How to Direct Actors: Advice from Director Bobby Roth (PRISON BREAK, AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D., GREY'S ANATOMY)

Posted by Bobby Roth

Individualism. It’s the single most important element I have learned about life and the people I work with. No two people are the same. No two actors are the same. I believe directing actors entails:

  1. Knowing yourself
  2. Learning about each of your actors and what they need
  3. Training yourself to listen and assess everyone as an individual

I began directing actors in 1974 when I made my first picture, INDEPENDENCE DAY. For the first ten years of my career I only directed independent films where I ran the show. I didn’t study acting nor did I learn much about directing actors in film school, despite bad acting being the single worst aspect of student filmmaking.

My sole way of learning was trial and error.


How to Direct Actors Advice from Director Bobby Roth PRISON BREAK AGENTS OF SHIELD GREYS ANATOMY

On Set Directing Joseph Fiennes and Courtney Vance on "Flash Forward"



Casting is the single most important element of directing - that’s where most mistakes begin. I believe if you’re looking at anything more than the ability of the actor and quality of the acting you’re never going to fully succeed. I made a myriad of casting mistakes when I began directing, the most prominent and obvious was to cast based on the looks of the actor. The second was to rely too heavily on the resume and imagine that if the actor had been hired a lot and especially if they had been hired by famous or successful directors they were really good.

I believe that when casting you must talk to an actor and learn who she or he is. You might ask about their education and previous roles but you’re really trying to see if you have synergy with that human being. Do they listen to you? Are they dynamic and interesting to you? Later, when you shoot tests, you’ll see if the camera loves them but before that making a simple adjustment when they are reading for you can tell you a lot.

Don’t talk too much. Many directors make the mistake of spending a great deal of time telling the actor or actors what they are looking for. I think it is better to suggest ideas, ask questions, and try to imagine what working with this actor day in and day out might be like.

I’m a great believer in rehearsal, not to try to lock in a performance but to form a working relationship based on understanding one another throughout the process so that the director can help the actor do their best work.

Years ago I was directing a film for Lifetime called The Killing Game with Laura Prepon. Though we had a rehearsal period, I never was able to discern what Laura was capable of. For the first few days of shooting I didn’t realize that Laura had the capacity to go further… much further. She actually was afraid of over-acting so she held back. Only when I understood that she needed to be pushed a little was I able to get more from her. Of course, part of that process was earning her trust and her allowing me to ask for more with the assurance that if she goes too far I’ll reign her back and not use takes where she exposes herself too much.


How to Direct Actors Advice from Director Bobby Roth PRISON BREAK AGENTS OF SHIELD GREYS ANATOMY

Directing "MacGyver"


You have to learn who the actor is, what they’re capable of, and earn their trust in your working relationship so they will listen to you.

Donald Sutherland wants to be directed. He comes in trusting you until you lose his trust. The trick, of course, is that you must give him accurate feedback because he is trusting you.

Dominic Purcell of PRISON BREAK wants very little feedback. Over the course of my career I have seen such a wide spectrum of ways of working that at the very least I know to ask.

When I was directing Sonya Walger on FLASH FORWARD she went to Mark Ovitz, the producer and told him I wasn’t talking to her. He came to me and asked why and I told him “Because she’s great! I love everything she’s doing.” He said, “You gotta talk to her.” So I did. I began asking her questions and telling her what I felt and she knew I was appreciating her work.

We all need that… to know how what we are doing is being received. I need to hear it from the producers who I’m working for. We must remember to speak, but not over-speak.

This understanding of the individualism and singularity about actors is also true of your crew. How you speak to your director of photography has to be based on who that person is. Some people are more visual in their responses. Others are more verbal. Others are more intuitive.

Theo Van de Sande is Dutch, but his English is flawless and he knows how to communicate. Shelly Johnson has grown more talkative over the years. Michael Ballhaus used to speak about acting all the time and rarely spoke about lighting. We talked a lot. I make it a point to ride to and from work with both my DP and my AD so that we can situate ourselves together. When I worked with Chris Manley on PRISON BREAK he didn’t talk much, but always was available to answer my questions. I had to draw him out.


How to Direct Actors Advice from Director Bobby Roth PRISON BREAK AGENTS OF SHIELD GREYS ANATOMY

On the set of "Prison Break" with Wentworth Miller and Amaury Nolasco


The most important thing to remember is that you are the initiator. You have to question them to learn their process. I believe it’s a mistake to pre-judge both your actors and your crew. The biggest lesson I learned is acceptance.

I always considered myself to be an open person, but on the second season of PRISON BREAK I ran into a problem that seemed insurmountable. I had done well in Season One and the Executive Producer, Matt Olmstead, had hired me to do six episodes on Season Two.

In Season One, in Chicago, I had gotten along okay with the line producer, Garry Brown, but in Season Two we were moving to Dallas where Garry lived and where he was far more comfortable. On my first episode there we clashed. Garry tried to assert his authority with me and I resented it. Worse, I went over his head to Matt, which was a big mistake on my part. I should have tried to work things out with Garry.

Power plays in the film and TV business rarely turn out well. Garry resented me and began making my life more miserable. However my work was good and I was still held in good stead back with the producers in LA.

When I came back and told my wife the story she said, “What’re you going to do about Garry? You have to go back for five more episodes?

I said, “I’m going to make him like me?”

She laughed and said, “That’s impossible.”


How to Direct Actors Advice from Director Bobby Roth PRISON BREAK AGENTS OF SHIELD GREYS ANATOMY

Behind the Scenes of "Prison Break"


When I went back for my second episode it was rough. Not only did I do everything that Garry asked of me without complaining, but I asked him to dinner. He declined and I asked him to lunch on the weekend. Again, not interested.

We somehow made it through my second episode but he never cracked a smile. The same pattern on my next two episodes. We were getting through but there was no love lost.

By my fourth episode Garry began to appreciate my work ethic, though we never had a meal.

We were six months into the season when we finally broke the ice. It was near Christmas and my wife and daughter came to visit. Garry had a party at his house for the entire cast and crew and it was there, meeting my family and being in his home that we shared a laugh.

By the time the season ended we were friends. I even got him tickets to see my brother-in-law perform in Dallas that spring.

The irony was that while I was trying to make Garry Brown like me I actually began to like him. We were completely different people but I have grown to consider him a true friend. We did two more seasons of PRISON BREAK, then BREAKOUT KINGS, and then three seasons of MARVEL’S AGENTS OF SHIELD.

I have many stories about initial meetings that went badly followed by lifelong friendships with both actors and crew. The threads tying them all together are patience, mindfulness and listening.

Before you can assess the character of others you have to know yourself. How well do you listen? Are you guilty of unconscious prejudices? I have found that trying to make myself into a better listener and being more open has made me a better film director, and that has made me a better man.


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About Bobby Roth

How to Direct Actors Advice from Director Bobby Roth PRISON BREAK AGENTS OF SHIELD GREYS ANATOMY

Bobby Roth grew up in Los Angeles, a block from where he lives today. He studied Philosophy and Creative Writing at UC Berkeley, then got a BA in Cinema at USC in 1972, and an MFA in Motion Picture Production from UCLA in 1975. For his entire career he has alternated between independent filmmaking and commercial television. In the early eighties he had an overall deal to write, produce and direct for Universal, where he created the series The Insiders for ABC.

His independent films have now been exhibited in over one hundred film festivals worldwide, five of which have premiered at Sundance where Bobby has also been a judge.

He was a founding member of the Independent Feature Project and also a founding member of the DGA's Independent Feature Committee where he was its first Co-Chairman.

Bobby has decades of experience directing both features (Heartbreakers, Independence Day, Pearl) as well as episodic television (Prison Break, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Miami Vice, Hawaii 5-0, Grey's Anatomy, Revenge, and more)


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