Skip to content
Who's in the Video
John Cameron Mitchell directed, starred in and co-wrote, with Stephen Trask, the musical film Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), for which he received the Best Director Award at the[…]

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

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

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

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

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

What do actors appreciate most in a director?

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

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

Irn think the best directors of actors were actors or they’ve acted rnthemselves, maybe taken a class or two, I think, you know, the best way rnfor a director to find out about that process and not be afraid of it isrn to take an acting class for a, for a period of time, you know, for a rnfew weeks, to see the, you know, excruciating position in an actor’s... rnthat actors are often in and realizing that, you know, let the actor’s rninstincts be the first order of business, don’t over direct them too rnearly, when they’re going in the wrong direction to know how to say veryrn 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 thatrn are self-involved, you know, which is understandable.  There’s a kind rnof, you know, they are their tools, and get, forget that there are otherrn people involved in a project.  You know, they appreciate actors that rnaren’t as needy, you know, that aren’t bringing their personal lives rninto the set, because it’s very difficult to be emotionally available rnall the time, and yet tough enough to deal with constant rejection and rnconstant objectification, you know, and a lot of actors can get very rncaught up in what they look like and aren’t, you know, the lack of rncreativity between jobs, you know, the best actors that I like to work rnwith have other creative interests.  You know, they’re writers or rnmusicians and they don’t, they look at acting as another, very special, rnbut it is just another job.  I mean, they should be, you know, no betterrn than other craftsman on, treated no better than any other craftsman on rnthe set.  But they’re usually coddled a lot more because they’re, the rncamera is on them.  And, that don’t get caught up in the, you know, in rnthe money, the fame, the way it, you know, the way they appear to the rnworld.  And generally theater, people who grew up in the theater, who rndeveloped in the theater, are the easiest to work with because they rnunderstand they’re part of a whole, they go to work regular hours, rnthey’re team players.

Recorded on May 3, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen