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Arts & Entertainment

Spike Lee Shares 4 Important Tips for Directing Actors

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jul 22, 2020 • 3 min read

Being an actor is an act of vulnerability, both in the work of portraying characters during film production and in the audition process. Making movies requires a lot of time and emotion, and to direct actors properly during filmmaking, a director must understand and appreciate the fact that film acting is a craft and actors must be directed with sensitivity and respect.

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Spike Lee Teaches Independent FilmmakingSpike Lee Teaches Independent Filmmaking

Academy Award–winning filmmaker Spike Lee teaches his approach to directing, writing, and producing.

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A Brief Introduction to Spike Lee

Spike Lee first captivated our cultural consciousness in 1986 with his debut film, She’s Gotta Have It, a story about a sexually empowered woman in Brooklyn and her three lovers, told in black and white. Over his long and varied career, Spike has often drawn from the well of his own life, which encompass everything from historically Black colleges and universities, colorism in the Black community, culture clashes in Brooklyn, love, and jazz, interracial relationships, and addiction. Spike Lee continues to make movies—and make moves in Hollywood: In 2010, the Library of Congress selected Malcolm X for preservation in the National Film Registry, and his most recent film is 2020’s Da 5 Bloods.

Spike Lee’s Tips for Working With Actors

Whether you’re working with professional actors or beginning performers in their first feature, directing actors takes a delicate balance of skill, control, and patience. It’s the feature film director’s role to ensure the actor’s performance in front of the camera feels organic, not to force an emotional state, or force the actor’s performance to feel like it’s on cue. For some of Spike Lee’s tips on getting great performances out of your cast members, check out some of his tips:

  1. Start a dialogue. A director begins dialogue with his cast well before the camera starts rolling. Spike likens his role to being a coach of a sports team. That said, just as all athletes are not the same, neither are actors. The job of a director is to quickly recognize how to draw out the best performance. Sometimes that means watching an actor’s past work.
  2. Be collaborative. The best directors don’t just tell people what to do on a film set. This is a job where spontaneity and intuition are just as important as following the script. A good director both commands and surrenders to the moment—and sometimes surrender means trusting the actor and allowing them to lead. Actors have instincts too, and sometimes you need to follow where theirs take them in order to get a memorable performance.
  3. Do read-throughs. Have your actors read the screenplay aloud—without acting. This can help the director better know what works in the script and what doesn’t. When Spike does a read-through, he’s listening to hear how the language sounds. Do the jokes land? Does the language seem natural? Take notes, which you will incorporate into the rewrite.
  4. Settle conflicts. For good performances and a smoother movie-making experience, Spike strongly recommends any conflicts of approach be handled well before the cameras start rolling; otherwise, these same issues will show up on set. Part of the dance between actor and director is to allow the actor a certain amount of space to breathe within the role, perhaps try something different with the scene than what has been asked. If you are able, give your actors as many takes to get it right as your schedule and budget will allow. Decide which scenes are worth this experimentation, while also ensuring you make your day. And when your actors are doing a good job, let them know.
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