Speaking the same language

Helmers who make transition behind the camera use their acting background to put thesps at ease

Shooting perhaps the most emotional scene of potential Oscar nominee “Little Children,” Jackie Earle Haley was drained. Take after take, each taking its toll.

Todd Field came over for a pep talk. Field, the “Little Children” director with a lengthy resume of his own as an actor, needed to bring all his experience to bear in support of Haley. Field put his arm on Haley’s shoulder and leaned in.

“And he said, ‘Better you than me,’ ” Haley recalls with a laugh.

In this year’s Oscar race, there is no shortage of actors such as Field, Robert De Niro (“The Good Shepherd”) and Emilio Estevez (“Bobby”) who are quite happy to join longtime convert Clint Eastwood (“Flags of Our Fathers,” “Letters from Iwo Jima”) behind the camera.

While an acting background has never been a director’s prerequisite, there seems little doubt that on-camera experience accelerated these directors’ off-camera education.

“I don’t think that being an actor makes you a better director per se,” Haley says. “I think it certainly makes it to where you understand the process with actors, and it could make you a better actor-director. Every director brings his insight into it. Todd’s attributes are many. Other directors, their attributes are many, but they’re different.”

Estevez says working with and watching directors such as Alex Cox (“Repo Man”), Francis Ford Coppola (“The Outsiders”) and John Hughes (“The Breakfast Club”) gave him a leg up once he took the reins.

“I think the biggest strength I’ve had is I’m not afraid of actors,” Estevez explains. “I think there are a lot of directors who are, and I think that’s purely that they don’t know how to talk to them, they don’t know the language. I think having been an actor and growing up in a household (with actors), I know the language. I know how to get an actor to a certain emotional place if they’re having trouble getting there.”

Sissy Spacek, nominated for an actress Oscar for Field’s 2001 best picture nominee “In the Bedroom,” takes that notion further when describing Field’s unlimited willingness to indulge an actor’s desire to discuss a role.

“You know what he did more than anything for me,” Spacek says, “he helped me understand how the character would react in any situation, not just the ones in the film, so his direction was beyond the specific scene. We talked about the scenes and the nuances of the scene, that (Ruth) is the kind of woman who would not throw a sweater away but would sew meticulous patches on it with fabric she saved from different dresses and different favorite shirts that belonged to her husband or son.

“That’s probably the difference: By having been an actor, he realizes probably the things that an actor needs. It’s like manna from heaven.”

Within the subset of actor-directors, however, there are many different styles, at least according to John Turturro, whom De Niro cast in “Shepherd.”

“I’ve seen actor-directors behave like dictators and a lot of times be very sensitive to actors,” Turturro says.

Of course, with more than 80 years of acting experience among them, Estevez, Field and De Niro didn’t figure to ape any single director’s sensibility. Spacek says Field’s style reminds her of directors Terrence Malick and David Lynch, neither of whom Field has ever worked for.

Turturro, who marvels at De Niro’s observational skills (Turturro jokes that De Niro could have been in the CIA instead of making a movie about it), found him to be meticulous in his approach, and speculates on a unique reason.

“He did a lot of takes,” Turturro says, “but he’s not that experienced as a director, so he would have to see things, and then he would respond to them. His dad was a painter, and I think his dad, from what I heard, he used to like to redo his paintings and paint over them. I think that was probably a big influence on him.”

De Niro could be intimidating, Turturro adds, but “you just have to make sure you speak up for yourself, because you may be right.”

Using DeNiro as an example, Turturro implies that good actors are good listeners, and whatever passionate vision they may bring as directors, they tend to want to explore other points of view.

Estevez recalls that on his directorial debut 20 years ago, “Wisdom,” he was surrounded by too many yes-people.

“At 23, I became the youngest hyphenate of a major studio film, but the film was a piece of shit,” Estevez says. “It just didn’t work; it didn’t work on any level.”

Nevertheless, Estevez plans to continue carrying both the acting and directing banners, as he does in “Bobby.”

“I think by being in the film as well, there’s a simpatico with the other actors,” Estevez says. “I’m willing to go emotionally where I’m asking them to go.”

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