. Personally I work in the film biz and I always keep hearing that you first have to have a good story, which I agree with but I do think casting is sometimes a bit more important.

    you can have some of the best actors in the world but they might be wrong for the part. The reality of some films that get made is all tied down to contracts.

    For example, Edward Norton IMO is a good actor. He was cast as the main villain in the remake of “The Italian Job”. He wasn’t horrible but not exactly his best. He only did the film because he had to as funny as that might sound.

    Sometimes studios and financiers won’t back up a film with money unless a certain star plays a certain part. That is also why sometimes films cast the wrong people because these types of people like studio execs THINK they know the perfect actor that will bring in money instead of if they will do a good job/right for the part.

    I also think a lot of bad directors and casting directors sometimes cast people because they like their ‘look’. The mistake they make and what my opinion on the subject is that if you have to pick between two actors, one who looks better for the part and the other who has a superior acting ability, go with the better actor.

    Why? Easy. you can always make the actor LOOK a certain why with good hair and makeup, wardrobe and even prosthetic’s like they used on Eddie Murphy in “The Nutty Professor’.

    Well that’s my two cents about casting and one final thought on Eastwood casting no names is IMO I think he was trying to give lesser known actors a chance. Another reason that has to do with casting is the old saying of “Type Casting”.

    Sometimes casting an actor to a role people can’t see past their typical roles. Good actors can play anything. For example Bruce Willis in “The Sixth Sense” is usually in action roles but in that film he played a totally different character.

    Lastly, like someone else said, you can have all the best actors in the world, and even the best casting in the world but it all boils down to a good director that can not only direct the actors properly but also can make the actors feel comfortable, allowing them to explore their character on-set and during rehearsals.

    It also depends on the studio. Look up the film “8 Millions Ways To Die” starring Jeff Bridges. They re-edited the entire film. Look it up to find out more.

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