The answer is one of Hollywood’s oldest clichés: Ask an actor about career aspirations and you’ll get some variation of, “What I really want to do is direct.” Well, maybe they all don’t want to, but it certainly tops many an actor’s bucket list. The desire to move into the director’s chair seems to have become a natural progression for several series television performers. While some filmmakers—Woody Allen and David O. Russell among them—tend to return to the same crop of talent, an actor on a successful TV series has an unparalleled opportunity to develop an intimate connection with a creative team over the course of a long-lasting storyline.
“At a certain point it just becomes logical,” says William H. Macy, nominated for his lead comedy role in Showtime’s Shameless. Macy, who recently helmed the feature film Rudderless, will foray into TV when he directs episode seven of Shameless’ upcoming fifth season. “Two years ago I wrote one of the episodes, and now I’ll direct one,” he says, adding with a laugh, “I might even try acting some day.”
Several other actors have been doubly-blessed to moonlight as directors and still turn in Emmy-worthy performances. There’s also Robin Wright, Don Cheadle, Josh Charles, Bryan Cranston, Jon Hamm and Amy Poehler—2014 acting nominees who already have directed their own shows, or are making their TV helming debuts in the coming season. Though they’re not on this year’s nom list, past Emmy contenders Liev Schreiber and John Slattery have directed episodes of Ray Donovan and Mad Men, respectively.
So, what are these actors’ motivations, to borrow another clichéd term? Though they have varying approaches to directing, these double-threats appear to have two things in common: The belief that acting experience is essential to directing one’s peers effectively and the desire to be scared to death.
As Macy approaches his TV helming debut, he considers the challenge “a lot scarier” than taking on the feature film Rudderless, which made a well-received bow at Sundance in January. To borrow from the title, Macy believes TV directors are more “rudderless.” “It’s fast. Yesterday we (shot) eight-and-a-quarter pages without blinking,” he says. “Shameless shoots in a day what a big feature would shoot in almost two weeks. It’s a little more of the Wild-West-gunslinger-approach to directing.”
The actor credits his many years in front of the TV camera for the confidence to now stand behind it. “I’ve been in the presence of some great directors. I think it rubs off,” he says. “I’ve also been in the presence of some who couldn’t direct vomit into a paper bag. That’s also a lesson.”
Charles, whose The Good Wife character was famously killed off this year, so far has directed three episodes of the CBS series. He will return as a guest director in Season 6. “It’s exhausting and I lose a lot of weight, and I don’t sleep a lot, and I wonder, ‘Why did I want to do this again?’ ” he says. “I think (the appeal) is about being part of the telling of the story, instead of just being a piece of the storytelling.”
Charles has been purposely vague when asked about whether he had planned to quit the show earlier than Season 5, but changed his mind when offered the opportunity to direct more episodes. “I think (the producers) were happy with me directing and wanted me to do some more,” he says circumspectly.
As for the old belief that film is a director’s medium and TV a writer/producer medium, Charles says things aren’t so cut and dry anymore. While directing TV can be thankless work, as an actor, he learned a lot that made the prospect of directing his peers something that kept him awake at night.
“I grew up on sets with my dad, who was a commercial director, so I was comfortable on the set with a camera,” says Charles, whose preparation included reading filmmaking books and consulting with friends, including Slattery, who had made a seamless transition into directing. “I know how important a director can be, and I also know how words, ill-used, can negatively affect an actor. I didn’t want to give result-oriented direction. I wanted to give images and verbs and things that were actable, to paint pictures for people.”
Actors say they know from experience how to give tangible direction, not emotions to play. House of Lies showrunner Matt Carnahan gives Cheadle big points for knowing the difference when he directed an episode of the series this past season. “You cannot play an idea,” Carnahan says. “Don really has an understanding of that . . . It is a huge thing that most directors never get.”
Cheadle recently segued from directing on the small to big screen with the Miles Davis biopic, Miles Ahead, that he currently is busy starring in and directing. Cheadle says doing both jobs at the same time is “nerve-wracking, but you really come to understand how incredibly important (directing) is.” On the House of Lies set he relied on his fellow actors to inform his performance. “I try not to direct myself,” he adds.
For Charles, who experienced directing an episode of Good Wife while his character was still alive, and one after, the second was easier. “When I act, I like to act, and when I direct, I like to direct,” he says with a laugh. “I’m glad I did (both at the same time), but it’s exhausting and not for me.”
Macy is looking forward to finding out whether, as a director, he’ll see himself as eccentric as the actors he’s directed so far. “I flatter myself that I’m pretty good at putting on a hat and taking off another hat,” he observes.
As for his future as a director, Macy says he was sold on the prospect while working on Rudderless. “A director’s purview is the world—not just the world of the story, but the world of the production from end to end,” he says. “It’s sort of shocking how there’s really no one behind you. You are all alone out there. I loved it, but it’s frightening.”