Things You Never Want To Hear From Your Director

Lindsay Price and Andrew McCarthy in Lipstick Jungle

Nov. 16, 2007—I’ve always said that on a shoot, there is the first day, and then there is every other day, and it’s best to just get the first one out of the way. But maybe because I already played the part of Joe Bennett—the billionaire who has the world by the tail—when we shot the pilot eight months ago, there are none of the usual first-day nerves this time. Like many actors I know, my mundane, doomsday anxieties about work (will this be the time I can’t pull it off? Will I be fired?) can manifest as anxieties about physical appearance, which means the first morning in any hair and makeup trailer can get complicated. But today I glide through the rituals with surprising ease.

The vanities of film and television acting—and more specifically, my inability to let them go, to get past them—I continue to find very disquieting. But there is not an actor I know, male or female, who is not at the mirror’s mercy. As men, we have it relatively easy: Just don’t get too fat, and if you can keep your hair, even better. Women are subject to much more scrutiny. It’s no wonder so few ladies in Hollywood are able to move their foreheads.

The scene to be shot is a fairly straightforward one in which I drop off lunch at my girlfriend Victory’s apartment. Victory, as embodied by Lindsay Price, is a fashion designer and one of the three powerful women around whom the show centers. Wendy, a movie studio head, and Nico, a magazine editor, played by Brooke Shields and Kim Raver, respectively, round out the trio. When we shot the pilot, Lindsay and I discovered that we had an easy, workable chemistry, which is something you have no idea of until you’re on the spot. Acting with a new partner is a lot like a blind date. You either click or you don’t. When you do, it can carry you a long way, and when you don’t, no matter how hard you work, the struggle always shows. Talent is great, but chemistry just works.

After a few technical rehearsals, the director, Tim Busfield, calls, “Action” from the far side of the sound stage. The days of the director sitting under the camera and watching an actor’s performance with the naked eye are long over. Usually he can be found at the distant end of a thin, winding cable that leads to a remote corner, where he watches the performance on a small, often grainy, monitor while wearing headphones to hear the dialogue. I have become so accustomed to this setup (which I initially found unnerving in its remoteness) that on the rare occasion when a director does sit and watch my work up close and in person, I feel scrutinized and self-conscious. “Go back behind your box and leave me alone!” I want to shout.

The thing that most directors fail to realize is that during the time between “action” and “cut,” the actor is in a vulnerable state (hopefully), and the first words spoken after the take is over fall on very sensitive ears. I have seen offhanded feedback—”Cut. Again. Right away!”—affect an actor like a cold slap of water, whereas a few words of simple encouragement—”Cut. Okay, good. Let’s do just one more.”—will wash over and ease him into a more relaxed state, helping him to feel like he is a part of a whole, instead of an isolated fool in front of the camera with everyone waiting for him to get it right so they can go to lunch. It’s just simple psychology, but you’d be surprised how few directors put themselves in the actor’s shoes enough to realize it.

(Nearly as bad as negative feedback is false praise. Nothing makes me feel more unsafe in the hands of a director than when he goes up to an actor and overenthuses, “Great, great!” for what anyone can see is just plain bad acting. In a case like this, when he approaches with his next suggestion, you simply say, “OK, good idea”—and then ignore him and protect yourself. It’s not a very satisfying way to work, and it happens more often than you might think.)

Perhaps directors are just too busy. It was only after I had directed a film myself that I realized the director is rarely, if ever, entirely focused on what the actor is doing. He is worried about myriad other things: After all, he has a movie—or in this case, 42 minutes of television—to get in the can. And the motivating force behind many of his decisions is the need to expedite things so he can make his day. But a good director, like an overextended but attentive parent, will catch the important moments.

So naturally, when Tim calls out, “Cut. Great! Print. Moving on” after just the first take, I proclaim him one of the good ones, and after a few more shots from different angles, I’m back in the van on my way home after a few less-than-grueling hours.