Actor/Coach Laura Gardner on the Collaboration Between Actors and Directors

Advice for Directors

Laura Gardner’s commanding experience acting for stage, screen and television has allowed her to collaborate with a long list of directors. “I love a director,” she says, “who plays with me, goes along and suggests fun choices, who has a positive outlook and brings joy to the work… I appreciate a director who comes in with a plan but is flexible enough to be open to new possibilities. I appreciate a director who respects my journey and who leads the team.”

Laura Gardner

Laura Gardner

Gardner has spent 15 years teaching acting on the faculty of the Howard Fine Acting Studio in Hollywood. She also teaches a class for actors with disabilities for California’s Media Access Office. With this background, she certainly knows something about working with actors. We asked her about the most effective approach an emerging filmmaker can take to draw out a fine performance from the actors on a project. She says, “Actors need specificity, clarity, support. The more an actor feels trusted and in a collaboration, the better the performance.”

She adds, “I would love all directors to take an acting class. It would give them a real understanding of the journey.”

For filmmakers and directors Gardner also recommends reading three of her favorite books: Fine on Acting, by Howard Fine; A Challenge for the Actor, by Uta Hagen; and Stop Acting, by Harold Guskin.

According to Gardner there are clearly ineffective approaches a director can take. “A filmmaker should not belittle, criticize, shame or ignore an actor. The director should try not to bully, go for results, but play, explore, respect the actor’s process.” And she does not care for a director who brings his/her problems to the set.

The Key to a Fine Performance

Is there a key to compelling performances that would span film, television, and the stage? Gardner stresses, “The universal key is truthful, authentic, human behavior, fully present in the moment, listening, fully alive.” She says she does the same level of homework for all three media, “… placing myself into the imaginary circumstances as if for the first time taking into account what just happened, where I am, what I want, what is in my way, time, place and relationships to the people and place around me, making everything specific and full of life!”

An actor can remain true to a character, yet get out of the way of the story, “… by telling the truth, by following direction.”

Lead vs. Character

Is there a difference between working as a lead actor and as a character actor? “Depends on the project,” Gardner says. “I may need to ‘keep my light slightly dimmer’ if I am supporting the leads. The project is all about telling the story and it may not be my story. I need to serve the whole. But I still do the same preparation. I must be fully present and available.”

Casting the Right Actor

A filmmaker needs to regard the casting process as critical. Casting the wrong actor will affect the collaborative process for all of the team. It will also delay production schedules and cost money. For auditions, Gardner recommends that the director give the actor a time to read the script and to do their own work on the role. “That gives the actor the preparation time to bring in the scene(s) with authenticity and spontaneity.” She goes on to say that, in an audition, a filmmaker can suggest different ways of doing a scene. This will determine “… how flexible the actor is and how willing they are to take an adjustment/direction even if that is not how the scene may ultimately be shot.”

When casting, “… the director needs to see the willingness of the actor to take chances and not be locked into pre-shaping and planning a dull or frozen performance.”

Laura Gardner

Laura Gardner

An experienced filmmaker can spot potential problems while casting. “If an actor defends a choice, is rigid, unprepared, no matter how exciting their choice may be, they will probably create problems down the line.” She emphasizes, “If the actor is late, loses control, makes excuses, blames anyone for their lack of preparation or lateness, don’t hire them!!”

The production process, for Gardner, is “… a collaborative effort and I like to think of the cast and director and production folks all being able to sit and have a meal together without prima donnas!”

Actors with Disabilities

Gardner has been an advocate for actors with disabilities for over 20 years. She says the Media Access Office, which has offices in northern and southern California, has been working hard to create more opportunities but it has been a tough road. Her advice to a filmmaker: “Don’t talk to the disability, talk to the actor. They can find their way.” She says she’s worked with actors of all types and doesn’t see any difference. “There may need to be some accommodations made for wheelchairs, sign language interpreters, and so on.”

The Generous Actor

We’ve all seen the talk show interviews where a younger actor describes a particular established actor as “generous”. Gardner characterizes a generous actor as someone who “… shares the stage, screen, themselves. They are open to whoever they are working with as opposed to fearful, ego filled, threatened. They feel a sense of community rather than feeling the need to be pampered, feared.”

Sustaining an Entertainment Career

Is longevity dependent on transitioning from character to lead actor? Or in staying with one or the other? “I don’t think there is a rule to any of this,” says Gardner. “I have always been a character actress although I have played lead roles. I do the same preparation, bring myself truthfully to the role and let go! I have had the good fortune to work in film, TV, and stage while teaching and coaching. For me this has been a gift.”

Her many hours in front of an audience give her a distinctive view: “The industry has no rhyme or reason and I always suggest that all artists find work and a life that fills them so they are fully living even between jobs. My life informs my work and my work informs my life.”

Her parting advice: “All artists must feed themselves on all levels.”

See Laura Gardner’s website for a full list of all her credits. She just got back from the newly established Howard Fine Acting Studio in Australia, teaching the six-week foundation class. She’ll reprise the class in August, 2012. 

She recently finished the feature film God’s Country. And Laura is a featured artist for the sixth year at The Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez, Alaska. She is a member of the Road Theater Company. She appeared on Broadway in Smile. Her national tour credits include Showboat, Doonesbury and My Fair Lady. On television she has had a recurring role on My Name Is Earl, and has had roles in Law and Order, Torchwood, The West Wing, and Gilmore Girls.