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‘He threatened my career’: 22 actors who didn’t get along with their directors

From the star Joel Schumacher dubbed ‘psychotic’ to the filmmaker who insisted Julia Roberts needed acting lessons, Adam White lists just some of the times actors and directors couldn’t stand each other

Wednesday 01 May 2024 09:05 BST
Gal Gadot in ‘Justice League’, Mike Myers in ‘Wayne’s World’ and Julia Roberts in ‘Steel Magnolias'
Gal Gadot in ‘Justice League’, Mike Myers in ‘Wayne’s World’ and Julia Roberts in ‘Steel Magnolias' (Shutterstock)

The Hollywood ideal is for actors and directors to make magic together. Think Gena Rowlands or John Cassavetes, or Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. But sometimes, regardless of the quality of the film that gets made, actors can’t stand their directors and vice versa.

What’s interesting about actor-director feuds, though, is that it’s very easy to keep quiet about them. Nobody gets along with everyone, and having many creative people operating in a tiny bubble will inevitably spark tension. So if a bit of off-camera vitriol spills out from the set and into public record, you just know real toxicity must have gone down.

Here are 17 times that movies were blighted by real-life feuding – from David O Russell’s prolific run of actor arguments, to the director who dared to tell Julia Roberts and Dolly Parton that they needed acting lessons.

Jake Gyllenhaal and David Fincher

David Fincher is an infamously exacting filmmaker, often shooting dozens and sometimes hundreds of takes. One actor who particularly struggled with Fincher’s approach was Jake Gyllenhaal, who worked with the filmmaker on 2007’s Zodiac. He said that year that Fincher “paints with people” while working, and that it’s “tough to be a colour”. Asked about Gyllenhaal’s comments in 2020, Fincher said that the former child actor had never “been asked to concentrate on minutiae”, adding that Gyllenhaal was “very distracted” on set.

“When he’d show up for work, he was very scattered,” Fincher told The New York Times. “[He had] his managers and his silly agents who were all coming to his trailer at lunch to talk to him about the cover of GQ and this and that. He was being nibbled to death by ducks, and not particularly smart ducks. They got in his vision, and it was hard for him to hit the fastball.”

Keira Knightley and John Carney

The musical drama Begin Again, starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, was such an innocuous film that it came as a surprise when director John Carney later dubbed Knightley a “supermodel” and criticised her acting while speaking to The Independent. He claimed that “being a film actor requires a certain level of honesty and self-analysis that I don’t think she’s ready for yet”, but later apologised. Asked for her own stance on their relationship, Knightley later said that she had accepted Carney’s apology but admitted that the Begin Again shoot was “very difficult” and that the pair “didn’t get on”. She added: “It’s just a thing that happens sometimes and I say that with no blame. It takes two to tango.”

Gene Hackman and Wes Anderson

It remains unclear what exactly bothered Gene Hackman about his Royal Tenenbaums director Wes Anderson, but he made it clear on set that he did not like him. In 2011, co-star Anjelica Huston claimed that Hackman told Anderson to “pull up [his] pants and act like a man”, while Noah Baumbach recalled Hackman dubbing Anderson a “c***” during filming. As for Anderson, though, he has no regrets about casting Hackman in the film, saying: “He’s a huge force and I really enjoyed working with him. Even though he was very challenging with me, it was very exciting seeing him launch into these scenes.”

Wes Anderson and Gene Hackman on the set of ‘The Royal Tenenbaums'
Wes Anderson and Gene Hackman on the set of ‘The Royal Tenenbaums' (James Hamilton/Touchstone/Kobal/Shutterstock)

The cast of Steel Magnolias and Herbert Ross

Despite being a beloved classic, the 1989 weepie Steel Magnolias had a tortured production, with most of the cast – Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Shirley Maclaine and Dolly Parton – clashing with director Herbert Ross. “My deepest memories of the film were how we bonded together after he told one of us or all of us we couldn’t act,” Field said in 2013. “He went after Julia with a vengeance. This was pretty much her first big film.” In 1993, Ross said that Roberts “looked bad and gave a very bad performance” in the film. In response, Roberts called Ross “mean and out of line”, adding: “If he thinks he can talk about me in such a condescending way and not have me say something about it, then he’s nuts”.

Parton has also claimed that Ross would repeatedly tell her on the set that she needed acting lessons. Bemused, she told him: “I’m not an actress, I’m Dolly Parton. I’m a personality who has been hired to do this movie. You’re the director. It’s your job to make me look like I’m acting.” Ross died in 2001.

Amy Adams and David O Russell

Buried in leaks from the Sony hack in 2014 were claims that Amy Adams and David O Russell clashed on the set of American Hustle, Russell’s convoluted con movie from the year before. Discussing their relationship in 2016, Adams confirmed that the filmmaker made her cry due to his process, which involved talking and shouting at his actors mid-scene. “He was hard on me, that’s for sure,” she told GQ. “It was a lot. I was really just devastated on set.” She added that she has no intention of working with him again.

George Clooney and David O Russell

Adams was just one of many stars to confirm friction with Russell. On the set of 1999’s Three Kings, George Clooney confronted the filmmaker after he “went nuts on an extra”, according to the actor. “I would not stand for him humiliating and yelling and screaming at crew members, who weren’t allowed to defend themselves,” Clooney said in 2003. “I don’t believe in it, and it makes me crazy. So my job was then to humiliate the people who were doing the humiliating.” He also dubbed working on the film “the worst experience of [his] life”.

Lily Tomlin and David O Russell

Then there’s Lily Tomlin, who was seen in leaked footage from the set of 2004’s I Heart Huckabees being screamed at by Russell and giving as good as she was getting. While the footage went viral in 2010 and somewhat dented Russell’s image in the public eye, Tomlin has repeatedly said that the pair made up after a few hours of tension. “We don’t want to misbehave; believe me, it’s embarrassing. It’s humiliating, you know?” she said in 2011. “Because you just lose it. You act like a crazy person. But I adore David. I adore him as a talent.”

Bruce Willis and Kevin Smith are all smiles on the set of ‘Cop Out'
Bruce Willis and Kevin Smith are all smiles on the set of ‘Cop Out' (Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock)

Bruce Willis and Kevin Smith

Willis and Smith’s mutual loathing of one another is, unusually, far more famous than the movie they actually worked on together. Star and director of the forgotten police comedy Cop Out (2010), the pair were at each other’s throats on set, and lambasted one another in the press as soon as it finished filming. Smith said in 2011 that working with Willis was “soul-crushing” and – in his 2021 autobiography – wrote that “Cop Out could have been a great experience if it were not for the fact that I met true darkness in Bruce Willis – I love making movies and he does not, at all”. Asked in 2013 what actually went down on set, Willis replied: “Poor Kevin. He’s just a whiner, you know? We had some personal issues about how we approached work. I don’t have an answer for him. I’m never going to call him out and lay him out in public. Sometimes you just don’t get along.”

Faye Dunaway and Roman Polanski

Dunaway’s feud with Polanski on the set of the classic film noir Chinatown quickly went down in Hollywood lore. They reportedly fought over costuming, hair and toilet breaks. The filmmaker would claim that Dunaway was “difficult” – a kiss of death for women of most eras in film – and dubbed her “a gigantic pain” in the press. In her autobiography, Dunaway claimed that misogyny led to the incidents on set being widely misreported. She claimed that Polanski was “incessantly cruel”, adding that he had a “never-ending need to humiliate” her, along with demonstrating behaviour that “bordered on sexual harassment”.

Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones and Joel Schumacher

In 1996, Batman Forever director Joel Schumacher called out two of the stars of the film, neither of whom was invited back for his sequel, Batman & Robin. “I’m tired of defending overpaid, overprivileged actors,” Schumacher said. “I pray I don’t work with them again.” Dubbing Jones an “a*****e” and Kilmer “psychotic”, Schumacher claimed that his relationship with Kilmer became so bad on the set that they stopped talking. “He was badly behaved, he was rude and inappropriate,” he claimed. “Then we had two weeks where he did not speak to me, but it was bliss.”

Bill Murray and Harold Ramis

A beautiful comic partnership between Murray and Ramis resulted in a number of classic films, including Caddyshack, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day. But it was the latter project – which Ramis directed and Murray starred in – that led to a 21-year bust-up. According to a 2018 biography of Ramis by his daughter Violet, the pair had such volatile tension on the set that Ramis ended up grabbing Murray by the shirt collar and throwing him against a wall. The biography claims that, after Murray swore off their friendship, Ramis was left “heartbroken, confused and yet unsurprised by the rejection”. More than two decades later, with Ramis on his deathbed, Murray appeared at his door with a box of doughnuts and proceeded to mend fences with his one-time collaborator at the very last minute.

Julia Roberts and Steven Spielberg on the set of ‘Hook'
Julia Roberts and Steven Spielberg on the set of ‘Hook' (Moviestore/Shutterstock)

Julia Roberts and Steven Spielberg

An infamous Hollywood feud primarily because of how famous both of them are, Roberts and Spielberg did not get along on the set of his polarising Peter Pan film Hook in 1991. Roberts was apparently not used to CGI work – she was playing Tinkerbell and acted by herself and against a green-screen for almost all of filming – and made her frustrations known on set. She was reportedly dubbed “Tinkerhell” by the crew as a result. “No, I never heard [the nickname],” Roberts later said. “But I’m a normal person. I mean, if I sit in my trailer for six hours doing nothing, I’m going to say: ‘What the f**k is going on?’” Spielberg himself admitted to feeling sorry for the star, as she was dealing with the breakdown of her relationship with Kiefer Sutherland during filming. “It was simply bad timing for all of us that she happened to start on Hook at that low point,” he said.

Mike Myers and Penelope Spheeris

The star and director of cult comedy Wayne’s World were tense with each other on the set of the film, with Myers complaining about the film’s ultimately iconic “head-banging to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’” scene – something Spheeris improvised on set – and then asking to edit the film without her. In the end, Myers blocked Spheeris from directing the film’s sequel. For what it’s worth, Spheeris said in 2017 that she has no ill will towards Myers. “It really made me a better person and a stronger person,” she told Entertainment Weekly. “I mean, I was really depressed over it … and I felt horrible. When you go through something like that, you just come out stronger. So I thank them for it.”

Burt Reynolds and Paul Thomas Anderson

Burt Reynolds may have received an Oscar nomination for his work in 1997’s Boogie Nights, but it didn’t quell his feelings about his director, Paul Thomas Anderson. The pair clashed on set, and Reynolds told GQ in 2015 that he wouldn’t work with him again despite the film’s acclaim. “Personality-wise, we didn’t fit,” Reynolds said. “I think mostly because he was young and full of himself. Every shot we did, it was like the first time [that shot had ever been done]. I remember the first shot we did in Boogie Nights, where I drive the car to Grauman’s Theater. After he said, ‘Isn’t that amazing?’ And I named five pictures that had the same kind of shot. It wasn’t original.”

Sam Elliott, Cher and Peter Bogdanovich on the set of ‘Mask'
Sam Elliott, Cher and Peter Bogdanovich on the set of ‘Mask' (Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock)

Cher and Peter Bogdanovich

Cher has form with feuding with her directors (“You just have to be as smart as I am,” she said in 1990. “If the director is smart, he is worth his weight in gold – otherwise I want him to leave me alone”) but it’s debatable whether any of her detractors have a point. She claimed in 2018 that she was only tense with her Witches of Eastwick director George Miller after he dubbed her “too old and not sexy”, while her Mask director Peter Bogdanovich gave a bizarre explanation for their on-set feud in 2019. After telling Vulture that Cher was the most difficult actor he’d ever worked with, Bogdanovich said: “She didn’t trust anybody, particularly men. She doesn’t like men. That’s why she’s named Cher. She dropped her father’s name. Sarkisian, it is. She can’t act. She won Best Actress at Cannes because I shot her very well”. Despite Bogdanovich’s claims about her lack of talent, Cher went on to win an Oscar for her 1987 film Moonstruck.

Harvey Keitel and Stanley Kubrick

Like an even more extreme version of David Fincher, Stanley Kubrick was renowned for making his actors shoot take after take until he was satisfied with the result. But this was sometimes so arduous that it bordered on the ridiculous. In 2012, Gary Oldman recalled an anecdote by Harvey Keitel in which he explained why he quit Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut in 1999. “He was doing the scene and they were just walking through a door and after the 68th take of this – just walking through a door – Harvey Keitel said ‘I’m out of here, you’re f***ing crazy’. He just said, ‘you’re f***ing out of your mind’, and left.” Keitel was replaced by the presumably more accommodating Sydney Pollack.

Gal Gadot, Ray Fisher and Joss Whedon

Production of 2017’s Justice League was a nightmare, with original director Zack Snyder bowing out due to a family crisis, and Joss Whedon roped in to essentially re-do the entire movie. While the situation had a happy ending – Snyder’s original cut of the film debuted to praise from fans in 2021 – Whedon’s own reputation diminished. Ray Fisher, who portrayed Cyborg in the film, alleged that Whedon dismissed his concerns about the revised script and behaved inappropriately on set, while Gadot alleged that Whedon “threatened [her] career” after she expressed unease with a sexualised comedy scene. Whedon has dropped out of the public eye since the allegations surfaced and has not spoken publicly about many of Fisher and Gadot’s claims.

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