Tuesday, June 8, 2010

On Directing: TV Actors Star Turning Behind-The-Scenes…

Actors get the bug to try their hand at directing just about as often as kids growing up watching movies and television get the bug to try their hand at acting! Everyone from Drew Barrymore to George Clooney have made the transition in films, more often than not pulling double duty on a project and jumping between being behind and in front of the camera. And it's becoming an even more common phenomenon on television as well, especially on long-running shows on which the actors may be getting itchy to move on or try something different.

The newest in that line of ever-growing talent is Supernatural's own Jensen Ackles, who The CW confirmed will direct an episode during the sixth season which begins this September. Ackles' greatest challenge will probably be figuring out scheduling because regardless of whether his episode is Sam-Centric or Dean-centric or evenly matched, there is the added element of the FX that many shows don't have to worry about. He will have to split time rehearsing as an actor, rehearsing his actors, storyboarding, scene imagery, and looking at test make-up and CGI effects. And that's just in pre-production! Thankfully the show has a great production management team who can help him out and schedule him down to every waking minute of the day because he is in for quite the 25 hour-a-day ride!

Of course an actor-director's work doesn't even seem to really begin until they get on the set to start shooting. While they are in make-up, getting ready for a scene, they are running lines just as usual, but they are also often looking over last minute wardrobe choices or approving which prop will be the "hero," none of which are decisions an actor makes. And when the bell rings, signifying the cut for one scene and onto the next, the actor-director doesn't head back to his or her trailer to have down time while second team comes in to light and block the next one. He or she pretty much stays glued to the set all day, keeping even a distant eye on things like lens changes. So let's just say that Ackles' new wife might not see a whole lot of him during that episode...unless she pulls up a chair and stays glued right alongside him!

But past TV actor-director talents have proven that the added artistic insight they have from being a long-running part of the show before stepping behind the camera helps to not only preserve the show's integrity but to also make the simultaneous hat-wearing a bit easier. After all, they know the ins and outs and nuances of the show, having had quite a few years to get the rhythm down under their belt.

Gillian Anderson stepped behind the camera during the seventh season of The X-Files to direct an episode entitled "All Things" that quickly became a fan favorite (Duchovny directed a few during his tenure there, as well). Anderson actually pulled triple duty on this one, also writing the Scully-heavy episode that had her character experiencing an emotional turning point as she reevaluated her life after learning a former flame was deathly ill. Some actors get in over their heads trying to split their time, but Anderson had some guidance with the episode from late series director Kim Manners. Good thing, too, because there is no excuse for choosing a slow-motion shot of yourself walking out of a building and across the street!

Allison Mack is another genre actor (Smallville) who grabbed the big, proverbial bullhorn, first in the eight season and then again last year. Her directorial debut was in the episode "Power," which was a character turning point in a way for Chloe Sullivan because within the episode Clark learned she was keeping secrets about Lana. However, in order to avoid burning out during the week, it wasn't an episode in which Chloe had to carry many scenes. Instead, Mack was able to spend ample time working with her fellow actors in rehearsals and with the camera crew to grab the right angles and shots.

James Roday's Hitchcock-ian turn during the season four finale of Psych just may be the most stylized outside of the show's usual look a series star taking a turn as director has gotten. "Mr Yin Presents" taught Roday to work in a way that actors are usually never allowed to: flying by the seat of his pants. When he is in front of the camera, all he has to worry about is saying his lines and hitting his mark, but as a director, he has to collaborate with every department, from production design to wardrobe to make-up. During an interview for that finale episode, Roday shared that the most important thing was "rolling with the punches" and appreciating when he got at least three or four things that he set out wanting at the start of the production day.

Years ago David Schwimmer spent ten episodes in the power seat of Friends, where he also co-starred as Ross Geller. Whether he was working on episodes in which he was in the A plot, like "The One With The Red Sweater" or not, the four-camera set-up allowed for less prep time with the crew, freeing him up to focus on working with his actors and on the story.

What it boils down to for an actor-director hybrid is really time management and learning to balance the various elements that they may have never before given a second thought when working only as the former. But when they do it right, the produce some of the richest, most interesting, and oftentimes most moving work. And I, for one, of course can't wait to see what Ackles has in store!


Cynthia said...

Jonathan Frakes went from Star Trek:TNG star to TV director. He works a lot these days on Leverage and he directed the new show Persons Unknown.

k said...

I also believe that Bryan Cranston directed at least one episode of Breaking Bad, and Tate Donovan directed 2 episodes (I think) in Season 2 of Damages.

danielletbd said...

Yes there are many I had to choose from! It may warrant a longer article with slideshow of clips :D

Kim said...

Good on Jensen for wanting to do more and have a go at directing. It is hard work but will hopefully be something he will be very proud of when it's done.

Just one gripe about this article, in mentioning other actors who have directed episodes of their show. David Duchovny directed more than one episode of The X-Files and wrote or co-wrote many more. Why single out Gillian Anderson with only a side mention of Mr D?