The new wave of film stars directing themselves

When talent, intuition and vanity collide, actors directing themselves often create magic. We look into what happens when you cut out the middle man in these 10 showcases of stars getting into the director’s chair.

Annie Mullineux
Updated:

A Star Is Born (2018)

A Star Is Born (2018)

The last decade has been boom time for actors directing themselves. Following in the path of icons such as Marlon Brando, Clint Eastwood and Barbra Streisand, stars are using the fame gained from years of acting to command creative control. It’s a win-win situation: Hollywood cashes in on the selling power of their name; they get to flex their artistic muscles on the other side of the camera.

There is always the question of ego at play. What better way to feel a part is made for you than to choose yourself to play it? This also cuts out the middleman: there’s no longer any need to find the words to express performance notes. Good acting is so often in the transient moments that can’t be explained; good directing is creating the world that can make these moments flourish. With all this in one brain, why wouldn’t it work?

This list of 10 actor-director films puts these turns under the microscope: does self-directing reveal a complexity in the actor’s performance? Is there anything autobiographical about putting so much of yourself into a film? And do they always give themselves the best scenes?

Joel Edgerton — The Gift (2015), Boy Erased (2018)

Following roles including Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby (2013) and opposite Tom Hardy in Warrior (2011), Joel Edgerton has proved himself a modern renaissance man, becoming a screenwriter, director and producer too. He directed himself in 2015’s The Gift, a chilling exercise in the limits of affableness and what happens when it gives way to tension and threat. Now comes his second directorial effort, Boy Erased, which is currently in cinemas.

This one tells the true story of Jared Eamons (an amazingly nuanced Lucas Hedges), who, after confessing his homosexuality to highly religious parents, is sent for gay conversion therapy. Boy Erased is unrelenting in its portrayal of the wretchedness of Eamons’ experience in ‘therapy’, with the odd joke adding a little levity to a heavy subject. Edgerton plays chief therapist Victor Sykes, who admonishes Jared severely for these feelings. Among a mostly muted cast, it’s the showiest part.

Bradley Cooper — A Star Is Born (2018)

A lot has been said about Bradley Cooper’s transformation into weathered, whiskey-soaked Jackson Maine in A Star Is Born. It’s a chameleonic performance that gives nothing away of the clean-cut, clean-living persona of Cooper in reality. What makes his performance even more technically impressive is that Cooper was controlling the set as well as his highly modulated performance.

With the blueprint of three previous screen versions of A Star Is Born to work from, Cooper delivers a visually confident meditation on the theme of suffering for art and love. There are moments of such visceral shame and hopelessness in Maine’s behaviour that they feel as if they could only have come from a place of truth; Cooper has said that he finds “the beauty of turning whatever things you’ve gone through into a story [to be] very cathartic”. A Star Is Born is at once a timeless romance and a personal essay on a tortured male artist that could only have come from one.

John Krasinski — The Hollars (2016), A Quiet Place (2018) 

When A Quiet Place was released in April 2018, it quickly became a barnstorming genre phenomenon. Earning $50m in the US, it had the biggest opening weekend ever for an original horror story. John Krasinski, who had already starred in and directed The Hollars (2016) and was previously well known for his role as Jim in The Office US, directed himself again, placing him firmly at the helm and centre of this ‘elevated horror’.

On the surface, A Quiet Place is a modest thriller with a good hook: do anything louder than breathe and you’ll immediately be hunted by a speedy, keen-eared alien. But Krasinski’s film is also one in which Emily Blunt, the mother of his children, plays the mother of his children, and which centres on a man grappling with the responsibilities and difficulty of protecting a young family in a severely scary world. Krasinski has admitted himself that during development he thought the film “could be so much more than just a scary movie. It could actually be one of the best metaphors for parenthood ever.”

Ralph Fiennes — Coriolanus (2011), The Invisible Woman (2013), The White Crow (2018)

Ralph Fiennes enjoys trying to pin down the male ego. His directorial efforts aim to capture elusive genius, whether it’s Rudolph Nureyev’s belligerent belief in his talent above all else, or Charles Dickens’ masterful way with words. In 2013’s The Invisible Woman, Fiennes takes centre stage as Dickens to Felicity Jones’ Nelly Ternan, his mistress. But he takes more of a back seat in his latest, The White Crow, playing Nureyev’s stoic, nurturing mentor Pushkin, with all his lines spoken entirely in Russian.

Much like the man himself, Fiennes-directed films are lofty fare — thespian-led chamber pieces. They often harken back to the manners, intrigue or confines of another time, whether it be Nureyev’s inability to defect from the Soviet Union in The White Crow, the institution of marriage and patriarchy in The Invisible Woman or divides between the military and citizens in Coriolanus.

Denzel Washington — Fences (2016)

Denzel Washington’s Fences found the Oscar-winning actor directing a screenplay adapted by August Wilson from his own play. The result starred Washington himself alongside another acting powerhouse, Viola Davis, as sparring spouses Troy and Rose Maxson. It grabbed three big Oscar nominations (best actor, best actress, best picture), even if this familial drama, big enough to feel claustrophobic on stage, felt too small to be consequential on screen.

We’re long familiar with Washington’s screen persona as the man in total command of any given situation: he’s always the guy to give orders you can’t ignore and ultimately save the day, or to walk away from an explosion without even noticing it. It’s tempting to imagine him applying the same muscular approach to directing.

Angelina Jolie — By the Sea (2015)

It’s hard to divorce fiction from reality here – Jolie directs herself and (ex-)husband Brad Pitt in a stylish lament about the implosion of a marriage, when affection and communication have broken down.

Jolie has always seemed an actor who’s hyper-aware of the effect her beauty has on the way she’s perceived. Directing herself, this beauty is a tool to wield here: Jolie’s ever-so-public profile is a mask we can’t see behind, which makes the reticence of her character so much more prominent. Since By the Sea, Jolie has gone on to direct a string of strong films centred on warfare of a more literal type, with 2014’s Unbroken and 2017’s First They Killed My Father.

Natalie Portman — A Tale of Love and Darkness (2015)

A Tale of Love and Darkness was a passion project for Natalie Portman. She optioned the film rights for the novel from its author Amos Oz in person; she wrote the script, starred in and directed it.

It’s a story of her home country, Israel, and its journey to statehood in the late 1940s. The results got flack for ignoring the Palestinian side of the struggle, with Portman responding that her film is “a particular story about a family at a particular time in history, from their particular point of view”. Certainly, Portman’s film is more about her own character, witnessed through her son’s eyes, than it is about conflict. She plays the part entirely in Hebrew, and it’s a tragic, enigmatic performance.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt — Don Jon (2013)

Through parts such as Tom in 500 Days of Summer (2009), Joseph Gordon-Levitt established an affable everyman persona that hadn’t really been pushed against… until he chose to do so directing himself with Don Jon. The star surprised everyone when this directorial debut was revealed to be about a Jersey Shore-esque, porn-addicted lothario.

The gamble paid off, however, as this comedy drama, about a brutish man who is unable to relate sexually or emotionally to his girlfriend, was generally well-received. It’s a neatly structured, well performed and entertaining look at intimacy and masculinity. You can consider it testament to Levitt’s charisma that this risqué change of pace ended up so affecting.

Ben Affleck — The Town (2010), Argo (2012)

Since his emergence in Hollywood in the 90s, Ben Affleck has often been portrayed as a handsome face with undercurrents of menace or farce. He was already flexing his creative side behind the camera with his precocious screenplay (co-written with Matt Damon) for Good Will Hunting (1997), a film in which he also starred. But in his directorial debut, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, it was brother Casey who took centre stage as a private investigator at the centre of a Boston kidnapping case.

Ben first directed himself in the Boston-set heist thriller The Town (2010), before repeating the trick to best picture Oscar-glory with the Iranian hostage crisis drama Argo in 2012. It suggests an impressive lack of vanity that, in the latter case, Affleck takes a relative back seat among the ensemble cast, while Affleck the director finesses the action and tension. With films based on real political events, it can be tricky to juggle the facts while keeping things entertaining, but Argo really delivers.

Drew Barrymore — Whip It (2009)

From child stardom in E.T. (1982) to grown-up roles in fare like Charlie’s Angels (2000) and 50 First Dates (2004), Drew Barrymore was a seasoned Hollywood actor by the time she directed her first feature, Whip It. It’s refreshing that after such a long time in the Hollywood system, she chose to direct a tale of female empowerment and joy in supportive community.

An indie coming-of-age story that links physicality to strength of character, Whip It follows Ellen Page’s Bliss as she becomes embedded in her local roller derby community, finding friends and self-confidence in the rough-and-tumble sport. Barrymore plays one of a coterie of roller derby babes, the wonderfully named Smashley Simpson. Although it isn’t necessarily challenging or highly original, it’s a directing debut with energy and enthusiasm to spare; there’s an easy comparison between this effervescence and many of the characters Barrymore has played on screen.

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