It’s an actor’s job to occupy the body of another person. To become so emotionally connected to the character that they’re pretending to be, that it’s difficult to discern where they end and the character begins. It’s regular practice for some actors to insist that the cast and crew refer to them, on camera and off, not by their god given name, but by the name of whom they’re portraying.
They insist to themselves and everyone around them that they are someone else so vigorously that for a fleeting moment in time, the characters they portray jump off the page and exist in flesh and blood. After seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman’s transformation into Truman Capote and Daniel Day Lewis’s into The Butcher ‐ it’s easy for me to see how other equally devoted acting talents could transform, convincingly, into the skin of a director.
There are many reasons actors try their hand at directing. The competition for roles is grueling, so for some, the only way to insure getting a major part or role is to helm the production themselves. In other cases, studios pass on a film altogether so agreeing to direct the film is the only way to get it made. Another reason still, is as an actor, you posses little power over the project as a whole and by directing a film you get to have an otherwise unparalleled level of say in how the finished product
Many actors have tried, with some success, to crossover to the other side of the lens. Here is a list of 15 of the all time best. Please note that we didn’t include actor-directors like Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Woody Allen who constantly appeared in their own movies as the lead, we also didn’t include directors like Charles Laughton who made only one film during his career as a director. The directors on this list are the ones who went through two clear phases as actors first then great directors.
15. Bill Paxton
Actor: Tombstone, True Lies, Twister
Audiences have a love hate relationship with Bill Paxton. His acting career has spanned nearly 40 years and 82 credits. He’s never blown anyone away with his acting but he’s always consistent. Sort of like the friendly Caucasian version of Danny Trejo.
Director: Frailty, The Greatest Game Ever Played
Bill Paxton hasn’t directed many films to date, but the couple he has made, (in true Paxton fashion) are consistent. Neither of his movies is a game changer, but they were never supposed to be. Like a good card player, Bill knows that the secret to longevity isn’t flash. He’s kind of the anti Kevin Costner in a way. While Costner swings for the fences in the pursuit of making a classic (consequences be damned), Paxton knows there’s a bottom line and he zeros in on it. He’s basically the Iceman to Costner’s Maverick.
14. Jon Favreau
Actor: Rudy, Swingers, The Replacements
Jon Favreau’s first mentionable role was as D‐bob in Rudy. Though it was a small role, it was on that film set that he befriended fellow up and comer Vince Vaughn. The two collaborated and stared in Swingers just three years later, which launched both of their careers and laid the groundwork for many Favreau/Vaughn movies to come. He has worked steadily in film and TV ever since and has had an acting part in some of the most mentionable projects of the last couple decades.
Director: Made, Elf, Iron Man
Cashing in on his palpable chemistry with Vaughn, Jon Favreau directed his first theatrical released film Made in 2001, which would star the duo. The sturdy reviews of which allowed him to make his next film, the wildly successful Elf. The strong debut of Elf not only gave the major studios confidence in him as a director but also shined a light on Favreau’s natural ability to create fantastical worlds with his filmmaking. His next four films Zathura: A Space Adventure, Iron Man, Iron Man 2 and Cowboys & Aliens showcase his deeply imaginative vision and put him in the conversation with names like “Lucas” and “Abrams”.
13. Sean Penn
Actor: Carlito’s Way, I am Sam, Mystic River
Although Sean Penn has threatened to give up acting since 1991, his on camera presence is as strong as ever with over 50 acting credits under his belt. He is a two time academy award winner for best actor in a leading role and has won and been nominated for countless other awards. He is quoted with saying “quitting acting is harder than quitting nicotine.”
Director: The Crossing Guard, The Pledge, Into the Wild
With Penn’s father being a well‐known television director, it came as no surprise when at the age of 31 Penn wrote and directed his first feature film “The Indian Runner”. This ushered in a new phase of his career. He has since made 3 more feature films in which he chose not to cast himself and rather work strictly in a directorial capacity. Each film he has made has systematically been better received and reviewed by critics than the last and, if the trend continues, Sean Penn’s name will carry as much weight behind the camera as it does in front of it.
12. George Clooney
Actor: …You damn well know what he’s been in.
George Clooney is another great example of a man who was just too good looking to not be cast in television. The twist was that he actually turned out to be a really good actor. After landing the lead role in Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn he was able to shake his “E.R.” image and land big blockbuster roles like the titular character in Batman and Ocean’s Eleven and ultimately become one of today’s premiere leading men.
Director: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night, and Good Luck. The Ides of March
In 2002, Clooney took all of his pent up charisma and tried his hand at directing a passion project called Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Looking back, this was really the perfect choice for his directorial debut. It was dark and playful and set the tone for what you could expect from a Clooney film.
The stories he chooses to tell are ones that seldom get told and, in a world where movies like Transformers 4 and Expendables 3 clutter the box office, it’s refreshing to know that there are still filmmakers out there with means that aren’t hell bent on taking such a beautiful art form and reducing it to the lowest common denominator. Averaging an impressive one film every three years, this could just be the beginning of a very strong career behind the camera.
11. Warren Beatty
Actor: Bonnie and Clyde, Bugsy, $
With his mom being a drama teacher and his older sister (Shirley Maclaine) making a name for herself on Broadway, Warren Beatty decided to turn down several football scholarships and pursue acting. His solid build and good looks made him ideal for television, where he worked with success throughout the 50’s. In 1961 he landed his first film role in the movie Splendor in the Grass and never looked back. He has since starred in dozens of films and established himself as a dominant leading man in Hollywood.
Director: Heaven Can Wait, Reds, Bulworth
Warren almost didn’t make this list out of spite; he’s got good looks, a filthy hot wife, lots of money, a booming career and the kind of athletic ability that’s typically reserved for African genes – so he might as well get this too, right? In 1978 Warren Beatty directed the smash hit Heaven Can Wait which pretty much cemented him in Hollywood history, but if that’s not enough he followed it up with Reds for which he took home the Oscar for best director.
All in all he has 40 award wins and 38 nominations, on top of which the above‐mentioned films have respectively been later remade or rebooted because just one version of them wasn’t enough. He has made a few more films over the years and is currently directing another.
10. Kevin Costner
Actor: Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Waterworld
Though Kevin Costner has taken his career in a sort of Liam Neeson, older action star direction, he built a career on being a relatable everyman type; an actor for the people, if you will. Whether he’s playing the regular Joe sports guy, the regular Joe
badass, or just the regular Joe: There are very few actors that can get the job done the same way that he can.
Director: Dances with Wolves, The Postman, Open Range
Kevin Costner’s directorial debut Dances with Wolves nabbed him the Oscar for best director and best picture, which was both a blessing and a curse. It’s not easy to follow up a hit, and there’s no better proof than his sophomore attempt with The Postman, which opened to horrific reviews and an average critic rating of 9 out of 100. He later went on to make Open Range, which, while not a huge box office success, was a really well made and underrated film.
I chose not to sugar coat his track record and only mention his successes because what’s to be admired about Costner’s directorial style is that he isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and take chances unlike so many directors working today. The only thing that Costner’s movies have in common with each other is that they each star Costner and that’s commendable.
9. Mel Gibson
Actor: Mad Max, Lethal Weapon, Forever Young
Mel Gibson has some trouble filtering his self and controlling his emotions to say the least, but that’s exactly why he makes such a good actor. It didn’t take producers long to realize that a pissed off Gibson was simply mesmerizing to watch. Ransom, Payback, The Patriot, Edge of Darkness… the list goes on. His face is an open book and if you wind him up bad enough, it’s like watching a master’s class in emotion.
Director: Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto
Mel Gibson first took on the role of director with the 1993 film The Man Without a Face, which while not overwhelmingly good, wasn’t half bad and showcased a real knack for camera placement. It was two years later with the release of Braveheart that won him the Academy Award for best picture and best director (not to mention 24 other wins) that it became obvious that this guy was for real.
He followed that up with the highly talked about and successful The Passion of the Christ and then Apocalypto. His directing career came to a screeching halt in the wake of his extremely publicized rants and racial slurs. As it stands, though, his directorial portfolio is amazing as is and with a little TLC of his public image, we might just see another Mel Gibson epic.