Getting Into the Mind of a Child

Matera, Italy

Many books have been written about directing actors and some of these have focused on the challenges of working with child actors. At the moment, I am immersed in the world of coaching child actors in a very challenging feature film in Italy. The Italy part is the easy part. The coaching of children for a film I am not directing is the challenge. And then add to that the fact that these children are on a very strict schedule.

– They can be on camera or in rehearsal only 4 hours a day.

– They’re required to be in school 3 hours a day.

– Every hour they must get a 15-minute break (no filming or

– Then a one-hour lunch.


Mark with his three favorite actors (Lois, Finn, and Adam) during a break in Rome.

Suddenly the 9½ hours that they can be on location or at the studio has been almost totally eaten up. Somewhere in there I’m supposed to find time to work with these young actors and prepare them for the day’s work on the set. Oh, a let’s not forget that there is wardrobe (this is a period picture) and make-up and parents and guardians hovering. My job is very clear. I am to deliver these actors to the set ready to give a performance. The director’s job is to do the final honing or shaping of that performance and get them on camera as quickly as possible. He literally has no time to do any in-depth work. And we also have to keep in mind the attention span of some of these young actors who are so easily distracted by anything flashy, colorful or electronic.

So, this is more than just a question of how to work with child actors. It’s How do you prepare a child actor for an unrehearsed scene when you have no access to the other actors or to the set? The reason I can’t work with them together is because while I am working with one, the others are in make-up or wardrobe, or school or haven’t arrived yet. And I’m expected to deliver them on the set camera ready and fully capable of making whatever adjustments or delivering whatever results the director may demand.

There are a total of three half-day rehearsals for the entire cast prior to production. These take place in a hotel conference room, less than ideal conditions. And the actors barely had time to meet each other. I watched my three young actors intently and I can see that they are having trouble focusing. They aren’t sure where to focus their energy or attention. When they try to show concern or anger or amazement or sadness their focus goes to their facial expressions and/or body movements. It’s all external – all indicated. All the internal energy is focused on creating a look that they hope will suffice or satisfy. Their intentions are good but the results are problematic and inauthentic. So it becomes clear to me that my first job is to shift their focus from the result to the cause, from the external to the internal.

On the first day of shooting they are doing only one scene. And it’s a scene with just the three children, alone, on a beach. There’s no dialogue. But there is a quick series of extraordinary, miraculous events to which they each have to respond individually. In less than a minute each of them has to go through a wide range of emotional experiences unique to themselves and revealing a lot about their relationships to each other. And it must appear natural, immediate, in the moment, authentic. And it has to be clear that they know each other intimately. After all two of them are two brothers and the girl is a cousin.

This task is difficult even for trained adult actors … but for children, on the first day of shooting, there is a looming danger of indication, pushing, odd facial expressions or inauthentic behavior.

Note: One young actor has just finished many months on a sitcom and his tendency to mug or go for comedy is almost out of control. The other boy, a sullen and contemplative lad, has a tendency to stay in one stoic mindset throughout any scene. And the young girl, 9 years old, has such an effusive personality that any subtleties of emotion are totally lost. And I will have one hour total to work with them, separately, before they go to the set.

At night I break the scene down into beats; emotional shifts and changes that I feel each character will be experiencing. And with this in hand I approach each actor the next morning. This is their first encounter with me as an acting coach, my first time working with any of them. I take them through the steps I have planned.

1. I ask my first question: “What is the scene all about?” And of course each of then tells me what is happening in the scene, very accurately and yet very objectively. (Truthfully, most adult actors and directors struggle with this difficult question. And here I am asking children, ages 9-12, to open their minds to the concept of subtext, inner meaning and intention.) Much to my surprise they are all able to go there. Of course they saw the inner meaning of the scene in their own individual way, which is perfect. That’s what I need. Individuality.

2. Then I ask them, “What happens in this scene for you? For your character? What is your character journey?” And again each of then begins telling me their character journey, objectively, in the third person. This is natural, most adult actors will do this. I immediately shift them to the character, to speaking in the first person. “The character is you, you are the character … say ‘I’ …” One great thing about children, they can do this quickly and usually without any resistance. And in that moment I experience an enormous shift in their energy and focus. And for all three of them it is a shift of delight and wonder. “Now tell me what happens to you in this scene, moment to moment.” And I describe each moment (as I had broken it down) and they tell me, in character, what they are experiencing. Progress. Of course, sometimes I have to prompt them or probe more deeply, but basically they are operating deep inside the character without any focus on ‘acting’.

3. Personal identification. Now we have indentified a specific emotion for each beat of the scene. I ask them when they have ever felt these specific emotions. And, bless their hearts, I start hear stories of wonder and excitement, sadness and loss. We give each story a name or a title and we apply it to the beat of the scene.

4. Then I walk them through the scene. I describe the events of the scene, beat by beat, and I ask the young actor to tell me, as the character, what he/she is feeling and thinking. Occasionally I remind them of the name or the title of a story they told me, but mostly I leave them alone. And we do this again, and again, I read the beats, they tell me what they are feeling and thinking. I can see when each actor is getting tired(getting tired is good, the resistance is low) and as they get tired they are going deeper into the character.

5. Then we do the scene two more times with them being silent, just thinking about what they are feeling and letting those feelings take over. And it’s beautiful, every time. It’s authentic and in the moment.

And then I release the actor to the set, or make-up or wardrobe…. and find another actor. The clock is ticking. On this first day I spent 20 minutes with the young girl, 15 minutes with one of the boys and went through the same steps in only 5 minutes for the other boy because they were all being called to the set. 40 minutes of rehearsal.

It’s a major challenge for any actor to tap into genuine emotions. What’s delightful about working with these children is that each of them feels very free to share personal stories with me. These are stories of pain, joy, sadness, delight, etc. And they allow themselves to tap into these experiences (with my suggestions) and apply them to a moment in the scene. So, sometimes during my prodding as they are vocalizing their internal journey I am reminding them of their cat, their best friend, their mother’s anger – the specific event that will elicit the appropriate emotional response. And through the repetition these images and emotions become linked to the beat in the scene.

This process was so successful on the first day that there was very little rehearsal time needed on the set. All three actors were primed and ready. And when they finally came together to do the scene, for the first time, they immediately began feeding off the reactions of the other two actors. They were all in synch, beat by beat.

Now we plunge into the rest of the film. Now we have scenes with dialogue and lot of adult actors. There will be new challenges, which I hope to write about in future articles.

November Footnote: In future articles we will discuss a new Beat Sheet, the Personal Journals and the Scripted Journals – three new techniques that emerged out of this process.

10 responses to “Getting Into the Mind of a Child”

  1. Rene

    This is fantastic, Mark. Thank you for sharing your gifts as you go through this journey. We adult actors can learn much from children, too. I love absorbing your beautiful, thought-filled words, and I can’t wait for the articles to come. The material looks intriguing! Cheers ~ Rene (from Phoenix)

  2. Victoria Gail-White

    This is pertinent to directing adults as well…after all, we’re all still kids down deep. I’m in the beginning stages of working on scene breakdowns, beats, focus, etc. for assistant directing “Peter and the Starcatcher” at Manoa Valley Theater in Honolulu. This will really come in handy!
    Thanks again Mark for your wonderfully distilled information and loving guidance.
    Happy Thanksgiving! All of us here in Hawaii are certainly thankful for you!

  3. Leslie Fleming-Mitchell

    This is one of the things we all love about you, your thoughtful, well-distilled way of describing things. Thank you for sharing your experience. I look forward to reading the next installment.
    xo Leslie

  4. Patti Meyers

    Once again you did the impossible, Mark. Love your insights…we all know dealing with children is like herding cats.

  5. Patti Meyers

    They have to be amazing kids given the situation/setting they are in and they came thru. And you always do the impossible! When do you anticipate this movie reaching the public?


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