Director Karyn Kusama has worked with everyone from non-actors to Oscar winners. She discusses how she approaches casting and collaborating with actors to find the strongest character. This includes working with large ensemble casts for which she relied heavily on rehearsals to maximize performances and production time. 

Key Insights

  • Actors are your biggest lever in storytelling. As director, it’s essential to support actors in revealing their human frailty and vulnerability, and show it in all its forms.
  • Actors live in an emotional place that most other people can’t access - this is what makes them special and gives you the opportunity to work with them in investigating the nuance of the moments that they interact with the world.
  • In the audition process, it’s important to get to know your actors, to get a sense of who they are as people, and see if they can capture the essence of the character and hold the screen. 
  • When possible, enter a creative exploration with your actor to clarify and develop the character’s arc. As the director you can “impose” your knowledge of the character, but it’s important to find the truth of the arc and discover fresh insights during this process.
  • Ensemble casts are difficult to block and cover. It’s critical to be solid with your story and make decisions in advance about what you want to emphasize in each scene.  
  • In an ensemble, each actor needs to be completely present and committed to the moment, as they will likely be in your shot. Help your actors understand their character’s relationships, social dynamics and story arcs. Rehearsing in groups can be an effective use of time.
  • When shooting an ensemble, create a grid to strategize your coverage. Use rehearsal to adjust your shots.
  • Rehearse in the shooting location, when possible, so you can be more efficient when you’re in production.
  • As the director you need to be aware of what’s next, but need to be focused in the moment by being present with your actors. Preparation will allow you to be engaged with the issue at hand, while tackling anything unexpected that comes along.

Karyn Kusama is currently an executive producer of Showtime’s coming-of-age survival drama, YELLOWJACKETS. The show has garnered seven Emmy nominations, including one for Karyn’s direction of the pilot episode. Prior to that, she helmed the Golden Globe-nominated film DESTROYER starring Nicole Kidman and written by her frequent collaborators, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi. Her feature credits include indie thriller THE INVITATION, cult horror comedy JENNIFER'S BODY, sci-fi love story AEON FLUX, and her Cannes and Sundance-award winning debut, GIRLFIGHT. more...

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