An Actors’ Director, and Vice Versa

How to be a director actors love, and an actor that won’t annoy a director to death.
  • Transcript


Question: How do you transition between roles when you’re acting and directing?

John Cameron Mitchell:  Well, the only thing I directed myself in was "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and that was very hard to do two at the same time.  It was also writing, it was, you know, it was too many hats at the same time.  But I had to do it because I’d written it for myself and there was a sense of inventing it as I go along because I hadn’t really done it before, the directing side.  I had played the role before on stage, was less interested in that, but sort of had to do it.  And I’d get all excited about the direction and forget that I’d have to go on in front of the camera, which was irritating, especially because I was in drag, and I had to get all that together.

So, there were very long days, we had a very short shoot, but I ended up having to watch a lot of stuff and playback to see if it was working... stuff that didn’t, you know... like a close up of myself, I could tell whether it was working or not, just internally, so I didn’t need to look at that, but the big picture stuff.  And it was really exhausting and I don’t think I ever want to do that again, but it taught me stuff that I, you know, can use to this day in knowing all the angles of filmmaking.

And I guess actors really trust me as a director because I know what they need, you know, having been one, but also, having worked with a lot different people with different processes, and the acting, I kind of, you know, I did it for about 20 years professionally and kind of burned out on it, but lately kind of wanting to feel those, you know, like I said, those cells working again, and I’m sure I’ll let it go again and do something else, end up writing a novel or something.

What do actors appreciate most in a director?

John Cameron Mitchell:  Well, the understanding that they’re partners and not just pawns, you know; that they have different processes from each other and from obviously other artists and craftsmen.  I think of actors, most actors are craftsmen, you know, they know how to build something, but they’re not necessarily creating the elements that you’re building with.  Like they don’t, you know, they didn’t create the tree, you know, from scratch, they put things together.  And there’s a small, special minority of actors that I think are artists, what they add to it is, pushes it into the realm of art.  Maybe those actors tend to be more self-directed, you know, some actors really need to be directed and edited to be their best and others are, can create something of a whole class, so in a way, they’re editing themselves, they’re writing a bit for themselves, they’re directing themselves and can make themselves, their performance into a kind of a sculpture that can stand on its own.  We’ve all seen films that the writing and the direction leave a lot to be desired, where a performance is quite stunning and can stand alone as a kind of a sculpture.

But actors, you know, are often suspicious of directors because directors tend to be afraid of them, you know, it’s the unknown quantity, it’s the immeasurable, you know, non-technical element, the talent that they, they tend to either just kind of not direct them at all and just hope, you know, something, and say "faster" or "funnier" or something.

I think the best directors of actors were actors or they’ve acted themselves, maybe taken a class or two, I think, you know, the best way for a director to find out about that process and not be afraid of it is to take an acting class for a, for a period of time, you know, for a few weeks, to see the, you know, excruciating position in an actor’s... that actors are often in and realizing that, you know, let the actor’s instincts be the first order of business, don’t over direct them too early, when they’re going in the wrong direction to know how to say very little to push them in the right direction, not over-direct them.

What do directors appreciate most in their actors?

John Cameron Mitchell: Well, there’s a lot of actors that are self-involved, you know, which is understandable.  There’s a kind of, you know, they are their tools, and get, forget that there are other people involved in a project.  You know, they appreciate actors that aren’t as needy, you know, that aren’t bringing their personal lives into the set, because it’s very difficult to be emotionally available all the time, and yet tough enough to deal with constant rejection and constant objectification, you know, and a lot of actors can get very caught up in what they look like and aren’t, you know, the lack of creativity between jobs, you know, the best actors that I like to work with have other creative interests.  You know, they’re writers or musicians and they don’t, they look at acting as another, very special, but it is just another job.  I mean, they should be, you know, no better than other craftsman on, treated no better than any other craftsman on the set.  But they’re usually coddled a lot more because they’re, the camera is on them.  And, that don’t get caught up in the, you know, in the money, the fame, the way it, you know, the way they appear to the world.  And generally theater, people who grew up in the theater, who developed in the theater, are the easiest to work with because they understand they’re part of a whole, they go to work regular hours, they’re team players.

Recorded on May 3, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen