Non-Professional Actors in Cinema

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Directed by Chloé Zhao, The Rider is one of 2018’s most triumphant films that explores a myriad of themes. This makes it essential viewing for anyone with an interest in cinema as a craft and as a device for storytelling.

One particular feature of The Rider that makes it fascinating to watch is Zhao’s use of non-professional actors to play the Blackburn family. Set against the stunning backdrop of the South Dakota Badlands, we follow the story of Brady, a cowboy who faces a potentially unfulfilled future after a riding accident that leaves him so seriously injured that he’s told he will never compete in the rodeo circuit again. What makes this story even more engaging is that Brady, along with his on-screen family, are all real people, a real family, replaying their real story on the big screen.

This is not the first time a director has created a masterpiece by using real people, in fact it’s often used as a device in social realist cinema to bring to life issues being portrayed in a film.

Here’s our some of our favourite films that also use first time actors to convey a sense of authenticity to a story:


The Florida Project (2017, dir. Sean Baker)

The Florida Project screened earlier this year at Screen25 and was a instant crowd favourite. The film follows mother and daughter Halley and Moonee as they live in a motel near Disneyland in this astute observation of poverty in modern-day America. To find his cast, director Sean Baker scoured through Instagram and hung around in supermarkets until he found this remarkable group to tell the story of the often ignored ‘hidden homelessness’ sweeping across the US.


American Honey (2016, dir. Andrea Arnold)

Arnold is famed for her realist approach to cinema, and her critically acclaimed road-movie American Honey shows her first foray into bringing the disenfranchised youth of American to the big screen. Starring newcomer Sasha Lane (who was discovered by Arnold on a beach during Spring Break), the film follows a group of young misfits who travel around the US selling magazine subscriptions. This is stunning coming-of-age drama takes a social realist approach to youth and Americana, and Lane’s performance kickstarted her career with great success, her recent role in Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post is something we should thank Arnold for braving the Spring Break party crowd for!


Bicycle Thieves (1948, dir. Vittorio De Sica)

Italian Neorealism was a movement of showing a side of Italy on screen that decided not to highlight tourist hotspots in favour of showing the ‘real’ Italy, a world of suffering and poverty. Deemed to be one of the greatest pieces of cinema ever made, De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves rejected the conventions of film that were determined by Hollywood. Instead he cast factory worker Lamberto Maggiorani and son of a flower-salesman Enzo Staiola as Antonio and Bruno Ricci, the stars of this brutal and bleak insight into the lives of the unemployed in a suffering post-war Italy.


Tangerine (2013, dir. Sean Baker)

Another example of casting non-actors from director Sean Baker is in his breakout film, Tangerine. Shot entirely on an iPhone, Tangerine emerged as an exemplary and remarkable piece of cinema that took the world by storm upon its release. Starring Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, two transgender sex workers actually played by transgender women (yes it is possible, someone alert Dallas Buyers Club), Tangerine is a true testament to the power that having real people play real reflections of their lives can have.

Words by Catriona Mahmoud.

The Rider comes to Screen25 on Wednesday 7th November, Book Now.

Catriona Mahmoud