Actors Who Call ‘Action’

George Clooney is in the midst of what he calls “a massive depression.” No, his latest movie hasn’t flopped; “Entertainment Tonight” is not planning an expose. It’s just that he’s editing “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” about the strange life and times of “Gong Show” host Chuck Barris. It’s his first film as a director, and he has already had to cut one of his favorite scenes. Now he’s not sure if the story will hold together.

“The storytelling that works in dailies you now have to look at from a different point of view with a different eye,” he says, then adds: “I may blow the whole thing, but sometimes you just want to say, ‘OK, let me take one swing at this. If I was going to make it, this is what it would be.’ ”

That impulse, with all its inherent frustrations and possibilities, is not unique to Clooney who’s one of an illustrious group of actors who have moved behind the camera. Among those who have made or are about to make their first features: Nicolas Cage, Don Cheadle, Denzel Washington, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bill Paxton, Ethan Hawke, Salma Hayek, Matt Dillon, Fisher Stevens, and John Malkovich.

For some, it is by design, the culmination of a long campaign; for others, like Clooney, it is almost an accident, a case of using his power to get a difficult project made. At a certain point, directing is a logical progression for actors who want the opportunity to tell a story their way. They look at the quality of films being made today and think they can do better.


“I think acting is a good background for a director,” says Martha Coolidge, the new president of the Directors Guild of America. “I think more directors could use more actor training, but does that mean you will automatically become a good director? No.”

It takes a particular kind of individual who wants to have a hand in everything that’s going on-not just the acting but the editing, the camera work, the sound mix, and the color of the pillows.

“The nice thing about it for me is that it works all sides of your personality--the intellectual side and the emotional side,” says actress Jodie Foster, who has directed two films (“Little Man Tate” and “Home for the Holidays”). “It’s the final and complete voice of the movie. In some ways, it’s the difference between being a dancer and a choreographer.”

From the time cowboy William S. Hart jumped from his horse to the director’s chair in silent westerns, actors have made the transition. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton did it. So did Orson Welles. But in the studio years, it was mostly bit players, not stars, who became directors.


“If a studio had a star like Gable or Cagney or Bogart, the last thing they wanted was for them to direct because they wanted to see those performers on the screen,” says Clint Eastwood, who has become a role model for actors who aspire to direct. “Now if a character actor like Elia Kazan wanted to direct, I guess they’d say, ‘Oh, what the heck.’ ”

Eastwood talked MCA chief Lew Wasserman into letting him direct his first film, “Play Misty for Me,” in 1971. “I went to Wasserman and said, ‘You have this property I’d love to direct.’ I thought there would be this big pause, but he said, ‘No, that’s fine.’ When I left the office, he called my agent and said, ‘Oh, by the way, we don’t want to pay him.’ So I worked for scale and was happy to get the opportunity.”

At the time, few actors were getting the chance to direct. “In the early part of the game, I don’t think anybody wanted me to direct,” Eastwood says. “If I told them I was going to give up performing and only direct, they might have said, ‘Well, we can get John Huston, what do we need him for?’ ”

Over the years ambitious actors would occasionally take a turn as director. Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, Warren Beatty and even John Wayne did it. Robert Redford won an Oscar for “Ordinary People” in 1980. But in the last decade it’s become more commonplace.

Mel Gibson (1995’s “Braveheart”), Kevin Costner (1990’s “Dances With Wolves”) and Eastwood (1992’s “Unforgiven”) have each won Academy Awards for best director. “In the last 15 years, actors have had more clout then they’ve ever had,” Foster says. “So that put them in a place where they became more involved in the business of making movies, and then that made them want to direct.”

Studios who wanted to be in business with certain actors were now offering them the chance to direct their own pictures. Producing alone wasn’t enough. “If Danny De Vito or Robert De Niro or Jodie Foster calls up [Universal Pictures Chairman] Stacey Snider or [Columbia Pictures President] Amy Pascal and says they want to come in about directing a piece, you think they’re not going to jump at it?” says longtime Creative Artists Agency agent Fred Specktor. “Let’s not kid anybody, movie stars have an ability to be able to do certain things that average human beings can’t do.”

But it’s not only top-line stars making big-budget films who are using their leverage to direct personal projects. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming were able to raise $3 million to make “The Anniversary Party” last year because they could deliver a cast of friends including Kevin Kline and Gwyneth Paltrow.

“Jennifer and I never would have gotten to direct a film so easily if we had not been famous,” Cumming admits. “If we had been first-time directors nobody had ever heard of, we wouldn’t have gotten the chance. We were definitely privileged.”


But there’s a downside for actors, as well. In some quarters, there is a lingering stigma that surrounds actors directing, as if they were precocious children being indulged. When a story in the trades announces another screenwriter making a debut as a director, few eyebrows are raised. When actors get the job, the news is often received with a knowing wink.

“Some people think actors directing is the same thing as models who want to act,” says Todd Field, who made a well reviewed directing debut with “In the Bedroom.” “Sometimes people in the business wonder how someone who gets so petted and fed can run the show?”

The reality is actors know their way around a set better than most, certainly better than screenwriters who spend much of their day locked in a room.

Field, who started out as a theater actor in New York and made “hundreds and hundreds” of short films, had the good fortune to act in “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999) and learn from Stanley Kubrick. On the set, “Kubrick was so proficient, there wasn’t a lot of fuss made about the technical aspect of how things were going to be executed,” recalls Field. “He worked in a very common sense way, without the dogma that surrounds filmmaking most of the time. So it was continually inspiring.”

Directing requires a commitment not all actors can or care to make. “Some actors are happy to go to their trailers, read the racing form, smoke cigarettes and have someone bring them cappuccinos,” Field says.

Other actors want to be in the center of the action. For performers such as Cheadle, who is preparing to make his debut with Elmore Leonard’s “Tishomingo Blues,” being on the set has been like understudying for the director’s role. “Whenever I’m on a set, I’m sticking my nose in, probably more to some people’s delight than others. I’m always bugging them: ‘Why wouldn’t you do it this way?’ I’ve always been like that.”

Cheadle has directed theater in Minneapolis and L.A. and made a few shorts, but when his turn to direct came, it took him by surprise. The producers adapting Leonard’s novel had the idea that first-time directors often had the freshest take on material, and perhaps they thought they could attract an actor by letting him direct. When they called him in, Cheadle assumed it was just like one of many meetings he goes to as an actor in which they want to “sniff” him without having any intention of offering him a job. But having witnessed too many directors who don’t know what they want to say and then end up with a fractured film, Cheadle did his homework. “I went in with a clear take on the book, which is why they said, ‘Oh, OK, he’s not just coming in here saying it’ll be cool to shoot this.’ ”

Even for someone with an actor’s cachet, there is no clear path to becoming a director. Jennifer Jason Leigh never wanted to direct. Acting had always been “the be all and end all” for her. Then she acted in a Dogma 95 film (“The King is Alive”) in North Africa in 2000, and realized how inexpensively and quickly you could shoot a movie on digital video.


While she was mulling it over, she ran into her friend Joel Coen, who had directed her in “The Hudsucker Proxy.” “He said it’s not brain surgery, and it’s not, you know, it’s really a pleasure.” Directing turned out to be a merciful relief for a cerebral performer like Leigh. “Just practically speaking, you can’t be a diva,” she says. “It cuts through a lot of your insecurities because there’s something bigger to deal with. You’re dealing with other people’s egos, not your own, and that’s kind of sweet. It’s a lovely way to get away from yourself.”

In some cases, fame has to intervene before an actor can get a chance to direct. Danny DeVito came to Los Angeles to be a director in 1975 after appearing in the off-Broadway production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” He made a short film called “Minestrone” with a grant from the American Film Institute, but it wasn’t until “Taxi” had established him as an actor that he got an opportunity to direct his first feature, “Throw Momma From the Train,” in 1987.

“That’s the way it happened, I don’t know if that’s the only way to do it,” DeVito says. “I was trying to get work as an actor while I was trying to get something going as a director, but in my heart I always wanted to direct.”

Clooney didn’t have a burning desire--or really any desire--to direct; what he did have was an interest in getting a film made that meant something to him. “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” the story of the iconoclastic Barris, who may or may not have been a hit man for the CIA, was a project Clooney had been attached to as an actor. He watched it fall apart in pre-production three times, the last time five weeks before shooting.

“It started looking like it was never going to get made, and there are so few good scripts out there,” Clooney says. “I’ve got more money then I’ll ever spend. I’d rather get ‘Confessions’ made than do [a film like] ‘Swordfish.’ ”

So Clooney agreed to take a pay cut and play a supporting role as a CIA agent, and brought in his friends Julia Roberts and Drew Barrymore at a bargain price That convinced Miramax head Harvey Weinstein to put up “well under $30 million,” according to Clooney, for the film, provided that Clooney’s business partner, Steven Soderbergh, would come on as executive producer and, in the event of disaster, take over as director. Weinstein and Clooney will get their final cuts, and Soderbergh will be the arbiter. The film is scheduled to be released on Christmas Day.

Clooney understands why actors increasingly feel compelled to direct in order to protect their work. Performers as good as Denzel Washington, he says, are winding up in movies as bad as “John Q.” 'If you’re Denzel, I would bet he’s feeling, ‘I want to be involved in stuff that I have more say on, so whether it’s good or not, I’ll take the responsibility for it.’ ”

Washington has in fact directed “The Antwone Fisher Story,” an autobiographical drama written by a former security guard at Sony Pictures about a young black man in the Navy who, with the help of a psychiatrist, traces the roots of his violent temper. Washington plays the therapist.

“What you don’t want to do is some lighter fare,” Clooney says. “You want to do something that you think has more weight to it and is a story you’d enjoy telling. You don’t want to just say, ‘OK, I’m going to direct for the hell of it.’ ”

Cage pretty much felt the same way. He was biding his time late last year, waiting for the slowdown that resulted from the threatened actors’ and writers’ strike to lift, when he thought, “Well, maybe I ought to try directing.” “Sonny,” the story of a gigolo raised to follow the family tradition in New Orleans, was a pet project he had wanted to star in 15 years ago. The film had a few false starts, so Cage figured this would be a chance to get it done. He pulled together a crew restless to get back to work and nailed down financing in just three weeks, agreeing to play a cameo role in order to raise the film’s $5.1-million budget.

It all happened so fast that Cage was putting up his own money for pre-production. The story is dark, but Cage was intent on doing something different from the big-budget pictures he often appears in as an actor. “I guess I was looking for a deeper artistic satisfaction,” he says. “As a director I want to stay with challenging and confrontational subject matter that’s more me than even the acting. This is the most naked I’ve ever been and I guess there’s something thrilling about that.”

Cage knew he could talk to actors, but he admits the first day on the set was e scary. The most intimidating thing for him was where to put the camera. Four days of rehearsals trying out different lenses with the cinematographer took care of that. Ironically, for someone who has acted in a number of large-scale pictures, he found he worked better with two or three people; more than that was a bit overwhelming.

“You just have to breathe and keep cool and not show your frustration because that sends back signals to the whole team and everyone starts to lose heart.”

Then there was the necessary shift in perspective. Like most actors, Cage was used to focusing on his own part. “As the director, you have to understand the mentality of all the characters,” he says. “With the women, I had to think about what they were feeling and try to tap into that side of myself. It was a challenge.”

Because actor-directors will usually have a better understanding of the craft, there is always the danger they may be too focused on the performances. “Actors who direct have a tendency to indulge actors,” acknowledges Stanley Tucci, who co-directed “Big Night” (1996) and directed “Joe Gould’s Secret” (2000). “They’ll just fall in love with the acting, and fall in love with the dialogue, and fall in love with the moment, and lose sight of the whole film. These are the things you have to be careful about.”

After doing some 20 films and a lot of TV, Tucci started to feel his performances were getting short-shrift from directors. He noticed that film schools grads knew almost nothing about how to work with actors. “First-time directors had no clue, I was astounded,” Tucci says. “They had no interest in learning how to talk to actors or how to move them in a space.”

Actors complain that their performance often isn’t something directors want to have a lot of discussion about. “When you work with directors who are not actors, they try to get a result as opposed to giving you a set of conditions to get you there,” Cheadle says. “They say stuff like, ‘You should be more angry in this scene.’ Well, that’s not direction.”

From his own experience, Clooney knew he had to redirect his focus. When he’s playing a part, Clooney understands the director is trying to manipulate him to get what he wants, and he in turn manipulates the director to get what he wants. There’s a give and take. But, as a director, Clooney was uncomfortable doing this dance.

“It’s different when you’re the director, because you have to negotiate with each and every actor,” he says. “If I need someone to deliver a pizza in a scene, I don’t need him to tell me he’s doing it because his parents were alcoholics and he has a drug problem. I just need him to deliver the pizza. So you find that you’re actually asking actors to do much less than they’re capable of because that’s what you need for the scene.”

Still, a director who has been an actor is likely to be more indulgent. “Actors can be weird,” admits Cheadle. “If I got to crawl under a table and get under a blanket to get ready to do a scene, certain directors who understand will say, ‘Yeah, he needs to go under the table and he’ll come out and we’ll get a great scene.’ ”

Actors often get bored after 10 weeks on a set and are ready to move on to the next high-paying job; directors don’t have that luxury. So having made it through filming in a brisk six weeks, Cage now finds himself in a position actors are not used to--the prolonged and painstaking process of post-production. He had some experience in the editing room as an executive producer on “Shadow of the Vampire” (2000), but he admits he didn’t know what he was getting into.

“I think it was Fellini who said you’re ready to make the movie when you’re sick of it,” Cage says. “It’s like giving birth; you want it out of your body, you hate it, and then you love it again.”

Although he speaks enthusiastically about his directing experience, Clooney is too absorbed in the editing to know if he will try it again. “I don’t know if I’m any good at it,” he says. “But I do know if you’re an actor who can get movies made, and there are a few of us, you have to focus on trying to make better and better films, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I may fail but at least the successes and failures will be my own.”


James Greenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor.