How to Handle Stress on a Film Set
A film set can be a stressful place to work. Kit Pascoe offers practical tips and advice to help ease the pressure.
by Kit Pascoe
You are not alone if you’re stressed or suffering
An actor’s life is so uncertain it makes Brexit seem predictable. We spend so much time training, auditioning and crossing our fingers that it’s easy to think the stress will drop away the moment we secure a role. In fact, we focus so much energy on trying to get cast that we forget to consider what happens after. It’s not until reality sinks in that we remember that being on set isn’t a walk in the park.
Your job isn’t to be grateful
You know that feeling when you get cast and all you want to do is hug the director and offer your left kidney in thanks? You’re so grateful that you won’t complain when things get tough. It’s good to be grateful, of course it is. But it’s also important to not forget that you’ve secured a role because you worked hard to get there. A ‘lucky break’ is never just luck. It’s the result of dedication, commitment and hard work.
Looking after yourself, physically and mentally, is an active part of your job as an actor. In order to fulfil your role, you must be on top form. And if anything’s going to sabotage that, it’s stress.
A ticking clock, a camera and a panic attack
Things were not going well on the last film I did. It was an ambitious undertaking and the director wanted to shoot two feature films in seven days.
On the morning of day five, I crashed my bike on the way to set. It was stupid and entirely my fault but that didn’t matter much when I was lying on the concrete with pain blooming through my side. I told myself off and hopped back on, blinking back tears of frustration. When I got to set things were already behind. You know it’s going to be a long day when the schedule is behind at 8am.
The scene we were shooting involved six characters locked in an escape room. Not just locked in, but cable-tied to chairs. We would each suffer or die within seven minutes. No problem, we’re just acting. Right? But, of course, what’s stressful for your character is stressful for you. When you pretend to panic for the camera, your nervous system isn’t in on the act. When you begin breathing fast and crying, your brain and body believe that you are in real danger.
We’d been running the scene for hours already with cameras circling us. Tensions were high, frustration vibrated in the air. As the evening drew in and we went for another take, I could feel tingling in my fingers and tightness in my chest. My mouth refused to work properly so I had to shout my lines just to get them out comprehensibly. We were three minutes in when I realised I was having a panic attack. I couldn’t alert anybody because I didn’t want to ruin the scene.
I pushed my last line out of my mouth and waited for 'cut'. I told the director I was having a panic attack and collapsed forward, crying hysterically. I felt the assistants rush to cut me free and the gentle hug of a fellow actor as he talked me through my breathing. The room was cleared and I wanted to crawl into a hole and never come out.
You are never alone
My director was horrified that I hadn’t said anything sooner. He reassured me that I hadn’t ruined anything and that the health of the actors and crew was always more important than the schedule. As I got back to make-up, several colleagues told me how they’d also had panic attacks, at work or in life. The most unexpected of people openly shared how punishing mental health issues had been for them.
It made one thing clear; you are not alone if you’re stressed or suffering.
Chatting to fellow actors is a good way to share how you’re feeling, get advice and simply unburden
How to Deal with Stress on Set
The set is stressful in many ways:
- First day nerves - Walking into a situation where you don’t know anyone can be intimidating.
- Lines - Knowing your lines with a mirror is different to knowing your lines in front of cameras.
- Challenging scenes - Emotional scenes can quickly become overwhelming.
- Delays - Being on set requires unbelievable patience and tolerance for delays.
- Personality clashes - With high tensions, good communication can go out the window.
Whether it’s your first day or your tenth, unexpected things will happen. Schedules change, things break, delays occur. The unexpected and unfamiliar are common causes of stress and when you add the pressure to do your best and to do it on time, the stress can quickly build up. Here are some tips to help you alleviate the pressure:
Being prepared is the single easiest way to cope with stress. I don’t just mean knowing your lines and nipping to the loo. I mean taking care of yourself in the run-up to the job. Preparing yourself with coping strategies for stressful situations gives you priceless mental resources.
Meditation is an excellent source of inspiration. It teaches you how to take control of spiralling thoughts and how to prevent them from spiralling in the first place. When you take steps to develop practices that help you manage your stress, you’ll be actively working to solve it rather than dwelling on it or worse, worrying about it.
Tips for preparation:
- Practice meditation
- Eat healthy foods that won’t give you a sugar crash
- Drink water and never alcohol the night before a job
- Give yourself plenty of time to learn lines and get to set
- Get as much sleep as you can
- Expect delays
When you communicate openly, you’ll find that others will respond in kind. Nobody can read minds and if you pretend you’re fine and ready to go, they will assume you are. Acting is an emotionally demanding job and no one will mind if you need five minutes between takes to centre yourself.
For challenging, emotional scenes, talk to the director. You can’t give your best performance 10 times in a row. You need to know when the focus will be on you so you can give it everything as few times as possible. If you feel that you are pushing yourself too far, speak up. Even the act of sharing that information could well provide stress-relief and you will get the support you need.
Chatting to fellow actors is a good way to share how you’re feeling, get advice and simply unburden. Respect that others may be stressed as well and try not to take your frustration out on them, even if there’s a clash of personalities.
3. Check reality
If a film’s set-up is so fragile that you needing a quick break will ruin everything, then production has a much deeper issue. On a professional set there will be time budgeted in for all sorts of eventualities, no director plans a shoot around everything going smoothly. The sooner you speak up about any issues you’re having or support you need, the easier and faster it can be taken into account.
Don’t Let Stress De-Rail You
It’s completely normal to feel stressed on set. So normal in fact, it'd be a surprise if you didn’t experience it. With massive pressures, insane timescales and changing schedules, being on set isn’t easy.
You can’t plan for every eventuality but you can learn strategies to manage your stress so you can deal with anything that’s thrown your way. You’re not alone. Talk to others, be open and honest and, above all, take care of yourself.
If you want further advice or are struggling with your mental health, there are many resources available. A good place to start is by listening to the Spotlight podcast episode about mental health in conjunction with Equity. You can also find support and advice through ArtsMinds and the charity Mind.
Kit Pascoe is a freelance writer, author and actor based in Devon. She studied a BTEC National Diploma in Performing Arts and completed short courses at the Cygnet Theatre School and Bristol Old Vic. She spent two weeks as an extra on Bohemian Rhapsody, drank too much tea in a Tefal commercial and has had supporting roles in several feature films.