From Ryan Gosling to Angelina Jolie: some don'ts and dos for actors-turned-directors

With so many Hollywood actors opting to direct their own films, is there anything they can learn from others’ mistakes?

Nicholas Barber
Friday 10 April 2015 17:57
The place beyond the lines: Ryan Gosling leaves the acting to others as he directs ‘Lost River’
The place beyond the lines: Ryan Gosling leaves the acting to others as he directs ‘Lost River’

"Whatever I do next,” Hollywood heart-throb Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) tells his agent Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven) in the trailer for the approaching Entourage movie, “I also want to direct”. Ari is appalled – his toothy young buddy is a mere actor, after all – but Vince is right on trend: more and more Hollywood stars are falling for the lure of the headphones and the video monitor.

In the past two years, actors-turned-directors who have released films include Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Franco, Lake Bell, Angelina Jolie, Dexter Fletcher, Jon Favreau, George Clooney, John Turturro, Kenneth Branagh, Ralph Fiennes, Tommy Lee Jones, and, the grandaddy of them all, Clint Eastwood, while the past two weeks have seen the release of Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling’s directorial debuts, The Water Diviner and Lost River respectively.

But though getting behind the camera can bring career prestige, it’s also a baptism of fire, as Gosling well knows: his Lynchian fever dream has garnered what can be kindly called “mixed reviews” since its debut at last year’s Cannes. So, here are a few don’ts and dos for any other A-listers thinking of grabbing a megaphone and shouting, “Action!”

DON’T ... indulge your avant-garde side

It must be tempting, when you’re finally in charge of your own film, to prove that you’re not just an amazingly pretty face: you’re an artiste. But if you push too hard in this direction, the results can be messy, as Gosling’s surreal Lost River shows. Other cautionary examples include Sir Anthony Hopkins’ 2007 film Slipstream, a widely reviled hallucinatory experiment which he also scripted and scored and starred in; and Madonna’s 2011 debacle, WE, a historical drama about Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson, which mashed in present-day New York and a fantasy sequence soundtracked by the Sex Pistols (see also: every one of James Franco’s vanity projects).

A film still from Ryan Gosling's directorial debut Lost River

DON’T ... write it yourself

There are honourable exceptions to this rule, but making the switch from acting to directing is hard enough without taking on screenwriting duties as well, so it might be wise to delegate. For example, Tommy Lee Jones’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, one of the most acclaimed actor-turned-director debuts of recent times, was scripted by Guillermo Arriaga, who was already a lauded screenwriter. Kenneth Branagh and Ralph Fiennes went one better: both of their first film-making efforts were written by Shakespeare. In contrast, Tom Hanks’s writing is the weak point in his two films, That Thing You Do! and Larry Crowne, as are John Turturro’s scripts for his two, Romance & Cigarettes and Fading Gigolo. Speaking of which ...

DON’T ... be narcissistic

Actors are often called upon to play irresistibly attractive love gods and goddesses. That’s part of the job. But when they play those roles in films that they’ve directed (and written, too, in most cases), it’s always going to raise eyebrows. In Fading Gigolo, Turturro is a lothario paid by Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara to have sex with them simultaneously. In Jon Favreau’s seventh film, Chef, he has just broken up with his wife, Sofia Vergara, and is having sex with Scarlett Johansson. And in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon, the star casts himself as a ladykiller who has sex with Scarlett Johansson. Notice a theme here?

But if the primary goal of many male actor-turned-director seems to be to pretend to go to bed with Scarlett Johansson and/or Sofia Vergara, female a-t-ds can be just as shameless. In I Hate Valentine’s Day, My Big Fat Greek Wedding star Nia Vardalos casts herself as a Brooklyn florist who drives men wild. And in Then She Found Me, the forty-something Helen Hunt plays a thirty-something teacher who mesmerises Colin Firth.

Which brings us to a related matter: acting your age. In his biopic of crooner Bobby Darin, Beyond The Sea, the 45-year-old Kevin Spacey cast himself as Darin, who died aged 37. Worse, he cast Kate Bosworth as Sandra Dee, forgetting that Dee was a mere six years younger than Darin, while Bosworth is 24 years younger than Spacey. Oops. And so, to be on the safe side ...

DO ... shine the spotlight on a less famous actor

George Clooney may be the dictionary definition of a leading man, but he started his directorial career by handing the lead roles to Sam Rockwell and David Strathairn, in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night, and Good Luck, respectively; he was rewarded with a fantastic performance in each case. And, from Gary Oldman’s Nil By Mouth, with Ray Winstone and Kathy Burke, to Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, a tremendous vehicle for Britain’s fast-rising Jack O’Connell, there are plenty more films which benefit from this actors-directing-actors alchemy, so relegate yourself to the supporting cast and make someone else a star.

DO ... adapt a book

Even more sensible than directing someone else’s screenplay is adapting a novel or biography. It prevents your film from seeming like an ego trip, shifting attention to the source material and away from the actor calling the shots. Take Ben Affleck: once known for his unerring eye for a dreadful role, he was reborn as a critical darling behind-the-camera with Gone Baby Gone, a thriller derived from Dennis Lehane’s Boston private-eye novel, and subsequently came up trumps with two more literary adaptations, The Town and Oscar-winner Argo. Meanwhile, hip indie actress Sarah Polley took audiences by surprise when, in her mid-twenties, she made Alice Munro’s short story, “The Bear Came over the Mountain”, a tender romantic drama about three seventy-somethings, into the acclaimed Away from Her. And, finally ...

Ben Affleck, star and director of Argo

DO ... stick with it

Clint Eastwood directed his first film, Play Misty For Me, in 1971. Twenty-two years later, he won a Best Director Oscar for Unforgiven. He has since been nominated four more times, and won again once (Million Dollar Baby), so it’s worth playing the long game – even if you are Ryan Gosling.

Lost River is out now

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