Director’s director Mark W. Travis is determined to facilitate authentic, moving characters at the center of honest, truthful stories. And he firmly believes one of the most effective ways to achieve this is for directors to direct characters rather than actors

Travis has earned over 30 directing awards and is the author of several books including The Film Director’s Bag of Tricks: How to Get What You Want from Actors and Writers. He also offers actor workshops and seminars focusing on his very own Travis Technique. Thinking less in terms of actors giving great performances and more in terms of characters having authentic moments, he helps talent learn how to get out of their own way and create instantaneous, authentic performances every time—even under pressure. 

In this Film Courage interview, Travis defines an authentic performance as, “the character that you’re watching, portrayed by the actor, is actually authentically thinking, feeling, intending, moving as the character intends. Authenticity of the character means this is exactly what’s going on in the character—not something that’s manufactured by the actor, planned by the actor.” 

When actors approach their performance with a plan, Travis insists that kind of forethought is detrimental to the performance. Authenticity is not likely to occur when an actor has worked out every kink well before the character has even entered the scene. Similarly, Travis argues when directors give an actor feedback such as, “I need more anger,” or “I need more humility,” it undermines the character’s authentic moment because, ultimately, the director is basically giving the actor a plan. On the other hand, he says, “If the director could think about igniting the character and what the character is trying to do in the situation, then the director will get a more authentic performance.” 

Travis gives the example of a director who wants to see an actor tap more into their own rage; instead of telling the actor to act with more rage, he says to “go back to the character and build within the character the reason for the rage—build the rage, and then send her into the scene.” With this technique, the director isn’t telling the actor what to do; nor is the director asking the actor what he or she thinks about the character. Indeed, Travis is convinced the character already exists inside of the actor—it doesn’t need to be created. So when a director goes straight to the source and interrogates the character, the character, in turn, is being acknowledged as a real person. And by igniting the character in this manner, the director’s questions take on the form of the character’s internal voice—a voice that continues to stimulate the character’s mind and shape his or her intentions, actions, and words. 

Sometimes an actor’s nerves get the better of them. When this happens, Travis says it’s best to ignore it. “If you try to talk about it, you will make it worse. You will pull out the fear in front and push the character inside of him. If the actor feels like the character, he will feel more comfortable.” The goal is to prevent the actor’s fear from interfering with the character. Ironically, Travis says sometimes an actor’s intent to become the character actually gets in the way of becoming the character.

To help actors really explore the possibilities of their characters, Travis encourages them to be outrageous and experimental. He believes performing the material in several very different ways is comforting to actors because this playful approach takes the pressure off of them. After all, the director isn’t expecting a perfect performance when the actor’s priority is to play around with the material. But it’s a great way to generate fresh, authentic moments for the director to consider using in the editing room.