Leave It to the Non-Professionals

10 09 2009


Katie Jarvis in 'Fish Tank'

Katie Jarvis in 'Fish Tank'

There’s a story that when Luchino Visconti was filming La Terra Trema, his 1948 neo-realist study of the lives of Sicilian fishermen, he tied fishing wire to the toes of his actors. This wasn’t, as you might imagine, anything to do with keeping them inside a boat or preventing them from wandering off. No, the wires were there so that the director and his crew could pull on them to give a prompt whenever it was time for an actor to speak.

You see, the actors in La Terra Trema were all non-professionals, real-life fishermen who Visconti had selected for their hard-worn looks and thick Sicilian dialect. The fishermen certainly looked the part, but often had difficulty remembering lines or knowing when it was their turn to speak. Visconti was finding out the hard way that working with non-professionals is not always as straightforward as it might seem.  

Since then, hiring non-professional actors has become the trademark of directors searching for a certain kind of authenticity in their work, almost to the point of cliché. Everyone from Gus Van Sant to Shane Meadows is at it, the former casting his 2007 film Paranoid Park through an advert on My Space.  

The latest member of the club is British director Andrea Arnold. Her new film Fish Tank features Katie Jarvis in the role of Mia, a 15-year-old girl whose life is turned upside down when her mother’s new boyfriend moves into the family home. Initially Arnold had difficulty finding an actress for the role. After auditioning dozens of unsuccessful professionals, her casting director came across Jarvis in a railway station, shouting at her boyfriend. The director, sensing what she has called a certain “dynamism” in Jarvis, persuaded the 16-year-old, who had no previous acting experience, to try out for the part. 

Indeed, children and teenagers seem to be particularly good at just being themselves, a quality that has served film-makers well over the years. Larry Clark famously filmed kids doing all the things that kids shouldn’t do in his imaginatively-titled Kids (1995). His non-professional cast brought a rare sense of honesty and authenticity to the film, and made other attempts to portray teenage life seem false by comparison. There’s a similar realism to last year’s The Class (Entre Les Murs), again in large part because director Laurent Cantet cast real inner-city schoolchildren to act out a world that was already familiar to them. 

"I'm ready for my close-up." 'Au Hasard Balthazar'

"I'm ready for my close-up." 'Au Hasard Balthazar'

But is there more to using non-professional actors than simply trying to achieve some kind of ‘objective’, documentary-style realism? Robert Bresson certainly thought so. Watch one of the influential French director’s films from the Fifties or Sixties and you’ll be struck most of all by the performances he drew from his non-professional casts. To put it simply, actors in Bresson films speak their lines, often with very little intonation or feeling. At first, this seems like bad acting or, worse, wilfully bad acting. But then, as you see more of the director’s work, you realise that there’s a very definite kind of method involved.

Bresson had his non-professionals, or ‘actor-models’ as he called them, do take after take until any kind of showy ‘performance’ was gone from their delivery of the lines. What he was trying to show, I think, is that there’s always a difference between what people say and what they think and that none of us, in reality, reacts to events in the way that a classically-trained actor might. So, if I hit my thumb with a hammer and no-one is watching me, I won’t necessarily swear or shout, and neither necessarily should a character in a film. We observe one another, Bresson tells us, but at the same time we’re all mysterious to one another.

In Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), he takes this method to its logical extreme by making the main character a donkey. As the animal is passed from person to person, we see a cross-section of human behaviour from its point of view. We can sometimes guess at people’s motivations, but their inner selves are always hidden from us, ungraspable and incomprehensible.    

Some slack-jawed yokels, yesterday. 'Flandres'

Some slack-jawed yokels, yesterday. 'Flandres'

It’s a powerful approach, and one that has been taken up by a number of Bresson’s disciples in today’s cinema, from the Mexican Carlos Reygadas to the Frenchman Bruno Dumont. Dumont’s films in particular are dominated by the kind of gaping yokels you might find standing around as extras in a Bresson film, and are all the better for it.

In Flandres (2006), for example, the director tells the story of two French farmers who go to war in an unnamed Arab country. His non-professional actors spend a lot of their time trudging across farm and desert landscapes, staring at distant objects, having joyless animal-like sex and grunting monosyllabically to one another. It’s not the kind of behaviour that you would find in either a tightly-scripted Hollywood thriller or a ‘realist’, Ken Loach-style drama. On the other hand, it does give you a tangible sense of how much a part of the flat French farmscape the two main characters are, and how alien and dreamlike the desert is for them.

Dumont has said that one day he would like to work with Tom Cruise. Whilst I think that this was a joke, it is nevertheless an interesting proposition. How would a controlled, self-aware performer like Cruise cope with working alongside non-professionals? Could he lose his Hollywood sheen and simply ‘be’ in a small art movie? Or would the director have to tie a length of fishing wire to his big toe? Sadly we may never know.



4 responses

11 09 2009

Fascinating little article – always very keen to read historically informed film writing. Thanks for the comment on my blog – will link to a more pithy comment on Fish Tank and Katie Jarvis shortly – once it’s published.

Best wishes

14 09 2009

Great post. Van Sant is an inspiration with his casting and directing. Able to get the best out of non-pro’s without giving his movie a documentary feel.

I didn’t mean to give the impression that audio isn’t important. But after continous fear mongering by audio professionals about how to properly capture sound, you get tired of it. I was trying to say it’s possible to get good audio without obsessing over it.

By the way, if you’re really into non-professional actors you should check out some mumblecore movies. Puffy Chair being the best.

24 09 2009
Sally A

Actors come in a spectrum from the brilliantly sublime to the “you shouldn’t be working in this game”. Most are okay… But that thing about wanting an actor to “be” – brilliant actors can do that, it’s the ones that are just okay that can’t. It’s all to do with the directing too. Danny Boyle uses a brilliant mix of trained/untrained/professional/unprofessional.

22 12 2009

kieron –

thanks for reading my piece, read your article too and liked the Visconti story, hadn’t heard that one. of course, ‘Silent Light’ or ‘L’Humanite’ definitely wouldn’t work in the way they do with big stars (though Tom Cruise speaking ‘plautdietsch’ would be worth seeing), but one of my points was you don’t have to use total amateurs to avoid recognisable faces. directors like Dumont, Reygadas and co seem to make it a very black or white situation, which i don’t buy. And ironically for Avatar, Cameron could have probably gotten away with amateurs behind all the technology and then tweaked the results whichever way he wanted…


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