Notes to an Actor from the Other Side (of the Camera)

There’s always room for improvement, but after twenty- going on thirty- years as a professional actor, let’s say I have a certain level of expertise at the craft. My journey through the looking glass to the other side of the camera, however, has added value to my knowledge and work as an actor that I can only describe as priceless- and it has little or nothing to do with craft. Having now completed my fourth project as either a director, writer, or producer (and with several more lined up), I’d love to share five important lessons I’ve learned from the other side...

With my co-writer Bolude Watson, at a photoshoot for our upcoming feature "Carmen & Bolude"

  • It’s not me, it’s you. Can I tell you a story? When my son was four-ish, we would jump in the shower together and I would sometimes wear a shower cap (bear with me on this) - for which he would let loose a stream of criticism: “That hat looks awful. You should take it off. It’s really the worst thing I’ve ever seen”, and so on, non-stop. He’s eight now, and as I was putting on my shower cap today I reminded him how he used to go off at me about how bad it looked. He shocked me by saying: “You know why I said that? Because I used to have this nightmare about cannibals trying to eat me and one of them had a head that looked like that cap.” Do you catch my drift? Nine times out of ten, not getting cast in a role has nothing to do with your talent. It has to do whether you remind them of their ex/parent/boss/abuser/nightmare and whether they think we can live with/work with that. It has to do with whether your height, size, look, chemistry matches up with the other actor they have to cast. I has to do with whether the cast reflects the diversity of the community and/or audience. It has to do with random dumb luck like whether they’ve eaten lunch when they see you. And, you may hate this, but it’s the honest truth: it has to do with who you know. When I’m producing, I will cast an actor I know who is talented, reliable and I can work with over a talented stranger any day of the week. It just costs too much to take a chance and be wrong. The solution? Reach out to and get to know the people you want to work with before the opportunity comes up. When you don’t get a part, send a thank you and tell them you want to work with them on their next project. Work with them in other capacities or in smaller roles on smaller projects, so when a big one comes up, they know they can trust you and you won’t be the cannibal in their nightmare.
  • This is someone else’s baby. I get it: you take your work seriously, you had to move heaven and earth to make space for this shoot, and you’re getting paid peanuts (if that). When you’re an actor on a project, you’re there giving your all for approximately 3 days - 3 months, and that’s a lot. But it may change your perspective to know that when you’re the director, writer or producer of a project, you’re there giving your all to one project for years (sometimes decades). Even when everyone’s agreed to work for love instead of money, it is expensive to make a film (festival submission fees alone amount to thousands of dollars, added to camera and sound equipment, hard drives, food, water, props, location, transport, and the inevitable post production costs)- and someone else is footing that bill. It’s helpful to remember you’ve been given the honor of looking after someone’s baby (and I don’t use this metaphor lightly), and that no-one wants the project, and therefore you as an actor, to succeed more than the people who created it and paid for it. 

  • With my co-writer/co-producer, Leanne Mangan, at the Australian Premiere of our film "Remote Access". Watch the trailer.

  • Team Players are Slashies. When I’m an actor, I tend to think being a ‘team player’ is getting along with everyone at any cost. When I was on the production side, however, I noticed my best team players were those who were willing to go the extra mile in terms of supporting the production. I didn’t need ‘yes’ (wo)men, I need intelligent, creative ideas and opinions. I needed trust and reliability. And I needed slashies: people who could do more than one job. If you have another behind-the-scenes skill, and can offer it, do so. There are a very few who have made themselves so indispensable to me on previous projects, that I made a note in my head to ask them to be part of every project I ever work on. At the very least, be a self-promoter! Even at the highest, most famous levels, promotion is part of the job, and yet I’m surprised over and over how many actors don’t seem to get how important it is to show up to screenings and other promotional events for a project. Or how important it is to share the project on social media or by word of mouth. Getting a leg above the noise is vital to the survival of all media projects today, and I promise you, filmmakers notice those who do, and those who don’t.
  • ‘Work Hard. Play Hard. Rest Hard’ will make it harder. I sometimes feel surrounded by overwhelmed colleagues who are on the brink of breakdown, and I’m the only one left to care for them all. All this ‘hardness’ seems counterproductive to creativity, joy and great work. So I suggest you reject the advice to ‘work harder than everyone else.’ I suggest you not run yourself into the ground or risk your long-term health trying to prove yourself. Harmonizing a career as an actor with all that life demands is difficult, so I suggest you work on the harmony and the long-game instead. Don’t say yes to everything - only to what you most want/enjoy, and then, just do your best. That is enough. Get sufficient sleep, nutrient dense food, exercise, and re-fueling, or you will not be able to do your best (or still be around when your dream project knocks). Give your all to one project instead of doing three at the minimum. Acknowledge occupational mental health hazards that may affect you, such as engaging in traumatic content, its potential emotional toll, and reach out for professional help if you need it. Be the example you want to see. If everyone around you is falling to shit, do what you wish they were doing. There can be a culture of bullying, disrespect and unreasonable expectations on some sets or with some colleagues, but I find that if you behave with integrity - like eventually finds like. Behaving with integrity sometimes means speaking up when it’s hard or confronting, and you may lose a powerful bad guy, but it makes space for the good guys to find you. As Maya Angelou says, if you know better, do better. And better will find you. (I added that last part.) 

  • My first film as writer/producer/director "Unspoiled by Feminism"
  • Production Hearts Technical Actors. There’s a saying among filmmakers: ‘There’s the film you write, the film you shoot and the film you edit.’ This is true, and therefore the most important, and final film, is the one made in the editing room. So here’s what I learned from watching myself and other actors in the editing room. 1) This may seem obvious, but the eyes are everything. The takes with the most subtle changes in the eyes are the ones that get used. Practise with a camera and learn where your most effective eyelines are, and the power of your acting will jump light years. 2) After your eyes, your voice is your next most important tool. I didn’t really get it until I was in the editing room, but now I am a believer: an actor’s vocal performance effects emotion more strongly than their visual performance. 3) You need more than one great take. There are completely unrelated reasons we may not be able to use a great take: the boom came into frame, there was a distracting noise in the background, etc. And though it is heartbreaking for all, we can’t use it. So tech up your skills and be able to make magic happen more than once. 4) Be precise and consistent in your blocking, and we will love you in the editing room. When you do different movements each take, you may think you’re giving options, but you remove the option of cutting two different takes together. 5) When you think you messed up, keep going - some of the best (and most real seeming) takes are when you think you messed up - if you don’t ruin it by stopping.

I'd love to hear anything you've learned from adventures to the other side! Please let me know in your comments below. Peace Out <3

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