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Arts & Entertainment

Working With Actors: Creating the Character

Werner Herzog

Lesson time 19:49 min

Through casting, wardrobe, and behavioral ticks, Werner shares both the subtle and bold techniques for developing characters with your actors.

Werner Herzog
Teaches Filmmaking
In 6 hours of video lessons, Werner Herzog teaches his uncompromising approach to documentary and feature filmmaking.


Acting and working with actors, well, that's a key to what you do as a director. And I think the first of all keys is casting. You have to have an eye to do casting right. And the mistake, sometimes, and it happens to big studios, they put two of the greatest bestselling actors, the greatest stars, together in a love story and they don't have any chemistry. And the film somehow does not function with audiences. So, for me, it's chemistry. Understanding chemistry and understanding chemistries has a lot to do with understanding the world and understanding human beings. In a way, I keep saying you have to know the heart of men. You have to see very deep into the right decisions. It happens that no matter who is stepping in front of my little camera that records them, they all have the same chance. And, in one film not very long ago, the casting lady, who is a wonderful woman, she said to me, I'm so embarrassed. But there's somebody outside the door and she has come uninvited, but she's a girlfriend of the main producer. And I said to her, bring her in. Bring her in. When she's here she has the same chance like anyone else. And I had done screen tests with six or seven other young women and she was so good. I mean she was fantastic and I took her. And there's no embarrassment. There's no ritual. There's nothing. Everyone has the same chance when you do these kind of early selections. And, for the big roles, of course, I know that's going to be that person will be in the film and no tests. Nothing. You will be the protagonist. Enigma of Kaspar Hauser just had written the screenplay and I thought, who could play the leading part? Who has it in him? And, by coincidence, I watched on TV a short film by a Berlin student filmmaker about homeless people in Berlin and some street singers among them. And there was one of them in it. It hit me like lightning. I knew that someone. Am I lucky that someone, and I have to say of all actors with whom I have worked and they're some of the greatest, Kinski had something extraordinary about him. And Claudia Cardinale, Christian Bale, Nicolas Cage, Nicole Kidman, I've worked with the finest of the fine. Now Michael Shannon, who is certainly the best of his generation, but nobody, not one of them, all these great ones, had his steps. It was something that you never see on a screen again before or after. There's something unique. And I'm glad that I risked everything, my career, my money, my reputation, my everything, and I had Bruno and I do not regret it at all. You describe it, how you would notice it, how you spot it, is kind of mysterious. You cannot teach it. You cannot teach it to anyone. But it's essential and I've always tried to look at casting in that way. I've had some very, very fine moments in doing the right casting and you're not really...

Capture the spectacular

When the legendary director Werner Herzog was 19, he stole a camera and made his first movie. 70 films and 50 awards later, Werner is teaching documentary and feature filmmaking. In this film class, you’ll learn storytelling, cinematography, location scouting, self-financing, documentary interview techniques, and how to bring your ideas to life. By the end, you’ll make uncompromising movies.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

I could sit and listen to Werner Herzog speak for days on any topic, but to take a class about film from him is priceless.

He's unconventional and purposeful. I learned and was entertained throughout. He makes the world a better place.

I wanted to do film school but it was so poorly designed I quit so hearing the master say what a waste it is really gives me a sense of vindication.

The class has felt like a reminder more than anything else, to stay open and curious and not try too hard to fit in or follow rigid paths, but to listen, believe and dare to dream.


Suzanne A.

I like the emphasis on consistency and expectations set early on in the process. Very Teutonic and authoritarian, but with a chaotic environment, a welcome calm. Transferable to any industry.

Pravesh A.

Jack Reacher is such a great movie. One of the best action movies in recent times.

Nik S.

The Gulag in Jack Reacher, to me, one of the best bad guys ever in a movie. Very authentic and believable, the story behind him and the calmness and downplay makes it frightening.

Clement D.

How is "Aguirre", the title of Herzog's masterpiece, considered "inaudible" (that means not understandable) in the subtitles ? Does the translator know nothing about the main subject of this video ?

Eric G.

As a longtime Meisner technique actor, I can say Werner's professional insights regarding actors are is indeed the "chemistry" which must be there to make the scenes work...all of them, regardless of whether the actors are looking at each other or not. Good directors know this, and they use it to "cast their vision for the film" as Werner has done. I just did a film with another director who also understood this component and we worked together to achieve the vision he had for the role and the scenes. He even added an improvised scene for me which wasn't in the script. In the end, he thanked me for my insights and my work. Another good lesson from Werner. Looking forward to the next.

Greg S.

This man's mastery of the English language and vocabulary is really impressive. Certainly better than many native English speakers.

Curtis M.

At least he is actually instructing, unlike most of the MasterClass videos.

Michael K.

It´s also very interesting to watch Werner Herzog as an actor(!!!) in some films of other famous European directors in his earlier years!!! (not only the Hollywood- and Kinski-stuff we just saw) - (often just minor roles) For example: "Es ist nicht leicht ein Gott zu sein" by Peter Fleischmann (Germany, 1989) "Geschichten vom Kübelkind" and "Die andere Heimat" by Edgar Reitz (Germany, 1971 & 2013) "Gekauftes Glück" by Urs Odermatt (Switzerland, 1989) "Der Mann, der die Blumen liebte" by Paul Cox (Netherlands, 1983) or "Brennendes Herz" by Peter Patzak (Austria, 1995) If you watch these films (for example "Gekauftes Glück") you can understand more and more the way of Herzog´s actors conduct in his own work as director. (to merge into a role up to complete madness)

Jennifer C.

Interesting lesson. I found the point that Herzog raised about filmmakers having a general understanding of the world and the nature of human beings when making decisions on casting actors for their films of utmost importance. Choosing the right actors that will be able to embody the feelings, thoughts and behaviors of a particular character in a film in the most authentic way, will allow the film to appear more realistic to the audience and may reflect the beauty and complexities of life that are experienced by people on a day-to-day basis. If people are able to connect with and relate to the experiences and feelings of characters in a film that are conveyed on screen, then the film may have a deeper and lasting impact on the viewers.


So much of what happens before the camera rolls is static or nearly static. The storyboard with just arrows for movement, for instance. The blocking and tapes on the floor. The precision of the placement of sound and lighting equipment. It surely flattens an actor's impulse to move in the quirky, impulsive way Kinsky does. (He actually leaves the frame at one point in the clip of Aguirre.) But giving the lead actor a "tell," a nervous tic, a scar--anything to suggest depth of interior life or a past--is a really useful tip to carry-away from this lesson.