How do I deal with an actor who believes they are giving a bad performance? When negative, self-critical thoughts assault the mind, we all know nothing good can emerge. I cannot tell you how many times I have watched brilliant actors ace 98% of a scene and then struggle through the same line each time, which can be a real problem if it gets them down and prevents them from being able to focus on their performance.
How does anybody deal with the act of underperforming? Many, many people suffer from a frozen rigidity when called upon to perform, either from overthinking the situation, or because they are afraid to try for fear of failure, that dreaded beast. In either case, anxiety flows like a deep river of blood through the veins. It courses, ever present, in the depths of the heart and soul. It presses upon our fragile egos with the weight of Heaven and Hell, narrowing our minds and scattering our focus.
If such a moment afflicts me, must I then surmise that I'm unqualified to do whatever it is I'm frozen from being able to do? If it affects my actors, must I surmise that I miscast the role?
Any kind of creativity requires extensive patience and faith in our own abilities. We are all magical creatures with a divine life force inside of us, the power of which exceeds the outer limits of our numerical comprehension. I have seen time and again how a young, tepid soul can burst out from underneath his/her own negativity simply by gaining a little confidence, and in so doing shine the brightest light upon the world with the profound energy of a caged eagle spreading its wings for the first time. Such a moment of breaking free is always possible for any actor. The question is whether or not a camera will be rolling when they finally have their moment.
Which brings me to how a director can silence a critical mind. It starts with trust, both of myself and of my talent.
Actors are not props, nor cattle. They are adventurers, explorers, expert and brave and intellectually nimble in their self-awareness. They are great spelunkers of the mind and body, catching the currents of swirling emotions and myriad possible moments to seize and follow. Actors are at their finest when they are caught up in the excitement of this current, trusting themselves to follow their instinct and enter the darkness that is the unknown future, enter the arena of the scene at hand which holds an unspecified path to success, enter a dreamland where fear is held at bay and the conception of success flows from every possible choice. It is on this plane I need to guide and direct the actor, so that the performance becomes the realm of discovery, rather than construction.
If an actor is flubbing a line, I must trust that some part of them is resisting it for a reason. I can insist, I can be stern, and I can try explaining it to them. All are necessary tools for a director. But if I exhaust myself trying to get them to read the line the right way, I must look inward. Am I meeting the actor in that strange field of dreams wherein we can discover the performance together? Could I perhaps rewrite the line, the blocking, or the pacing of the scene? In the past I have told them to whisper, to pause between each line and say the line again nonverbally, or to improv a new line. It is sometimes helpful to introduce a new prop, or even a moment of interactivity with an existing prop. Anything that adds texture, dynamism, and possibility gives me a chance to direct the actor into a different emotional state and focus. Almost always, it not only resolves the issue, but improves the scene as well.
Of course, I also bring hard-headed discernment that allows me to gauge realistically how their performance is coming across. I am the kind of director that knows exactly what I want, but I build good performances only because my actors trust me. I build that trust by trusting them first. I see potential in every decision they make. Through trust, we find the path the other is following, and that path involves a mutual respect for the discerning eye of self-critical judgment. It is not the reasoning that is important - it is the way we react that is important. There is always a solution that works around the negativity, but only if I believe fully in my actor and in myself.