In the Believer:
THE BELIEVER: Your process is so different from that of most other directors: You ask actors to go with you on an intense journey in which they will spend months doing improvisations to develop their characters before anything gets set in stone. Because you only arrive at defining the characters and story line after months of workshops with the actors, you are unable to tell them much about the roles they’ll be playing at the start of the process. So how do your actors learn to trust you at the very start?
MIKE LEIGH: In the first place, I’m pretty thorough about whom I choose. I instinctively look for the kind of actor who is going to be trusting. There are all kinds of insecure people out there called actors. Some deeply untrusting actors—the kind that need to know exactly what’s what and are completely insecure—might be quite good within the parameters of a certain sort of acting. But I can’t work with these people. On the whole, I get people for whom not knowing what’s what isn’t a problem.
BLVR: How do you find out that this isn’t going to be a problem?
ML: It’s an instinctual thing. I have a feeling about an actor when I meet him or her for the first time during our initial interview.
BLVR: Is the interview the “twenty-minute get-to-know-you” chat I’ve read about in articles and books that describe your process?
ML: Yeah. We’re sitting in a room and there’s nobody else there but the actor and I. We talk about their life. Then if I feel the relationship’s going to move forward, I call them back in and we do some work for a while. It’s basically a process of getting a sense of people. The actors I collaborate with tend to be confident in the best sense of the word. They’re not overwhelmingly confident but relaxed, cool, together, focused, open, intelligent, and have a sense of humor.