Every set is run with different guidelines, but there is an overall etiquette that fits most acting situations. The following “On Set Rules” can be used if the production team doesn’t provide their own guidelines:
ALWAYS BE ALERT: Energy levels must stay high on the set. Stay alert to where the camera is and the blocked movement. Keeping an energy bar near by might help give that extra needed boost after hours of hard work, especially if the day goes into overtime.
BE COURTEOUS: The entertainment industry is made up of a small group of people who will eventually know each other. The odds of working with someone on another project within 7 years are high. Treating everyone professionally and courteously will go along way to help capture the next job.
CHECK IN AND OUT: Always check in and out with the proper person at any set or location. If an actor needs to step away to a restroom, he or she needs to let the proper person know. Actors should remember to hand in vouchers at the end of each day.
DON’T CHEW GUM: This one shouldn’t require any explanation for actors. Besides, don’t we all know the myriad of things that can go wrong with gum on a set?
ENTORAGE STAYS AT HOME: Do not bring friends or family to the set. Leave cameras, drugs and alcohol at home. Keep cell phones off except in appointed areas during appointed times.
FANS ARE UNWELCOME: Talking to the star or director is taboo unless they speak first. Do not ask them for a photo opportunity, autograph or anything else that might break their concentration. This rule tends to slide during lunch break, unless the star or director is in a meeting.
GIVING NOTES IS FOOLISH: This is another sure way to get fired. Telling someone how to improve their performance or clarifying how they messed up is grounds for being fired on the spot. No one has the right to suggest anything different than what the director has shared with or artistically required of his actors.
HIERARCHY IS WORTH LISTENING TO: Knowing the hierarchy of a show is critical to know who to listen to and who overrides them. The producer trumps everyone, unless there are multiple producers. Typically a director who also carries a producer’s title is above everyone.
ISSUES TO AVOID: Actors should not argue about what is not in his or her control. The fastest way to get fired from a set is to argue about something required by the hierarchy. Actors should take time to know who is over him or her and be ready to say, “yes.”
JOKES AND PRANKS: There is always a certain level of joking that happens to keep the set atmosphere conducive to play. Unfortunately, the person who takes it too far typically gets fired.
KEEP HANDS OFF: Do not touch any equipment that you have not been authorized to touch. This includes props, grip equipment, working set pieces, etc.
LATE IS A FOUR-LETTER WORD: The industry norm is that being on time to set is considered being late. Ms. Manners would add that “late” is a four-letter word worth avoiding. Most Actors arrive 15-30 minutes early.
MONEY TALK IS OFF LIMITS: No one likes to hear about the money an actor was contracted for, especially if it is significantly higher. Money issues can sour any positive atmosphere on set and are off limits.
NETWORK DURING FREE TIME: Sets are great places to network, especially since about 75% of all jobs come by word of mouth from someone on set. However, it is critical to restrict networking to meal or free times. Don’t ever allow a future work opportunity to sabotage a current project.
OBSERVE CHARACTERS: Paying attention to what other actors are doing with their characters helps to tweak one’s character to the same style and reality that the director is creating. It also allows the actor to play off of others more realistically.
PRACTICE INTERNALLY: Just as baseball players mentally review their next steps based on strategic conditions, an actor needs to mentally review his or her next actions based on how the scene is being directed. This will help the actor repeat certain movements should the director call for another take.
QUIET ON SET: The set is a professional work zone that costs thousands of dollars an hour to operate. The only people talking should be those with lines or the production hierarchy/department heads. Any conversation can create costly delays. If the average person on set makes a $1/minute, and there are 100 people on set, a quick 3 minute question and answer costs the producer $300 plus rental equipment costs and other set costs. There are proper times to ask questions of the right people.
RECEIVE NOTES PROFESSIONALLY: When the director or his staff gives a note, accept it professionally and trust that he understands the big picture and how everything artistically melds together.
SPILLS ON COSTUMES ARE UNCOOL: Bringing a nonspillable water bottle is a good practice. Using a smock for lunchtime may be the only solution if actors can’t change before a meal.
TRANSPORTATION GUIDELINES: A driver can be a best friend on location sets. They work hard to get actors to locations on time and get little credit for it. Taking time to be polite and thanking the drivers will make a world of difference on the days that something goes wrong.
UNSAFE CONDITIONS: Sets are normally built for temporary use and easy tear down. This sometimes results in jagged edges or chipping floorboard edges, which are great for twisting ankles. Report any size of danger or potential issues immediately. The last thing the producer wants is a liability on set that could cost the show.
VEXING NOT ALLOWED: Some actors try to over shadow or up stage others, but soon learn what its like to be fired. There is a tendency to be drawn into the game and over play a role to compensate for how the other actor changed a shot. Being a consummate professional requires the actor to trust that the Director, AD’s or PA’s are watching and will eventually yank the problem actor from the set.
WAIT PATIENTLY: Hurry up and wait has been the slogan on set for over 100 years. Actors must be patient and learn to keep themselves mentally active when on hold for long periods. Be willing to hurry when asked and patient when waiting.
XEROX® IS TRADEMARKED: Professional actors talk about photocopies, not a Xerox®. They talk about facial tissue, not a Kleenex®. The industry is filled with lawsuits protecting copyrights, trademarks and patents. The last thing an actor needs is to unintentionally get drawn into a lawsuit because he or she said the wrong thing to the press. Learn from the appropriate people what can and can’t be said during on set interviews.
YACKING IS TABOO: The set is no place for a sick person. If you have a bad cold or anything contagious, stay away. The professional response is to call the appropriate person early so they have time to find a replacement. Those who show up to the set sick will be sent home and considered unprofessional.
ZONE IN TO ROLE: Be in character and in the moment. Everything an actor trains and works for makes each performance moment excellent. Losing focus can diminish all the hard work in a matter of seconds. Be professional and keep focused.
I’ve been behind the scenes many times and I can tell you that the productive sets are ones that embrace the above common forms of etiquette. Actors who embrace these principles will rise to the top, as no one likes to work with an actor who lacks set etiquette.