Director’s Notepad: Actor Archetypes

Director’s Notepad:

Actor Archetypes

By Kimberly McCullough

Hello there and welcome to my Notepad about actor archetypes. This is meant to be a guide for anyone pursuing a career in directing episodic television or for anyone wanting to join the conversation about how actors and directors communicate with one another. With little to no rehearsal time on set, we are having to hone our skills as directors to inspire the best work possible.
 
So far I’ve directed 26 episodes of TV ranging from multi-cam sitcoms, single camera half-hour comedies, and one hour dramas. As an episodic director, I’ve mostly been the new kid in town. I’ve had to learn to asses personality types very quickly, and figure out how actors from a range of experiences and training like to receive my direction.
In order to simplify my process on set, I’ve broken down different types of actors into 4 categories.
 
Some actors can be in the range of 2 of these categories, or none at all. I also hope to discover more archetypes the more I work on different types of content. I hope that this is helpful to you, and that it sparks a conversation!
 
Share on twitter
Twitter

The Magician

The magician is someone who lives their role, who so seamlessly and completely slips into their shoes, it feels like magic. Like a “medium” who can channel the spirit world, the magician channels the needs, back story and country of origin of their character. 

The Tell

The Magician may walk onto the set already in character, speaking in their characters dialect instead their own. They may even relate to the other actors as if they are in character. Sometimes, even for rehearsal they may have a particular pair of shoes, or purse or glasses which are unique to their character. They walk on set focused on the task at hand and aren’t really interested in small talk. 

Blocking Rehearsal

Imagine the magician standing in the middle of a crystal ball with magic dust swirling around them. The ball being the set and the magic dust their personal space that they don’t particularly like to be invaded. This is because they’ve done a lot of prep work and are already under the spell of the scene, so to speak. They are “in it”, so approaching with a lighter touch at first will serve you well. 
 
Getting through to a magician can seem tricky but rest assured, they need to know that you’re there. They are taking you on a journey with them and they can quickly tell if you are an active participant or if you’re sitting on the sidelines. Let them know you are present and you are watching. Simply do this by, well… watching. And watch with intent. If there’s a particular place you want them to end up, move their prop to that part of the set. Don’t tell them, “this is where you’ll grab your keys”, they will see the keys you’ve planted for them and if they want to grab them, they will. If not, leave it alone. It’s not part of their plan. Maybe they don’t want to leave at the end of the scene. Either way let them try it out. They may come back to what you originally wanted. 

Shooting

This kind of actor has some questions that seem rhetorical. It’s usually because they are. In some cases, they want an answer from you but most of the time it’s something they are trying to work out in their mind or with another actor in the scene. If you do answer, speak to them directly through their character. “Don’t let them see you cry”, “its important to you that you convince them”, “in that moment, decide if she’s worth it or not.”  Do not speak in technical terms or logistics. For example don’t say something like, “In the next take, can you turn back to him at the end?” You could say something like, “Don’t let him have the last word.”

Moving On

Magicians are such hard workers, so they will stay in it as long as you want. It’s up to you to know when the scene is complete, so trust your instincts. Working with the magician under the best of circumstances can feel like a telepathic experience, or like an across the room, intense flirtation at a party. Magicians do deep work and it’s a pleasure to collaborate with them. 

Warning!

Try not to take anything personal when working with a magician. Sometimes, you’ll have no idea if you’re connecting with them at all, and then out of the blue they will say, you’re “the most graceful director they’ve ever worked with.” Yeah, that happened. Another magician didn’t say much outside of rehearsal for days and then he walked by and fist bumped me. So, ya never know. 
 

The Motorcyclist

Imagine a motorcyclist, suited up, laser focused, pumped with adrenaline and ready to compete. This type of actor is a highly skilled athlete. They want to go-go-go but don’t take advantage of their enthusiasm because they can crash and burn. 

The Tell

The Motorcyclist comes onto the set kind of “revved up.” You better be ready to rock as soon as your AD announces, “Rehearsals up!” Their energy can feel quite intense and they may engage with you immediately saying, “whatcha got for me?” 

Blocking Rehearsal

The motorcyclist relies on their instincts, rounding the corners tighter and tighter each time around the track. Give them a general structure of a blocking plan (the track) and let them loose, paying close attention to what they do next. Discovery is exciting to them, so give them enough room to play. For example you could say, “by this section of the scene, I’d love for you to end up here and then see if you can find a natural place to get in his face.”

Shooting

This type of actor’s superpower lies in finding those juicy details that make a scene memorable and relatable. Be observant and build on what they’re already doing. For example, “it seemed like she really pissed you off in that moment. You don’t have to stand there and take it.” In between takes, talk to them about the nuances of the scene but try not to give too many notes at once. They can get lost and get off track. Your job is to keep pushing them in the direction they are already going, becoming more specific in their choices each time.

Moving On

Often times your first AD is rushing you off to block to the next scene but I recommend taking 30 seconds to connect with that actor, and share with them some of your favorite things that happened in the scene. The Motorcyclist aims to please and wants to know when they’re in the lead. It builds confidence in themselves and it will make them work even harder for you next time you do a scene together. 

Warning!

Look for moments in a take instead of trying to get one perfect take. They’ll give you fun little surprises each take which can feel forced if you ask them to duplicate them. It will seem like the motorcyclist can keep on “riding”, giving you take after take of a brilliant performance. But don’t burn them out, they’ve only got so much fuel in the tank, so to speak.
 

The Mathematician

The Mathematician calculates each choice, checks their motivation and validates their actions. Information is their life-blood. And they know how to use it wisely. 

The Tell

It’s easy to spot the mathematician. They’re the ones who walk on set with a hello and a question about the scene. Something doesn’t make sense to them, this thing doesn’t track, another thing is redundant…they are very direct in their communication. The mathematician is the keeper of their character and sometimes the scene, depending on how detailed their research is.
 

Blocking Rehearsal

If you don’t have authority over the script, which you don’t typically have as an episodic director, you’ll want to have a writer on set when questions come up. Because they are so thorough in their reading, they are usually right and there’s need to be a quick on set script change before blocking can begin. You don’t have to answer the question yourself if it relates to the script. All the mathematician wants to know is that you care about the scene at least as much as they do. And that you are prepared.
 
If the actor is coming up against some obstacles, help them. They want your help. In fact, their frustration is your chance to jump in the save the day! Do so with logic and humility. Remember, they know their character better than anybody, even the writers sometimes.  
 
Once you start blocking rehearsal, they are constantly in process, translating the practical into the emotional. They may ask what type of shot you’re doing so they won’t be distracted by it once it comes time to shoot. Even though this type of actor can seem kind of “heady” in rehearsal, they are the best at connecting with others during the scene. It’s as if having a clear idea of all the technical aspects helps them to settle into each moment and focus on their scene partner. 

Shooting

Mathematicians are the masters at “matching.” Meaning, they’ll take a sip of their drink at the exact same moment in every take, unless you ask them not take a sip at a different moment. They are also really great about allowing the camera to see what they want it to see. If you are doing a wide shot for example, they may use their body language more. In a close up, they’re going to use their eyes more to convey emotion. 
Sometimes you may have to help the technician by nudging them out of their comfort zone and allowing them to surprise themselves. You can do this by noting the other actor in the scene privately, or by simply saying “do another one, just for you.” They may not like this but the result is worth it. It allows them to make a choice in the scene that they might not have intended. 

Moving On

Mathematicians like to work quickly and efficiently so don’t do too much coverage and get theirs first if you can. They are usually at their best straight out the gate. Even if it doesn’t make sense to their coverage first, rest assured you will still get a great performance out of them. The Mathematician is the ultimate team player and wants you to be satisfied with their work. No need to comment on the scene after it’s done. This actor is already looking at their sides, preparing for the next scene before the AD can say “Moving On!”

Warning!

If you are the type of director that prefers to go on your instincts only without much preparation, watch out! The Mathematician will expose you. In general, being prepared is vital to successful directing, and in this case, your preparation is your life line.

The Mayor

With a unique perspective of the set, The Mayor is both loved and feared . You are a visitor in their town and they are protective of their people (as the should be.) The Mayor is typically #1 on the call sheet, though not always. It could be the youngest or oldest, the person who’s been with the show the longest, or simply someone who chooses to take ownership over their environment. Whatever the reason may be, the mayor holds a ton of power and can decide whether your time there is enjoyable or miserable. 

The Tell

You can typically recognize the mayor by the person wanting to show you around or the person that nobody wants to piss off. Sometimes the mayor will give you really good information as a show of goodwill. Although their charm may make it seem like friendly suggestions, they are actually laying out the law of the land. Listen carefully, they only want to tell you once. You may even see the mayor in video village watching a scene instead of hanging out in their trailer. They want the episode to be successful just as much as you do. 

Blocking Rehearsal

Physical spacing is key when dealing with The Mayor. Typically, I like to be in a set with the actors, placing props, moving furniture, etc, but I stay off the set at first if The Mayor is in the scene. Everyone wants the mayor’s attention so let them walk onto the set first, small talk with everyone before starting the rehearsal process. They will give you the signal of when they’re ready to begin. 
 
The Mayor doesn’t like to be singled out initially. They see themselves as your equal so enlist their help if you see an opening. Motivate the actors as a group in the blocking process, treating the mayor like your ally. When giving blocking notes, stand next to the mayor instead of across or in front of. Let’s face it, you’re partners in crime here. Treat them as such and give them the respect they deserve. 
 
The mayor likes to play and feel things out so don’t panic if they completely change your blocking. Sometimes its a test to see how well you can think on your feet. Sometimes its what works better for the scene. Keep in mind there is always a delicate power balance at play here. Pick your battles wisely. Let them command the space in a way that makes them feel comfortable but don’t let them walk all over you. How, you may ask? With this type of actor, you must be a little bit of a mind reader. 

Shooting

The shooting process is actually the most fruitful with the mayor. If you’ve established a strong partnership in rehearsal, you can now flex a bit and nudge them to get what you want. Mayors can handle a lot of notes, they will take everything you say with a grain of salt anyway. Throw it at them and see what sticks. Even though it seems like The Mayor wants to be in charge, they love to be challenged. They’ve probably been doing this a long time and want to continue to grow as an actor as much as anybody. If they can learn something from you or if you can make a mayor laugh, you’ll be invited to their town time and time again. 
 
The mayor appreciates adoration. When you love a take, say it loud! Say what you love about it. When the mayor feels good, everyone on set takes a deep breath.

Moving On

The mayor will normally verbalize when they’re ready to move on. Unless you really need another take for a specific reason, don’t fight them on this. They also see their job as protecting their crew from burning out throughout the day. Thank the mayor verbally for everyone to hear and move on to the next scene.

Warning!

If the mayor isn’t happy, everyone knows it and feels it. If you find yourself in a rut, never blame it on the mayor. That won’t go over well for you. Find a way to take responsibility and continue on with grace. 

More to come.Thank you.