While some directors are born to be behind the camera, for others, it takes time. Many directors spend years at school, conservatories, or on the job to gain a cinematic eye. However, for many directors, it helps if they have been in front of the camera first.
Actors turning their attention towards directing has been a long tradition that has spanned decades. In turn, it would be reasonable to think that actors with the most on-set experience would therefore be clever directors. As Sarah Polley cemented with her 2022 film Women Talking, former child actors often make astute directors.
‘Women Talking’ (2022)
Sarah Polley was one of the great child actors of her time. Thoughtful and intuitive, she started off as a child actor in the 1980s before transitioning to more adult roles such as The Sweet Hereafter and Go in the late 90s. Since, she has translated that canny as an actor into directing, as with her latest film Women Talking about a group of women in a religious colony who are shaken after a string of brutal attacks.
Women Talking marks the fourth feature directed by Polley who crept behind the camera first with 2006’s acclaimed drama Away from Her. Despite garnering serious praise as a director, viewers still wished they could have seen Polley retain more acting roles, with The A.V. Club’s Mike D’Angelo stating Polley has “deprived the world of many potentially great performances”.
‘Bad Words’ (2013)
It was an unlikely journey for Jason Bateman to become one of the more potent and versatile actors working today. Starting out on 80s TV shows like Little House on the Prairie and the underrated It’s Your Move, Bateman eventually gathered fame for his role on Arrested Development. In 2013, Bateman took his hand at directing with Bad Words, a comedy about a grown man who enters a spelling bee for children.
Although it received mixed reviews and was a box office miss, the film was praised for its dark humor and Bateman’s performance. Leading up to the film, Bateman had secured himself as a welcome face in the pictures, both as starring roles in comedy hits like Horrible Bosses or supporting roles in indies like Disconnect. With Bad Words, Bateman proves his comedic chops go beyond his on-screen ability.
‘Little Man Tate’ (1991)
Widely regarded as one of the finest child actors who have ever lived, Jodie Foster is a one-of-one. Nominated for her first Oscar at the paltry age of 15, Foster directed her first film, Little Man Tate, at only 29. A critical and commercial success, the film stars Foster herself as the mother to a child prodigy who struggles to self-actualize in social settings.
Foster, herself a child prodigy, proved to be the right choice for the role of director, translating her acumen as an actor into her directing. While she has put forth numerous indelible acting performances since Little Big Man, Foster has only directed one other film, 2011’s The Beaver, leaving fans to hope for more Foster-directed projects down the line.
‘A Midnight Clear’ (1992)
Why Keith Gordon hasn’t directed a film in 19 years remains an answerable mystery. A working actor since the late 70s, Gordon became best known for playing nerdy adolescents, notably in Dressed to Kill and Christine. Directing his first film at only 27, the applauded The Chocolate War, Gordon followed up with A Midnight Clear about an American intelligence unit during World War 2.
Based on the novel by William Wharton, the film was celebrated upon release. Following A Midnight Clear, Gordon made Mother Night, Waking the Dead, and The Singing Detective, all of which are successes or at least interesting failures. However, although commended, all of Gordon’s films have lost money at the box office, leading him to move into directing TV shows such as Fargo and Homeland.
‘Don Jon’ (2013)
Following a successful child acting career in the early 90s, Joseph Gordon-Levitt made a conscious effort to “be in good movies”. After Mysterious Skin and Brick turned him into one of the best young actors around, Gordon-Levitt became a capital A movie star with Inception and Looper. Cashing in on this success, Gordon-Levitt directed Don Jon in 2013, a rom-com about a New Jersey bartender with a sex addiction.
With an A-list cast that features Julianne Moore and Scarlett Johansson alongside Gordon-Levitt, the movie was a box office success grossing over $40 million. Since Don Jon, Gordon-Levitt hasn’t written or directed another film. Instead, he transitioned his creative control into TV, writing, directing, and starring in the 2021 series Mr. Corman.
‘Lost River’ (2014)
One of the finest movie stars of his generation, Ryan Gosling has been one of the best actors when it comes to choosing the right projects. Formerly appearing on Disney’s The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Gosling jumped onto the scene in a stunning turn in 2001’s The Believer. After placing himself among the world’s most famous actors, Gosling wrote and directed Lost River, a fantasy about a young boy who has to find the head of a monster.
The film received poor reviews, with some unfavorably comparing it to the work of David Lynch and Nicolas Winding Refn. Although continuing as one of America’s biggest actors, Gosling has not since written or directed another movie. While it was seen adversely at the time, Lost River has started to slowly build a cult following from fans of the surreal fantasy genre.
‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ (2015)
Adapted from the memoir of the same name by Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness was a personal project for director Natalie Portman. After being one of the most accomplished child actors of the 90s, Portman has since only grown in reputation as an actor. The movie stars Portman as the mother of a young boy in 1940s Jerusalem who grows up to be a famous writer.
Incorporating 4 languages, Portman’s performance and tact as a director were praised, although with the conceit that the film’s ambition may slightly outreach her grasp. While Portman has continued to be a producer on projects in the years since, she has yet to follow up on the promise as a director she showed with A Tale of Love and Darkness.
‘The Virgin Suicides’ (1999)
A member of one of the most lucrative Hollywood families, Sofia Coppola has created such a towering cinematic shadow, it stands up to even her father’s. First a child actor in her father’s films, Coppola first became known for her Golden Raspberry winning performance in The Godfather 3. However, in 1999 she directed her first film, The Virgin Suicides, set around a group of teenage girls in 1970s Detroit.
Adapted from the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides is Coppola’s best film to date. Stunningly framed and darkly comic, the film launched one of the defining director careers of the 21st century. Whether it was all the time spent on set or some sort of genetic advantage, The Virgin Suicides proved Coppola was a director with a natural touch.
Starting off in the industry at just 10 years old, Dexter Fletcher has since become one of Hollywood’s most in-demand directors. Appearing in classic British films in his youth such as The Long Good Friday, Fletcher continued work as an actor, having roles in the film Layer Cake and the TV show Band of Brothers. Directing his first film in 2011, Fletcher achieved widespread recognition for directing Rocketman, a biopic of musician Elton John.
After directing the well-received biographical film Eddie the Eagle, Fletcher next replaced Bryan Singer for the last two weeks of filming the movie Bohemian Rhapsody. Grossing almost $200 million, Rocketman became one of the biggest films of the year. Praised by critics, Flecther will attempt to build on the success of Rocketmanin 2023 with his romantic-action film Ghosted.
‘A Beautiful Mind’ (2001)
The eldest son of actor Rance Howard, Ron Howard first gained attention as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show. As he grew older, Howard would become a household name as Richie Cunningham on Happy Days. Leaving Happy Days to focus on directing in 1980, Howard would achieve notoriety directing a string of comedies in the 80s including Night Shift and Splash. Ultimately, Howard would win the Oscar in 2001 for his film A Beautiful Mind about genius John Nash.
Starring Russell Crowe in the leading role, the film would go on to be nominated for 8 Oscars, winning Best Picture and Best Director. A major hit, grossing over $300 million commercially, the movie would underline Howard as a serious-minded director, an idea he would later build on with Frost/Nixon and Thirteen Lives. One of the most accomplished directors of his era, A Beautiful Mind is Howard’s mainstream zenith.