on-set – what to expect, what’s expected of you and drawing the line… the reality

on-set – what to expect, what’s expected of you and drawing the line… the reality

As a Producer and Actor I’ve spent a great deal of time on set in different roles and have an understanding of the roles and importance of each person involved.  It can be, and often is, a complex set up of people, each there for a purpose and each an important cog in the machine.

Filming, whether for film, a TV series, or a commercial, is a very expensive business.  Each day is carefully planned out to ensure they can capture exactly what is required on time and within budget.  If they over run each hour is an hour over time for every single person there, and that adds up to a lot of money. 

When you audition for a role they’re not only looking for a good performance that matches what they’ve envisioned, they’re looking for someone: that they know will get the job done; who is professional; and in cases where the filming will be lengthy, someone who they know will get on well with others, be responsive and be enjoyable to work with.   They need to be confident in you and your ability as much as they can be.

It’s important to understand what’s going on so you can be on top of your game, do the best possible job, and enjoy it too of course 🙂   Here’s a few pointers…


You might be surprised to find that some of the biggest ego’s on set come from the crew… Directors, DOP’s, Producers, sometimes even Gaffers, they can be ‘names’ in their own right, be paid a fortune and highly sought after.  You may well be at the bottom of the pile in the pecking order!  On one of the last commercial shoots i did the DOP called me 6 different names and that was on the 2nd day of filming… Regardless of how established you are, what status you hold and what role you are playing in a production, every single person needs to do their job and do it well.  On set you’re a team.  Focus on doing your job to the best of your abilities, end of.  And if you do come across the back end of someones ego, stand up for yourself, but stay professional about it.


Time is everything on set.  The first AD will be keeping check of the time and ensuring that everything runs smoothly and to schedule.  Things can change though and you need to be ready to go at any moment.  Listening, keeping a check on what’s going on and being ready is crucial.  Watch how the crew operate – they’re in that state of ‘readiness’ throughout the whole day.  Almost like a dog ready to catch the ball, watching, anticipating, ready to move, yet they’re patient and professional. Everyone is in the moment.  Runners are usually handing out water and snacks on the go too, keeping people going, but breaks are so important – they have to be scheduled in.


You will not be treated any different to everyone else there (unless you’re Tom Cruise!).  You need to think ahead, think about what you personally might need and take it with you.  Whether that’s warm clothing, energy snacks, your preferred drinks, you need to think for you and take care of you.  The amount of times i’ve been on set and thought I wish i’d have brought something.  Take head ache tablets.  Take different coloured underwear in case your wardrobe requires it.  Take whatever you need to stay comfortable, confident and happy for the whole day – that day could be 10, 12, 14 hours or even more.  If you’re cold, hungry and tired after 8 hours you’re going to be unhappy and struggle to perform to your best ability.  Yes there should be drinks and food available all day but don’t rely on others.  Think ahead.


Screen acting is very different to theatre.  Depending on the extent of your role, you may need to prepare extensively in advance of the shoot.  Very rarely is there rehearsal time.  You need to arrive fully prepped and ready to go, but also ready to adapt your performance as needed, and that’s a fine balance to get right as it’s easy to get locked into physical and vocal patterns when prepping.   You might arrive and find the director has a completely different take on that scene, or you might find that they’re happy for you to do as you please… every Director is different.  They don’t go through a school that teaches them how to work with actors.  And honestly, some are absolutely clueless and others are bloody brilliant.  I’ve been left to my own devices, micro managed second by second, and in one case the Director (a very established Director) was plain nasty to everyone (this is rare though).  In most case you’ll find that they’ll block out the movement, ask you to play it out, and then ask for a few tweaks here and there.  All depending on the type of production and complexity of the scenes of course.  Just be prepared for anything.  If you can find out anything about the Director, DOP and Producers in advance it’s helpful, so you know what to expect. Or else you’ll soon know after a few minutes with them!


Preparation is key.  Prepare for it, be present, alert, energised, adaptable and professional, and you’ve done your job.  Be a team player.  And, if you do encounter any difficulties, stay true to you and stick up for yourself. If you’re unhappy with something they’re asking you to do, call your agent and seek advice. Don’t do anything that you’re uncomfortable with, certainly if it hasn’t been agreed beforehand. 

I was filming on a small sailing boat and we were about 40 mins walk out in thick mud where the boat was stranded.  Nature called, as it does, and they asked me to relieve myself in a bucket inside this tiny boat while the crew turned round, otherwise we would have lost over an hours worth of filming.  Not a nice situation to be put in – you can imagine how that felt.  It was just very poor planning on their part.  On another job they wanted to throw bottles of water over me to look like i’d been out in the rain for a long time.  It was a low paid job that I was at for a couple of hours in my own clothes, with a two hour journey to get home from using public transport in winter.  It wasn’t in the script, it was just an idea at the time. Seriously! 

These are small things and you can make a call as you see fit. Bigger things, like being asked to remove clothes for example – if it’s not been agreed before, say no.  Don’t let anyone take advantage of you because they have apparent ‘power’ over you.  I don’t care how much time or money it will cost them, it’s their fault for not planning ahead.  You have rights.  Stay professional, stay firm. 

If you need help your agent will provide advice and Equity have a dedicated helpline that you can call if you have any concerns (T:020 7670 0268).  Equity’s Agenda for Change, bullying booklet, safe spaces statement can be found on our noticeboard.

In a lot of cases you end up feeling like you’re family on set and it’s a brilliant experience, but you will most likely have a mixture of experiences.  I feel it’s important to start being truthful about what life is really like as an actor, so people are going into this industry with their eye’s wide open, not with rose tinted spectacles on.  For those already out there, i’m sure you’ve been nodding away at this knowingly, have stories yourself and more you could add to this! 

Do it for you, and do it your own way 💛

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