An Actors’ Director, and Vice Versa

Question: How do you transition between roles when you’re \r\nacting and directing?

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

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

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

What do actors appreciate most in a director?

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

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

I\r\n think the best directors of actors were actors or they’ve acted \r\nthemselves, maybe taken a class or two, I think, you know, the best way \r\nfor a director to find out about that process and not be afraid of it is\r\n to take an acting class for a, for a period of time, you know, for a \r\nfew weeks, to see the, you know, excruciating position in an actor’s... \r\nthat actors are often in and realizing that, you know, let the actor’s \r\ninstincts be the first order of business, don’t over direct them too \r\nearly, when they’re going in the wrong direction to know how to say very\r\n 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\r\n are self-involved, you know, which is understandable.  There’s a kind \r\nof, you know, they are their tools, and get, forget that there are other\r\n people involved in a project.  You know, they appreciate actors that \r\naren’t as needy, you know, that aren’t bringing their personal lives \r\ninto the set, because it’s very difficult to be emotionally available \r\nall the time, and yet tough enough to deal with constant rejection and \r\nconstant objectification, you know, and a lot of actors can get very \r\ncaught up in what they look like and aren’t, you know, the lack of \r\ncreativity between jobs, you know, the best actors that I like to work \r\nwith have other creative interests.  You know, they’re writers or \r\nmusicians and they don’t, they look at acting as another, very special, \r\nbut it is just another job.  I mean, they should be, you know, no better\r\n than other craftsman on, treated no better than any other craftsman on \r\nthe set.  But they’re usually coddled a lot more because they’re, the \r\ncamera is on them.  And, that don’t get caught up in the, you know, in \r\nthe money, the fame, the way it, you know, the way they appear to the \r\nworld.  And generally theater, people who grew up in the theater, who \r\ndeveloped in the theater, are the easiest to work with because they \r\nunderstand they’re part of a whole, they go to work regular hours, \r\nthey’re team players.

Recorded on May 3, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

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