Actor-director relationship: we can work it out

The quality of the relationship that is built between the director and actor can mean the difference between a pretty good performance, and a fearless performance that takes everyone’s breath away. Actor Gina Morley explores the ways to best build that relationship.

When I think of directors that I love working with, directors that have the ability to help me fly, the feeling that comes to mind is fearlessness. But sometimes directors don’t know what actors are thinking and feeling…To explore the actor-director relationship, I went in search of old notes I have jotted down about direction and what has worked for me. I will share my personal experiences, combined with comments from indie director Alkinos Tsilimidos (winner of the Montréal First Film Prize for Everynight … Everynight, AFI Award nominee for the short Tom White) and fellow actor Katherine Hicks (Rescue Special Ops, Logie nominee and IF Award nominee).
The first step toward building a productive actor-director relationship starts at the casting stage. For example, Tsilimidos believes in being directly involved in a process where the director connects with the actors and finds out who they are.
“It’s not about the audition. It’s about the human being. Look at who the actors are and the work they’ve done,” he said.
From my point of view this is invaluable, because when I get a director that wants to connect with me and hear my truth, I feel valued in terms of the work I do and, consequently, I’m able to do my best. Looking at the person can also let the director know whether the actor is hard-working. Half the battle is won if you not only get an actor who is great for the role but who will work damn hard to make sure they do the best job possible.
Actors are trained and work in many different ways, but there is one constant: the need to discover what is going on inside the character’s world. When a director talks to me about what is going on within my character’s inner life, I come alive and get excited about the world we are creating.
Katherine Hicks feels the same way: “[Director Jeremy Sims] comes onto the set and talks to you in what I can only describe as the given circumstances: ‘The bomb’s gone off, you don’t know if they’re alive or dead, you can’t see them through the smoke. You hear Vince’s voice come over the radio; you experience that, then you move in to find them’,” she said about a scene she recently shot on Nine’s drama series Rescue Special Ops.
This kind of detail is essential in building the world of the character and for feeling what it is like to live through what is happening in that world; it brings a scene to life. As Tsilimidos says, “If (the scene) is flat or
dead, then we talk about what’s happening within the scene, in the internal world between the two actors, what’s really taking place.”
It is also important for the director to give the actor space and responsibility for developing their character outside of the rehearsal and filming processes. Actors need to understand who it is they are going to play
– through research, through discovery. For example, when I’m creating a character, I find out as much information about the type of person they are as I can. I played a real estate agent on City Homicide recently

and in research for this role I went to auctions, found a local agent and interviewed them to get inside their mind so that I would know how to think like them. This meant that on set I knew exactly what I was doing and why I was doing it.
It’s often said that great directors inspire actors. They do this by building something intangible that makes the characters in the scene come to life.
I love it when directors explore the status of each character… their secret desires, and who the most important person in the scene is to them. Simple tools such as these can act as shorthand to finding the truth in a moment and unlocking freedom. In the end, a script is just a tool for improvisation. In Tsilimidos’ words, “The text is nonsense without the human beings.”

Hicks, for example, responds best “to directors who talk to me in a way that stimulates my inner life and that of the character.”’ And in my performances I strive to let the thoughts and energy of what is happening be organic and allow the words come out as they will instinctually.
The relationship can also be fostered by giving the actors a sense of ownership of the work.

“The more experience you get as a director, the less you will speak,” said Tsilimidos. “We do too much holding of hands when it comes to directing actors, but I want my actors to show me the way. I give them ownership of the character; they are trusting me and I am trusting them.”
When I work with directors this way it allows me to ‘feel heard’ which is what I need to give be able to perform at my best. And as actors, we want to collaborate and have our creativity appreciated.
Hicks agrees: “If a director talks to you without really hearing your idea or pretends to hear your idea then and tells you what to do anyway, that doesn’t work for me. If you feel you’re being judged, you’re not as brave in your choices” said Hicks.
When actors are in an open and creative space, they are vulnerable and want to be spoken to accordingly. It’s important that the director makes it clear that it’s always about the work, that there’s nothing personal going on.
“When I give direction, I’ll say ‘that particular thing, I’d love to see it happen this way, or I’d like to see what’s it’s like that way.’ I never cut through where an actor is going, but I want to experiment where it could go in a way that I feel could be more advantageous to the scene,” explained Tsilimidos.
Great directors make the actors feel comfortable; a space of honesty is liberating because it gives actors room to really fly and use their creativity.
According to Alkinos, he wants actors to have comfort in which to experience the ugly, the dark, the sad, the joyous, and the happy: “If I’m passionate and open about who I am, then I expect that of the actors. So it doesn’t take long to before a room becomes comfortable.

“When actors spend time with me, it’s about how far we, as a collaboration, can push the truth. … I expect the same thing of myself as I do of my actors, and that’s to give everything they can to the work,” he said.
If directors work with this as a starting point, they will foster a strong relationship with their actors and get the very the best performance possible.
Gina Morley can be contacted at


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