Monday, 29 November 2010

Tip #55: Prepare for the prima donna actor

By Dan Parkes (Director)

If you are a filmmaker chances are, at some point, you will come across a "prima donna" actor. Although a small minority of the acting community, due to their personality the probability of encountering them is in fact higher. For a low budget filmmaker it can be severely detrimental. All three of the Ambleton Delight production team shed literal tears during its production due to the behaviour of prima donnas in various forms (not any of the main cast I hasten to add!) and in the last three years I have personally had to handle three such actors.

Originally an operatic term, prima donna literally means "first lady" in Italian and designates the leading female singer. In modern times it has also become widely used to describe a vain or "temperamental person; a person who takes adulation and privileged treatment as a right and reacts with petulance to criticism or inconvenience." (Random House Dictionary, 2010)


Several actors have openly said they perform because they 'crave attention' which in itself is not an issue (a camera shy camera actor is a different problem!), unless it leads to egotistical behaviour. In the case of the three prima donna actors I had to deal with they were, somewhat surprisingly, all male; two were in their seventies and the other middle-aged. The causes for their behaviour, although quite different, have one common thread: money and unjustified allegations of ill-treatment. Two were aging actors who to be honest had not "made it" but relied on unknown bit-parts in TV shows or films to boost their egos; the middle-aged actor on a similar path (an unknown actor yet complaining for receiving 'only' £250 an hour).
So how to handle such an actor? You might think the answer is not to cast them in the first place. However, while warnings and references may help, any actor has the potential for this behaviour (the two aging actors mentioned previously were incredibly 'nice' to us and then seemingly 'snapped' over perceived ill-treatment). And unlike the workplace environment where a prima donna can be reassigned, you will most likely not have that option, especially if footage has already been shot. This 'cannot be done without' factor can also be one of the principle causes for their behaviour; they think they can get away with it.

So here are 10 factors to think about:
  1. Treat all actors as special, have faith in them, make them feel wanted and secure, allow them creative space and value their hard work and input.
  2. Pay your cast as well as you possibly can.
  3. Make sure you are not the prima donna! If you are a dictatorial director who lacks respect for cast and crew then you will only make matters worse.
  4. Prepare for it. It does happen and it could potentially ruin your film. Have contingency plans. It is always dangerous to be relying on one actor alone.
  5. Make sure actor's contracts and agent negotiations are comprehensive and signed, so there is no potential for confusion that can lead to unnecessary issues.
  6. Have a balanced approach. Make sure you are not being walked over or conversely making unreasonably demands. If required, be assertive and stick up for yourself and the team.
  7. Try to understand their point-of-view or motives. They may well have a good reason for complaint that should be addressed.
  8. Make room for it -the moment may pass. It could be just a phase and everything may be fine the next day. The actor could possibly be suffering from mental health issues.
  9. Find compromises. If you can calm them down by finding some middle ground then do it rather than needlessly fanning the flames if you also feel wronged.
  10. If the behaviour has got to the point of being detrimental to the project, make a final decision that is best for the film. That could simply mean recasting.

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