The 10 Greatest Modern-Day Director-Actor Collaborations

When a good director first meets a talented actor, chances are they might do something amazing together. And if their connection is instant, it might take them to future and plenty more honorable pieces of cinema. The actors are the muses, they inspire the directors just as they inspire and guide them, growing towards achievements that will make them both better at their crafts.

It’s been written before, in the form of “the greatest collaborations of all time”, but we’re now watching the rise and/or continuity of several great partnerships worth of our time as cinephiles. It’s time for modern-day director-actor teams to show what they’ve been doing and what they’re still capable of. What can we expect from people who’ve worked together on more than one occasion and insist on doing it again?

Here are ten choices, mostly from the 2000s, of talented and interesting projects made by at least the same director and actor, more than once. While some have had a long run and continue giving signs of work ahead within the same duo, others are just starting out – but have already offered us hours of great cinema, and left us hoping for more.


10. Tim Burton & Johnny Depp

Perhaps the most mainstream, well-known collaboration between director-actor. Their collaboration is so well-established that viewers almost instantly associate one’s work with the other’s. When Burton made the choice to cast Depp for “Edward Scissorhands,” it came as a surprise: the actor was then known for being a hearthrob in the television series “21 Jump Street.” The two had an instant connection based on mutual interests and similiar childhoods.

Nowadays, anyone can argue that Depp plays Burton in all of their films together (something Burton refutes but Depp agrees with). Besides having an unmistakable bond, their partnership is by far one of the most successful in cinema history, with “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (2005) and “Alice in Wonderland” (2010) grossing together over $1,5 billion worldwide.

While other actors, specifically Helena Bonham Carter, are also usual participants in Burton’s films, Depp takes the role of inseparable. And while it was a wonderful revelation of potential when “Edward Scissorhands” came out, their most valuable work is perhaps in “Ed Wood” (1994), where it’s plain to see and better understand the theory of Depp playing Burton. In that film alone there’s proof of their togetherness, the unison there is when an actor and director understand each other perfectly.


9. Christopher Nolan & Michael Caine

Nolan, the director who has rebooted the blockbuster – or just an auteur who thinks big – met Michael Caine when he went to the actor’s house with a copy of the script for the first film in his Batman trilogy. Caine thought the man on his doorstep was a messenger, until he presented himself. After the actor accepted such role, he went on to accept all following five films of the same director. The respected British actor often plays an adviser, a wise older man.

While Nolan certainly has a habit of calling an actor for a second or third film, as is the example of Christian Bale, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe, Anne Hathaway and Cillian Murphy, it’s been made clear that Caine’s presence is now a requirement. Nolan has called Caine his “good luck charm,” so we’re bound to continue seeing him in following projects.


8. Richard Linklater & Ethan Hawke

This director-actor collaboration can be summed up with a quote from Linklater himself at Hawke’s Hollywood handprint and footprint cerimony: “He’s the greatest collaborator in my life, the greatest collaborator that anyone could have.”

Knowing each other for over 20 years, they have worked together in a total of 8 films, starting in 1995 with the first of the ‘Before Trilogy’ – one of their most celebrated collaborations. Shooting three parts of the same story by the same director in three different times over a span of 18 years is effort enough, but then the world found out about “Boyhood” (2014).

Ultimately, Linklater made us see Hawke age onscreen, presenting us one of the best – if not the best – performance of his career, along with his undeniable loyalty. Hawke committed to a 12 year project, and above that, he was to take over as director in case Linklater died. When a director and an actor share this level of trust and are both as talented as these two are, great achievements are more than assured.


7. Pedro Almodóvar & Penélope Cruz

This pair has worked together on five different full-length films and are one of the best things to come out of modern Spanish cinema. Director Pedro Almodóvar is known to direct women particularly well, and that happened first with previous muse Carmen Maura. When that collaboration came to an end in the early 1990s, he watched Bigas Luna’s “Jamon Jamon,” which starred 17-year-old Penélope Cruz.

Although he couldn’t initially find her a role due to her young age, an opportunity came with “Live Flesh” (1997) where she played a teen prostitute giving birth on a bus. After that, she started a healthy journey of significant roles, portraying a young nun who was HIV positive and pregnant with a transvestite’s child.

After Hollywood took Cruz away for a couple of years, she returned to work with Almodóvar to grant him some instant success, and together they made “Volver” (2007) and “Broken Embraces” (2009). In Almodóvar’s latest, “I’m So Excited!” (2013) she has a worth-the-watch cameo.

While Cruz certainly opened some doors for the director, “Volver” is still arguably her greatest performance, getting the Oscar nod for it and having shared the Best Actress at Cannes with the rest of the cast. And as she once said: “In terms of personal experience, being in his films have been some of the best times in my life. Growing and learning. I don’t just see them as movies. I feel he could give his life for a movie, and so could I.”


6. Quentin Tarantino & Christoph Waltz

Until Quentin Tarantino had the wit and luck of casting himm as SS Colonel Hans Landa in “Inglorious Basterds” (2009), Christoph Waltz was but a respected talent in Germany and Austria, focusing mainly in TV roles to support his family. From the first, captivating opening scene of that film, every cinephile knew that this actor was unique and clearly had an extensive comprehension of the director’s script.

Their second collaboration in “Django Unchained” (2012) happened because, as Tarantino mentioned, he found himself writing a role specifically for the Austrian actor. In this film that he had been wanting to make for so long, there wasn’t a German dentist/bounty hunter until he met the actor – and the character just came out of his pen.

While there’s still only two collaborations between them, both earned Waltz an Academy Award for Actor in a Supporting Role and the latest earned Tarantino the Best Writing in an Original Screenplay. Tarantino has said it happened with Waltz as it happened in “Pulp Fiction” (1994) and “Jackie Brown” (1997), among others, as it’s simply the result of when a writer-director deeply enjoys the way his words come out of such performances. And with Waltz, “it’s a bingo”.