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Non-Professional Actors?

July 1, 2011

I’m in the process of casting for “Street Language“, a short film project I’ve written. It’s a no/low budget project meant to serve as a mentoring experience for emerging filmmakers here in Denver. The final film will be made available to non-profits who work in urban areas with at-risk youth, the homeless, and other disenfranchised communities.

As we’ve been auditioning actors for the two lead roles I have been wrestling with my priorities. At the level we’re seeing (and paying), of course, their experience is limited. Some have had mostly school theater experience, perhaps a few student films or community theater. They are budding, but not fully blossomed yet. So I, as a Director, must look deep to see their potential.

In working with non-professional or less-experienced actors a wise friend, Christopher Bessette, told me he looks for moments of truth. We have the advantage stage directors don’t have; we can edit. An actor may not be able to carry a continuous scene with complete truthfulness and realism. However, we can see the truthfulness of a performance in a certain look, a single line delivered without self-consciousness or ‘acting’.

When I was editing our last feature, The Enemy God, I spent much of my time matching performances over several takes between actors who had never acted before – they were indigenous Kekchi Maya people from the jungle. In the end I heard comments in screenings of the film about how great the acting was. If you looked at raw takes, you would be discouraged. Indeed, some of our crew members commented that we weren’t getting anything worth using. One of those same crew members, our DP, was floored when he saw the finished film. “That wasn’t what I saw!” He was convinced because, in the editing process, we found the moments of truth in a rough performance by novice actors. I don’t recommend merely saying “We’ll fix it in post.” but sometimes there is truth to that phrase.

When I’m casting, I am looking for that spark of un-self conscious truth in their voice, their eyes, their body-language. If I see that, I can have more confidence that I can draw out a performance that will bring out a truthful story from an actor who is giving us their passion and commitment but may not have the acting experience.

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