Directing Tools – The Actors Language
by Peter D Marshall
What do actors want more than anything from a Director?
To find a character they are playing, actors must surrender
completely to feelings and impulses – they must allow
themselves to be vulnerable. As a result, actors want to work
with Directors who can create a safe place for them to perform
and who understand their vulnerabilities.
Actors also want to work with directors who understand their
specific working language. When a director understands the
actor’s language, they will be able to communicate with the
actors more efficiently, which will help them to achieve more
believable and well-grounded performances.
Here are some of the more important parts of the actor’s
language that every director should know.
(1) Scene Objectives
What is the intent of the scene? Why is this scene in the
story? What happens in the scene? What is the reason for the
scene? Does it move the story forward?
The scene objective carries the character through this
particular scene. It is also something that a character must
achieve in that scene. It is something the character
consciously desires and wants to achieve.
These overall objectives are what drive the entire film
forward and create a state of suspense that generates audience
- What’s going to happen next?
- What will the outcome be?
- Who wins in the end?
(2) Character Objectives
1. Super Objective (“Power Over People”)
- What is the primal motivation of the character?
- What are the main needs of the character?
2. Objectives (“To Dominate Character X”)
- What does the character want (motives)?
- What are his active choices to achieve the super objective?
3. Main Actions (“What They Do To Character X”)
- What the character DOES…
- To get what he WANTS…
- To fulfill his NEEDS
4. How to Choose Objectives
Ask yourself “What does the character want in this
A character’s objective should create obstacles for the
character in the story.
In a story, characters rarely get what they want without
difficulty. How they go about trying to fulfill their
objectives is what makes for interesting drama.
The actors have to find that need and create it within
themselves. They then have a reason for their behavior.
(3) Text, Subtext and Context
1. Text is what is said. (It is the outer world of the
The text is what we get from the screenwriter. Text is what
forms the script – it is the dialogue and the stage
The Text in a script is like a map: we use it to find out
where we are going – but how we get there is up to the actors
and the director.
2. Subtext is what is thought. (It is the inner world of the
Whether we realize it or not, most of the time we have an
interior monologue going on. However, we may not decide to
outwardly express any of them.
What characters are really thinking has a great effect on how
actors move and how they deliver their lines. When subtext is
strong, it comes through and colors how the dialogue is
The subtext communicates that more is going on within the
person that they are sharing – that an inner conflict is
Subtext is a good way to help actors find out if they
understand the scene.
Subtext is what your characters really think or believe – the
content underneath the spoken dialogue.
3. Context means the circumstances in which the text is used.
It is usually the background, time period or the environment
relating to a particular event in the story.
The director can also adapt the context of a script to conform
with the particular needs of a production. For instance, Baz
Lurman’s version of “Romeo and Juliet” which was updated to
the modern suburb of Verona yet still retained the original
Conflict is the heart of all drama – for without conflict,
there is no drama.
From an actor’s point of view, conflict is the result of two
objectives in conflict with each other.
Five Sources of Conflict
1) Man against Man
2) Man against Himself
3) Man against Environment/Nature
4) Man against Society
5) Man against God/Principle
(5) Action Verbs
Verbs stimulate emotion. They have an emotional effect on
another person. The intention, or the verb, may change often,
even in a sentence.
Actions are active verbs. “I tempt you.‚” “You taunt me.‚” In
order to perform an action truthfully-and therefore
convincingly, an actor needs to find the right action to suit
that particular situation and that particular line.
By using action verbs instead of adjectives, the actor doesn’t
have to think “Now I’m supposed to be getting happy.” Instead,
the actor can concentrate completely on the situation and his
objectives. That is the motivation and that’s what the actor
needs to make a character come alive.
Actors need actions. Actors cannot “act” adjectives – they
need verbs. So, instead of asking an actor to play it sexy,
ask the actor to flirt with the other actor. This encourages
the actor to engage with the other actor, rather than be
focused on being sexy.
The best thing about verbs is that you can play with the
intensity. If you want more energy or intensity, give a
stronger verb. If at first they are playing “to complain”
about something and you want more, ask them “to warn.” If
that isn’t enough ask them “to punish.”
Examples of action verbs: If I want you to leave the room, I
might INVITE you to leave. If that doesn’t work, I might BEG
you to leave. If that doesn’t work, I might DEMAND that you
(6) Result Direction
Directing for results means telling the actors what you want
to see and hear without giving them any clues as to why or how
they will get there. Basically, you are telling the actor how
to react. Example: “I want you to be sad or happy or more
angry. I want you to shout, laugh louder or cry more.”
The problem with result direction is not realizing that an
actor’ emotions are the results of needs and wants. Emotional
responses come as a consequence of trying to fulfill a need.
“Thoughts lead to Feelings lead to Actions lead to Results.”
Result direction takes the actor’s concentration off his
partner and puts it on himself. He will start focusing on his
own performance rather than listening to the other actor. This
makes for a false connection.
Don’t tell actors how to feel. A good director uses other ways
to suggest ideas: facts, images, action verbs. Good directing
becomes a matter of searching for the right keys to unlock the
potential in each actor.
Obstacles are what stand in the way of a character achieving
their objective. Obstacles increase the stakes and clarify the
An obstacle intensifies the conflict because as the story
progresses, it becomes harder to achieve the objective.
Beats are defined as changes of circumstances or transitions
in behavior in the script. A beat can be one sentence or half
Whenever something changes in the scene, or whenever a new
behavior or subject occurs, that is the start of a new beat.
Giving Permission is a very powerful tool for the director.
Permission allows the actor to go to places he/she needs for
Sometimes you have to allow actors to play, try things, play
with opposites, and take risks using play. No judgments, just
play, in order to discover the unexpected.
(10) In the Moment
When an actor is “not in the moment”, they are in their heads
and not in their bodies.
When we intellectualize our feelings and emotions, we are not
in the moment. Although working on a back story, which can be
the actor’s job, can help to feed a character.
Being in the moment for an actor has to do with freedom and
trust. It has to do with an actor not watching himself. The
actor who is “in the moment” is thinking real thoughts and
experiencing real feelings. He is responsive to the world
around him and to the behavior of other actors.
The most powerful way an actor can stay in the moment is to
listen to what is being said. Just like in real life, observe
what happens around you. Or if the objective is to “not
listen” – ignore, that’s a different story.
(12) Physical Sensation
Knowing or taking into consideration the temperature of the
scene is important. (Hot, cold, windy, etc)
Improvisation is a good tool to use with actors when they are
having a difficult time understanding or relating to a scene.
By letting the actors improvise the scene, you are letting
them have the freedom to get under the lines and find a
meaning to them. In other words, it allows them to find the
subtext of the scene.
Improvisation is also another way to discover something in the
scene you may have missed. It is also a good way to just
loosen the actors up.
To raise the stakes means to increase a character’s commitment
or involvement in the story. This usually implies doing
something that will increase the level of risk for a
How important is it for your characters to reach their goal?
“If they don’t get across the river they will die.” “If he
doesn’t propose today, he’ll lose the girl.” How far will a
character go to reach their objective?
(15) Character Arc
A character arc is the beginning, middle and end of a
character’s or inner emotional change. It is based on the idea
that there should be a progression to the character as the
The beginning of the journey is never the same as the end.
What is the transformation that your character will go
through. How is she/he at the end vs. the beginning? What does
she/he learn, lose, acquire?
Characters begin the story with a certain viewpoint and,
through events in the story, that viewpoint changes.
(16) Back Story & Biography
Actors should know what happened just before the scene they
are doing. They also need to fill out their character’ life
without saying anything that will show up in layers in the
(17) Business (Props, Tasks)
Sometimes it’s so good to have another task to do during a
speech or a dialogue. Actors can do well with “business”.
(18) Italian Reading
This is when the actors run their dialogue very quickly
several times. The objective here is to get them out of their
heads (don’t think about their lines) and get into their
bodies (listen and feel.)
To read more on how to direct actors, check out Judith Weston’s book, Directing Actors: Creating Memorable Performances for Film & Television