In the latest chapter I've worked on, from the Film Connection text book, I was asked to describe my "philosophy of working with actors." Well, lately I've been reading the amazing book by Judith Weston, "Directing Actors," and I believe she has the best ideas on how to work with actors. So, here is my answer to the question of what my philosphy is, which uses many of the same ideas that are presented in the book...
I believe my process will change as I continue to study the form. However, as it stands now, I believe the the job of the director, as it relates to actors, is to cultivate an environment that allows actors to express their characters in an honest and engaging way. The director of a film assumes the position of an audience and must make his decisions based on what he believes the audience will buy in to.
The responsibility of assuming what the audience will like or won't like, or what the audience will believe or won't believe, is solely the director's. One of the worst mistakes a director can do is place that responsibility on an actor, which he does when he gives a line of direction that is result oriented. A director cannot allow an actor to question or observe her own performance, as then the actor will no longer be in character, will not be able to give her best performance because she will be trying to do two jobs at once. It is my opinion that multitasking is impossible. Rather, the act of multitasking, when done by people, is an act of task shifting. Thus, the actor isn't multitasking, but task-shifting. He is constantly breaking character to do the director's job of assuming what the audience will believe, only to attempt to go back into character, half-way through a line. A director cannot allow this.
To avoid the catastrophe of an actor attempting to do her job and the director's job, a director must avoid result based direction in any form. He must give motivations, action verbs, facts, tasks, and, most of all, questions.
Motivations, tasks and action verbs are what drive the action of the scene. Instead of telling the actors to be more angry, sexy, or inspiring, give them something they can work with. Tell them to lash out, argue, seduce, fool, inspire, support. Instead of asking for more energy or less energy, give them a physical task. Tell them to cook breakfast, tidy up, open a beer. Her energy will be put into the task and she'll be able to relax into the world of the character. Finally, give the actor a motivation that follows the theme and structure of the story. Illustrate what the scene is about at a gut level, not an intellectual one. Don't make the scene about the meaning of life, but rather the love of someone and the desperate need to salvage a ruined relationship. The motivations in such a scene could be to win her back, to avoid a fight, or to demand an apology, and to end the relationship.
Finally, questions. Questions give actors freedom to own a character. A director must be able to accept ingenuity from someone other than himself. Many times, an actor may have an idea or a question. A director who doesn't understand her script will avoid these questions and shoot down ideas. A director who understands her script very well, will embrace the opportunity to explore different dimensions of a character she might have not thought of, and will be able to give answers that reflect the themes of the story. Sometimes, a director will have to ask questions himself, and have an actor take on a new perspective of the character to give an honest performance.
Actors are there to give the best performance of their careers and make the film outstanding. They want to do this. They live for these opportunities. A director's job is to help them do just that, by challenging them and giving them the freedom and security to express the deepest parts of the human soul.