Directors Can’t Act? Don’t tell Ron, Rob, Woody or Sophia
Everyone knows the names of the accomplished actors who have successfully transitioned to becoming respected film and television directors. To Baby Boomers, Ron Howard grew up from being Opie (“The Andy Griffith Show”) to Richie Cunningham (“Happy Days”) to directing Apollo 13, The Da Vinci Code and A Beautiful Mind. Rob Reiner (“All in the Family”) is ensconced in the comedy hall of cult classics with his turn as a director of This is Spinal Tap as well his work directing Misery, Stand By Me and The Princess Bride. But while contemporary culture probably regards Gene Kelly as a singer-dancer-actor, he also directed On The Town and Singin’ in the Rain. Other actors now directing: George Clooney, Sophia Coppola, Ben Affleck, Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood.
But a majority of directors have never appeared in front of the lens – or are forgotten for the times they did. They recognize early on that it doesn’t interest them, that they simply lack talent or that their appearance is unlikely to win them leading roles. They might also recognize the talent required to be a director, who is essentially the chief operations officer of film or television production, is their strongest suit.
So what are the differences between those directors who once (and perhaps currently) acted, and those who never have?That’s an evaluation you would need to make on a case-by-case basis across a full body of work. But consider other art forms and professions where star players left the spotlight for a different role:
Choreographers: Martha Graham, George Balanchine, Alvin Ailey, Bob Fosse and all the other great choreographers became so after being dancers themselves.
Conductors: Leonard Bernstein was a skilled pianist before becoming one of American’s most prodigious conductors. The same is true of Leonard Slatkin, Georg Solti, Mstislav Rostropovich and Michael Tilson Thomas.
Sports coaches: In different parts of various towns you’ll find homages to athletes-cum-coaches Vince Lombardi, John Wooden, George Halas, Bear Bryant and Knute Rockne.
Directing and acting may not be perfectly analogous to any of these examples. But it certainly helps for the director to know what questions go through the mind of an actor as he or she prepares for a scene. Too often it is the case that when a film has many moving pieces – for example, in an action film that involves many crashing vehicles and explosions – the acting itself is poorly directed. The director may be too focused, even if talented, on everything else. Acting is an afterthought.
At multidisciplinary entertainment academies it is possible to simultaneously study both acting and directing, even when the focus might well be one career path. The New York Film Academy, top film schools
for actors, cinematographers, directors, animators and game designers, also has a degreed acting program (associate, bachelor and master of fine arts) but also one-, four-, eight- and 12-week workshops in pure acting. At the minimum, the erstwhile director will learn a language. But more importantly, it will allow him or her to see what life is like at the other side of the lens.
The experience of acting for the non-actor may be psychologically challenging – but what in the performing arts is not? Better to understand the humiliation, the challenges and, ultimately, the triumphs to more holistically master the craft and art of directing.