Rehearsing A Cast Of First Time Actors For My Debut Feature Film
by Melody Rock
"Jerry" is the first feature length film that I co-wrote, co-produced and co-directed. We operated with a low budget and shot primarily on weekends between February and November 2012. The lengthy schedule allowed us to keep the budget small but also required that we cast individuals who could be available to us over the duration of production.
The "Jerry" cast was a group of first time feature actors all with varying degrees of experience ranging from no experience in front of a camera to some experience acting in short films. We decided early on that we wanted to challenge ourselves to train our cast from the ground up so that they would be able to deliver natural, honest and connected performances in the movie. We cast 7 people with diverse, interesting personalities, and more than anything, we wanted to get them to the point of being comfortable to be themselves on camera. We were excited by the opportunity to take each cast member in this raw untrained form, and help guide them to a place of comfort and vulnerability.
Our rehearsals would start with scene work and end with improvisational exercises. We started rehearsing about 5 months before production and continued rehearsing through production. Time and repetition were key in the development of our cast.
Scenes from the "Jerry" screenplay and scenes from other movies (Bad Santa, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Pride & Prejudice, Breakfast Club) were used for rehearsals. We would sit the 2 actors down directly across from each other and they would work on sight-reading (picking a line up off the page, saying it to your partner, listening to your partner's line, and only then going back to the page for your own line) with 2-3 pages of dialogue. We emphasized the importance of not forming any ideas about the scene; rather that they would focus their attention on what their scene partner was feeling and allowing that to affect them. The goal was to disregard ideas and put all of their focus on being connected to their scene partner. Through the repetition of this process, general discomfort and nervousness would slowly fade away and confidence and exploration would take over. Their personalities would come out more and more, and rehearsals became about taking risks. The crucial element here was the time to develop muscle memory. It was a new skill for all of our cast, to be close up and emotionally available/honest with another performer, especially in front of a camera. The more that we practiced with our main cast, the more they developed the muscle for doing the scene work and slowly it became second nature for them. Their subconscious would take over allowing them to dip into the scene and get lost -- not distracted by daily survival mechanisms, judgments or critical thoughts -- but truly get sucked into the world of the story. It meant they were in the moment, totally present, not worried about what happened before or what might happen later -- only what was happening at that exact moment.
The latter half of our rehearsals were built around improvisational games and scenes. We encouraged improvisation as a way to explore different characters, voices, and physicality. Sometimes we would come up with 2 specific characters to have an interaction and other times we would do a mock talk show or a rap monologue. It helped create a fun, safe place to let loose and be ridiculous without being burdened by embarrassment. Improvisation was something we encouraged when filming and a lot of those moments ended up in the movie. With first time actors, we found that giving them leave to express themselves in their own voice sometimes led to a more believable and connected performance.
Ultimately we found that if we can create a space that feels safe and comfortable and give a person enough time to practice and overcome their nerves, their personality can really come out and shine making for a unique, honest and relatable performance.
I studied acting in Los Angeles with a wonderful teacher and mentor, Jeremiah Comey, who inspired a lot of how we worked with and trained our cast. I give lots of thanks to Jeremiah and greatly admire his passion for teaching the craft of acting. To learn more about Jeremiah and his class visit: JeremiahComey.com
Please check out my film company's website, DreamStreet Limited, for more on how we pulled off our bare bones feature film "Jerry". Sign up for our newsletter for exclusive access to new content and an insider's look into our creative process!
- Melody Rock