I can understand why. The director’s guild and directors themselves have done a very good job of promoting the complete auteur persona. And it is hard to know your boundaries when working on productions where you go in for wardrobe fittings and your wardrobe has already been chosen for you. Your hair and makeup may be dictated as well. You get the feeling your only job is to stand on your mark and say your lines in an interesting way.
Years ago, in my previous life as an actor, I acted in TV and film productions where I would go to fittings and there would be two choices as the costumer had already made decisions for my character. I was too young and unsure about what my job was as an actor to say very much. Now, I teach actors that you can contribute any ideas you have with the right attitude and energy.
You as the actor should have specific ideas for what will serve you best as the character. I think it’s best to go in with an open mind and see what the creatives in the wardrobe, makeup and hair departments have in mind for you. They are experts in their fields and on larger budget movies, they are being led by a production designer who has the overall look of the movie in mind. If you feel that their vision entirely serves you, great, you are all set and the details of your character are going to come to life through the brilliant help of the design team. But if you have a vision for the external being-ness of your character, talking with these creative members of the crew can really inspire them.
I was coaching an actor who had a relatively small co-star role in a movie, but her character, an on-camera TV news reporter, could have a great character arc throughout the script if she chose to follow it. She was playing a small town reporter who stumbled onto a story that went nationwide. The actor thought her only purpose was to report the event in a competent way. But as I asked her some questions about her character’s desires, a real person began to come to life in this small role. This character could, for example, have big ambitions, and as the story she was covering went nationwide, then worldwide, her on-camera presence could change as she got more professional and dreams of a bigger career seemed possible. Her makeup and wardrobe would change as she was gaining more exposure and her attitude would be more confident. It’s not that she was going to take over the movie and be one of the stars, but these subtle choices would make her character much more interesting and alive, yet the actor felt scared to talk to the director about it. She was afraid of making her role too important.
Good directors want actors to come in with ideas and passion that brings their character to life. By the time you get on the set, we expect you to know your character better than we do. We hired you to take the character over and become him or her. Watch great classic movies like Close Encounters, Dog Day Afternoon, even the tiniest parts were cast with actors who brought a whole life with them. These great actors in small parts weren’t intimidated by the director and the production; they were lifting the production to an even higher level by taking the risk and really BRINGING IT.
When you really go for it and don’t let your fear stop you from doing your job to the fullest, more times than not, you will be fully supported. And those times when you are dictated to, it’s likely that the depth of your inner work will be felt regardless.