Tips for Working with Actors by Director Thomas R. Houston of ANATHEMA – A British Indie Post-Apocalyptic Feature Film

Thomas R. Houston and Dane Jones discussing a scene in ANATHEMA




1. Casting.

Let’s start with an obvious one. Your relationship with your cast begins upon your first meeting. A lot of young Directors make the mistake of thinking that all they’re doing during auditions is deciding which actor is best suited for the role. WRONG. You are deciding which actor is best suited for the film, this does of course include their ability and understanding of the role, but you have to be judging if the actor is going to be a benefit to your overall team or not.

Aside from the previously mentioned obvious, you need to be weighing up if you can develop a good strong working relationship with this person. The film making process is a collaborative venture between all departments, and you need to be able to collaborate with your cast clearly and effectively.


Check out the teaser trailer to ANATHEMA


One of the best ways to determine this is by utilizing something I call “The Desert Island Test.” What I like to do during my auditions is to bring the actor in and sit down with them to begin with and simply discuss the film, the role, their interpretation and opinion of the film and the character they’re auditioning to play, before going over with them clearly the scene. Why? Well the first reason is simply to calm their nerves, but mainly I use this as an opportunity to gage the actor as a person, the purpose of “The Desert Island Test” is to ask, could I handle being stranded on a desert island with this person.

Hopefully, you’ll come away from your auditions with a list of actors who fit the bill in terms of ability, but also as a valuable asset to your team.

2. Rehearsals.

We’ve previously touched on how film making is a collaborative process, well here is where that really begins with your actors. Now it’s worth mentioning that what I’m about to discuss may not be suitable for everyone, it is purely a method that works for me because of how I like to work.

My own style of Directing is to encourage creativity and individual though throughout the cast and crew regarding their respective departments. Of course as the Director I maintain the final say on creative decisions, but with my cast I implore them to develop their characters themselves. I regard the script to merely be the skeleton of their character, the actors need to go and apply the muscles, organs, nerves, and skin, “flesh it out” so to speak.

I’m also very happy to allow actors to improvise, whether that be dialogue or actions. John Rhys-Davies once said that “improvisation is 99%, garbage” and from my experience in seeing actors improvise, I couldn’t agree more. But when you get that 1% it is gold.

.Back to the main point, why do I do this? Because I believe that not only is it the actor’s job/responsibility to know their character inside out, even more so than the writer, but also because when an actor has developed a character beyond what is written in the script their performances improve tenfold.

They understand the psychology, the physiology, and the past of that character making it so much easier to determine how a character will/should move, react and speak. The easiest way to explain what I do as their Director is to say that at the beginning the actor is in position A, I as their Director want them to be in position B so they have to make their way there. I’m only going to point where position B is, not go with them, if I’m doing all the work what’s the point in having an actor, why don’t I simple take the role. However, as a responsible Director I will constantly be around and updated as to the actors progress simply because some actors will drift too far away from the core of their character and stray towards position C, in which case I am there to rein them in and set them back on the path towards position B.

3. How to give direction.

Ok now this is something I personally regard as ridiculously obvious, and I don’t mean to come across as arrogant because giving direction comes naturally to me, but if you are going to become a Director you need, NEED, to be able to communicate properly. I have come across many young Directors who will say to an actor “be angrier”, let’s be clear, this is not giving direction.

Thomas R. Houston and Dane Jones discussing their Kickstarter campaign for ANATHEMA
To be fair it’s not just young Directors who do this, I won’t mention names but one Hollywood actress claims that whilst working on a particular franchise all her Director ever said to her was “faster, more intense.” As a Director it is your job and therefore your responsibility to make the best film possible, and the only way you’ll do this is by communicating with your cast, and crew for that matter, in a clear a precise manner.

For example, when you’re not getting the desired performance from an actor instead of saying be angrier, be sexier, be smarter try discussing with the actor the state of mind the character is in during the scene. Also remember that your actors are people, and thus like to be spoken to like people, and nobody likes hearing that their work isn’t good enough (even when it isn’t). What I’m about to suggest has nothing to do with protecting a person ego, but rather their morale, low morale will guarantee you a poor performance and vice versa. So instead let’s use the sandwich effect, a structure widely used in giving feedback. You start with one layer of positivity, then explain your criticism, and finally end on a positive note.

When you’re giving direction immediately start of by saying something along the lines of “ok that was good. Let’s try it again, only this time”, now you can move on to explaining in crystal clear detail what you want, actors work really well with cues, be they visual, audible, or memory so don’t be afraid to act out yourself what you’re after, maybe the actor isn’t hitting the right pitch with their voice in delivering dialogue. Also bring up memories, with regards to the actor being angrier have them recall a time when they really lost their temper, how did they feel exactly? What did they want to do when they were that angry? Did they care about the consequences if they retaliated in anger?

Finally, part of giving Direction is listening. Even if you have a different style to myself in which I encourage your cast to think about their performance independently, actors will always come forward with suggestion or ideas on how they could improve something. I would strongly advise you to stop listen and assess the idea presented to you, because the worst think that could happen is you say no.

If the idea is brilliant then well that’s just fantastic, anything that improves the film is welcome so you give the actor much deserved praise and shoot said idea. If you’re unsure then try it, maybe the actor just isn’t or can’t vocalise their idea well enough, so see it in practise then you can make a formal decision. And if the idea is just plain rubbish say no, but again be mindful not to damage morale.

4. The dark side.

Lies, deceit and manipulation, the dark side of being a Director, yet some of the most powerful and valuable tools in your armory. As a Director you are going to have to manage the egos of every single member of your team (not just the cast), as well as maintaining a high level of morale. But, you will be faced with situations that will test your ability to do this.

For example, you may come across a situation where an actor may not be reacting to your direction, or perhaps they disagree with your direction and feel the character should go down an alternate route. With regards to the first situation, I have on several occasions flat out lied to an actor and told them they’re “doing great, keep it up”, the performance of the actor in question was lacking a certain level of intensity and each time I gave direction the improvement was marginal. So I lied, now I am not a psychologist so I don’t know what is triggered, but this technique has never failed for me.

Somewhere in the actors brain when they feel they are onto something a spark goes off and suddenly you’ll see an improvement, and whilst you may not be immediately going to the level you’re after, you’re suddenly making larger strides towards your goal. The implication you’re giving the actor is that they are already making large strides towards what you want from them, when in fact they’re either making small steps or not progressing at all. Positivity, even if false, breeds positivity.

.For the second situation we’re really stretching our abilities. When you are in a disagreement with an actor or even a crew member over what route to go down, you need to be careful with how you use your words so you can plant a seed in their mind that your idea is actually their idea. If you can convince someone that you’ve actually latched onto something they’ve said to conjure your idea, thus they are your inspiration, they will much easily be swayed to your way of thinking. And at the end of it all your actor is happy and you’ve got what you want, everybody wins.



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Director Thomas R. Houston has been continuously expanding on his extensive skills. Recently Thomas has been working on corporate videography including marketing/promotional videos, product demonstration videos and high end wedding videos. Whilst also working on various short film projects, two of which are based within the world of ANATHEMA and act as a prologue to the feature film.