Ever wondered how film directors get a great performance from their actors? In this article we share our favorite techniques used by film directors on set. These film acting quotes cover everything from working with actors to the rehearsal process and even improvisations on set.

If you’re looking for more acting quotes then we recommend reading: 80 Acting Quotes from Famous Actors to Bookmark

I love actors. I love them because they’re brave. All good work requires self-revelation. A musician communicates feelings through the instrument he is playing, a dancer through body movement. The talent of acting is one in which the actor’s thoughts and feelings are instantly communicated to the audience. In other words, the“instrument” that an actor is using is himself. It is his feelings, his physiognomy, his sexuality, his tears, his laughter, his anger, his romanticism, his tenderness, his viciousness, that are up there on the screen for all to see. That’s not easy. In fact, quite often it’s painful.

Sidney Lumet

In general, actors or actresses must have the art in the accumulation of their past. Their life’s experience is the director’s material. They can have all the training, all the techniques their teachers have taught them – private moments, improvisations, substitutions,associative memories, and so on – but if the precious material is not within them, the director cannot get it out. That is why it’s so important for the director to have an intimate acquaintance with the people he casts in his plays. If it’s “there,” he has a chance of putting it on the screen or on the stage. If not, not.

Elia Kazan

If there is something magic about the collaborations I have with actors it’s because I put the character first.

Quentin Tarantino

[on definition of acting] Acting is not being afraid of being made a fool of; and having the courage of people laugh at you and still do it, and still want to do. Acting to me is about courage.

Steven Spielberg

Acting essentially requires feeling.

Charlie Chaplin

My approach with actors is to try and give them whatever it is they need from me. Direction to me is about listening and responding and realizing how much they need to know from me and how much they have figured out for themselves, really.

Christopher Nolan

You work with every actor differently. It’s like if you’re a mother, if you have children, some children need more discipline. Other children you back off of a little bit and let them be. It’s the same way with actors. Some actors need a lot of hand holding. Other actors like to be let be and you let them go. Some actors like to be nudged just a little bit. Some actors don’t mind line readings.

Rob Reiner

I love to take actors to a place where they open a vein. That’s the job. The key is that I make it safe for them to open the vein.

Mike Nichols

Directing Actors

They’ll be many times when I’ll think to myself, why is this actress yelling it so angrily? That’s not what I had in mind when I wrote it. Then I’ll say, “Could you do this slower and a little easier?” And the actress will. And she’ll do it fine. And I’ll say, “Great, thank you.” Then when I’m putting the picture together I see that her way was completely the right way. Yelling it was completely correct for the character and completely in context and I was just married to the feeling that I was writing at home., but her instinct when  she read the script was better than mine. So having lived through that a number of times, I stopped correcting actors when they didn’t read things the way I wanted unless I was 100 percent sure it was a disaster. 

Woody Allen

It took me a long time to realize that you have to have a bit of an interlanguage with actors. You have to give them something that they can act with.

James Cameron

When an actor comes to me and wants to discuss his character, I say, ‘It’s in the script.’ If he says, ‘But what’s my motivation?, ‘ I say, ‘Your salary.’

Alfred Hitchcock

The best actor is the man who can do nothing extremely well.

Alfred Hitchcock

When I met my drama teacher, who had been working in theatre for 50 years, he told me that a director should know two things: shut up and listen to the actors. One very often forgets that actors are creative people – shy but creative – and that if you exhaust them with advice and explain everything in the greatest detail, they will be afraid to express their own point of view. They will feel that the director knows more than they do, and that it’s better to follow orders. Experience has taught me that if I patiently wait and remain open to their suggestions, a fruitful exchange will follow.

Ingmar Bergman

Some people claim that I hypnotize my actors – that I use magic to bring performances out of them that I get.  What nonsense!  All I do is try to give them the one thing everyone wants, the one thing an actor must have: confidence in himself. That’s all any actor wants, you know. To feel sure enough of himself that he’ll be able to everything he is capable of when the director asks for it. So I surround my actors with an aura of confidence and trust. I talk with them, often not about the scene we’re working on at all, but just to make them feel secure and at ease. If that’s magic, then I am a sorcerer. Then, too, working with the same people – technicians and actors – in our own private world for so many years together has facilitated my task of creating the necessary mood of trust.

Ingmar Bergman

It’s invariably because the actors don’t know their lines, or don’t know them well enough. An actor can only do one thing at a time, and when he has learned lines only well enough to say them while he’s thinking about them, he will always have trouble as soon as he has to work on the emotions of the scene or find camera marks. In a strong emotional scene, it is always best to be able to shoot in complete takes to allow the actor continuity of emotion, and it is rare for most actors to reach their peak more than once or twice. There are, occasionally scenes which benefit from extra takes, but even then, I’m not sure that the early takes aren’t just glorified rehearsals with the added adrenaline of film running through the camera. 

Stanley Kubrick

I worked with Marlon Brando on The Fugitive Kind. He’s a suspicious fellow. I don’t know if he bothers anymore, but Brando tests the director on the first or second day of shooting. What he does is to give you two apparently identical takes. Except that on one, he is really working from the inside; and on the other, he’s just giving you an indication of what the emotion was like. Then he watches which one you decide to print. If the director prints the wrong one, the “indicated” one, he’s had it. Marlon will either walk through the rest of the performance or make the director’s life hell,or both. Nobody has the right to test people like that, but I can understand why he does that. He doesn’t want to pour out his inner life to someone who can’t see what he’s doing.

Sidney Lumet

The thing about Brando was that I’d make these directions, and he’d walk away. He’d heard enough… to get the machine going.

Elia Kazan

Some actors like encouragement. Some actors prefer to have pressure. And sometimes, for some actors, its better to give your comment by silence, because they are so skilful, so gifted, that they understand without talking too much.

Wong Kar-wai

I never film a lot: only three or four takes per scene. I rehearse even less – maybe twice, but not more. I am convinced that this is better for the actors. I want the actors to be fresh, not tired. This way they are more natural. To achieve simplicity through exhaustive preparation requires a certain amount of experience and technique. I prefer instead to have the actors in a more ‘unrehearsed’ state when they first encounter the scene. Many times the first take is the best. But sometimes I like to shoot beyond that scene. Once the actors have done all they had to do and said all they had to say, they still keep on going, by force of inertia, until they hit what I call ‘dead moments’. At these moments actors often commit ‘errors’, which in some way are also part of the scene. I think that these are very sincere moments.

Michelangelo Antonioni

One of the most important things in an acting scene, especially a short acting scene, is not to talk about the scene that precedes but to play out the scene that precedes. You play out where the actors have come from psychologically so their ride into a scene is a correct one…Once you’ve done that, you divide the scene – or I tend to – into sections, into movements. Stanislavsky called them “beats.” The point is that there are sections in life. Sometimes even a short scene has a three-act structure. You lay bare the actor, you make him understand and appreciate the structure beneath the lines. That’s what’s called the subtext, and dealing with the subtext is one of the critical elements in directing actors. In other words, not what is said, but what happens.

Elia Kazan

If you get an impulse in a scene, no matter how wrong it seems, follow the impulse. It might be something and if it ain’t – take two!

Jack Nicholson

I’m drawn to a very strong, non-fussy, hopefully a non-absorbed, kind of acting. I want great listeners. They aren’t in competition with the other actors in the frame. They’re there to support and to make the other actor better. I’m interested in people who are interested in submitting themselves to roles, to a story, to knowing that sometimes the grander action is the wrong action, the showier action is the wrong action. Sometimes repose is the most appropriate response to something. My movies are cut and acted on the reactions, not the actions. I think that’s where the secrets of life are revealed. Not necessarily in what we say, but how we react to what we hear.

Lawrence Kasdan

Rehearsals

I cast carefully. If I cast very well, the actors are going to help me on the day we shoot and I’m going to help them. It becomes a partnership. I don’t do days and weeks of rehearsal. What I tend to do is when we walk on the floor, I literally shoot the first rehearsal and rehearse on camera. Because then you get the energy of coming in prepared but not rehearsed, and then you get a reality. If you over-rehearse it goes dead when you shoot, and you spend time getting back to what you found in rehearsals. I’m not unusual that way. Clint Eastwood does it, and so does Martin Scorsese . . . more actors like it than they care to admit. If it’s well written, you don’t have to rehearse. In this case, we had a great script from a great book.

Ridley Scott

I begin rehearsals in the actors’ dressing room. First I have them repeat their lines, and gradually proceed to the movements. But this is done with costumes and makeup on from the beginning; then we repeat everything on the set. The thoroughness of these rehearsals makes the actual shooting time very short. We don’t rehearse just the actors, but every part of every scene – the camera movements, the lighting, everything.

Akira Kurosawa

Howard Hawks was once asked to name the most important element in an actor’s performance. His answer was “confidence.” In a sense, that is really what’s been going on during rehearsal: the actors are gaining confidence in revealing their inner selves. They’ve been learning about me. I hold nothing back. If the actors are going to hold nothing back in front of the camera, I can hold nothing back in front of them. They have to be able to trust me, to know that I“feel” them and what they’re doing. This mutual trust is the most important element between the actor and me.

Sidney Lumet

The great ambition and actor has is to try and make it sound like this is the first time this thought has ever been transmitted and its the first time the words have ever been spoken. If you do it 30 times, the actors working strictly on technique to get the illusion that it’s the first time.

Clint Eastwood

I do prefer doing more takes. There’s something very organic that comes from the first take, but certain things come out. More details come out, in the way another actor says something. It’s always this investigative process. You come further and further to the truth, the more you escalate. I like to do a lot of takes. I have a hunger for it. I like to see what there is to discover in a scene, that hasn’t been thought of.

Martin Scorsese

Whenever I start a new scene, the most important thing in my mind is, within the needs of the theme and the scene, to make something happen worth putting on film. The most crucial part of this comes when you start new rehearsals on a new scene. There’s no way to define what this process consists of. It obviously has to do with taste and imagination and it is in this crucial period of time that a film is really created. Once you know you’ve got something worthwhile, the shooting becomes a matter of recording (improving, if you can) what you have already done in rehearsal. Whatever problems exist during the actual shooting are not the kind of problems that worry me. If the actor isn’t getting it right, well, he’ll get it right eventually. If the camera operator spoils a shot, it can be done again. The thing that can never be changed, and the thing that is the make or break of a picture, are those few hours you spend alone in the actual place with the actors, with the crew outside drinking their tea.

Stanley Kubrick

Somewhere in talking and rehearsing, there is a magical moment where actors catch a current, they’re on the right road. If they really catch it, then whatever they do from then on is correct and it all comes out of them from that point on.

David Lynch

The Rehearsal Process

The first day of my rehearsals usually has two read throughs of the script. The first is a read-through without stopping, just to get a sense of the text. The second one,usually after lunch, is stop and go, with anyone able to make a point or ask a question, and the director has the opportunity to clarify, to help with intention or with pronunciation, or for any other reason. In the course of the read-throughs, the director tries to make clear that the rehearsal room is a place of safety, where no one need fear doing something wrong, or doing badly; the point is made that this is a place of play and enjoyment.

Francis Ford Coppola

I generally hold rehearsals for a period of two weeks. Depending on the complexity of the characters, we sometimes work longer. Generally, we’ll spend the first two or three days around a table, talking about the script. The first thing to be established is, of course, the theme. Then we’re into each character, each scene, each line. We read the script non-stop, then spend the next two days breaking it down into its components,winding up on the third day with another non-stop reading. In this same period we’re seeing if any rewrites are necessary.  On the fourth day, I start blocking (that is, staging) the scenes. Each interior we’ll use in the movie has been laid out in tape on the floor in its actual dimensions.

Sidney Lumet

Improvisations

One of the biggest benefits that comes from extensive improv during rehearsal is that it gives an opportunity to examine the character and practice situations of the text without exhausting the freshness of the dialogue. This is of great importance. Often fine actors, including Marlon Brando, try to not know the lines or rehearse them often, so that during filming, the performance is lifelike, in that the character is saying the dialogue for the first time. Marlon, working on The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, was fond of saying, “You can’t care, or they’ll see it on your face.” For my purposes, improvisation offers a way to find new meaning in the character’s situations and problems without reciting lines.

Francis Ford Coppola

The basis of improvisation must be preparation. If I haven’t prepared, I can’t improvise. If I’ve made careful preparations, I can always improvise. Then I know I have something to fall back on. What I detest is formlessness. That terrifies me. It is seldom that mere formlessness in a work of art conveys anything vivid. More often it gives an impression of effort. But a combination of improvisation and planning – that’s good.

Ingmar Bergman

The script is an idea, not a finished reality. Take liberties with it. Take advantage of stuff that is coming to you that is not written on the page. You can’t make a movie that is alive if it’s pre-planned. You will ruin it if you try. You have to loosen up and see why the things happening in front of you are good for the project, not bad. If bad things are happening in front of you, shake things up. Write some new lines – or improvise.

Gus Van Sant

Casting

I’ve found that the people who play villains are the nicest people in the world, and people who play heroes are jerks. It’s like people who play villains work out all their problems on screen, and then they’re just really wonderful people.

Tim Burton

The biggest mistake in student films is that they are usually cast so badly, with friends and people the directors know. Actually you can cover a lot of bad direction with good acting.

Brian De Palma

A director can’t get anything out of an actor that he doesn’t already have. You can’t start an acting school in the middle of making a film.

Stanley Kubrick

I like to do my own casting. I think eighty percent of what you contribute to the film is in the selection of the actors.

Steven Spielberg

More than ninety percent of directing a picture is the right casting.

Martin Scorsese

If you do it right, casting, you don’t need to do much direction of actors. The really good ones find their way, and you only need recognize if they are going astray.

Alfred Hitchcock

Disney has the best casting. If he doesn’t like an actor he just tears him up.

Alfred Hitchcock

Always cast against the part and it won’t be boring.

David Lean

The first thing I look for in an actor is intelligence. I don’t really care what they have or haven’t done before, so long as they’re physically right for the part, or can be, and they have the intelligence to dig in and find out who the character is.

William Freidkin

I think casting is very important. If you have the right type of person for the role, that’s already halfway to the success. You have the idea of the character and you search for an actor who fits that. You see quickly that it’s going to work with some actors and not with others. You make mistakes, but not often. For me, good casting is more important than an actor’s ability. You often look for the best possible actors, that’s true. But if I come across an actor who is perhaps less talented than another, but perfect for my character, then it’s him I’m going to hire.

Roman Polanski

Making an actor read the lines of apart has no value for me and can even be misleading. The best line readers, I’ve learned, are not the best actors for my films, which is why I take actors for a walk or for dinner and probe into their lives. That is especially easy to do with actresses. Women are easily led to reveal to anyone who seems to be a friend the secrets of their intimate lives; it is their most essential drama.

Elia Kazan

I don’t know that a movie like ‘Daredevil’ did better for having Ben Affleck then ‘Spider-Man’ did having Tobey Maguire, who was a relative unknown at the time.

Jon Favreau

Good actors aren’t enough. You need charisma. Can you imagine ‘Casablanca’ without Bogart and Bergman?

Sydney Pollack

There is no way you can get people to believe you on screen if they know who you really are through television.

Jack Nicholson

To see talented people in roles that others might not see them in, to see how they might fit in the puzzle of the cast, has always been something that I’ve been good at. I think that if you look at the successes of my films and start to peel them back, there’s usually a really smart casting decision that has gone into that success.

Jon Favreau

In directing the actors, the most important thing is to choose the right people. The work, the most important work is done before the shooting starts, because once tune the actors with what you want, the direction is no mystery at all – it just works somehow.

Milos Forman

‘Alien’ is a C film elevated to an A film, honestly, by it being well done and a great monster. If it hadn’t had that great monster, even with a wonderful cast, it wouldn’t have been as good, I don’t think.

Ridley Scott

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