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More directors get in front of camera

Helmer-turned-actors star in colleagues' films

Actors often make good directors, as evidenced by Orson Welles and Ron Howard.

But directors make fine actors, too. Some star in their own movies, from Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to Spike Lee and Woody Allen. While Alfred Hitchcock stuck to his wry cameos, other helmers’ occasional appearances in their films inspired their colleagues to offer meatier parts.

Erich von Stroheim, John Huston, Roman Polanski, Francois Truffaut, Martin Scorsese and David Cronenberg have had roles in “Sunset Boulevard,” “Chinatown,” “Rush Hour III,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Shark Tale” and “Last Night,” respectively.

This year, several established filmmakers who started out as actors chew the scenery under the direction of other helmers. Sydney Pollack, who has worked with the likes of Allen and Stanley Kubrick, plays a powerful attorney in “Michael Clayton.” Quentin Tarantino drips ooze in buddy Robert Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror.” “The Kingdom” director Peter Berg goes military in Robert Redford’s “Lions for Lambs,” and Peter Bogdanovich stars in actor-director Justin Theroux’s Sundance hit “Dedication.”

When veteran writer Tony Gilroy (the “Bourne” franchise) insisted on directing the script for “Michael Clayton” as his first feature, he wound up attracting several supportive directors, including Pollack, Clooney, Doug McGrath and Brian Koppelman. After much stalling at the notion of working with a rookie, Clooney finally agreed to star in the title role.

Beyond giving a powerful performance, Clooney — who, as a helmer, has “Leatherheads” next on tap — went the extra mile and willingly deployed his star wattage to wrangle local New York authorities whenever Gilroy needed to stick around a location without a permit or to shoot a flyover plane.

And while Pollack gave Gilroy many notes on the script and acted as one of its producers, the Stella Adler-trained director finally agreed to play the key role of Clayton’s boss, Marty Bach.

Gilroy wanted to hire someone with “real authority,” he says. As for the four directors who wound up acting in the movie, “They gave me everything they always wanted themselves.”

While directors Howard, Penny Marshall, Mel Gibson and Clint Eastwood have allowed their acting careers to take a back seat to directing, Warren Beatty, Redford and Clooney keep both careers wide open, often starring themselves in the movies they direct, because the films are easier to control and fund that way. With “Lions for Lambs,” financed by renewed United Artists, Redford was able to express his strongly held political views and attract top-level talent Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise.

“Chicago Hope” veteran Peter Berg (“Friday Night Lights”), who now gives directing top priority, really enjoys acting on the sets of directors he admires, such as Redford.

“What got me into the business was acting and writing and directing short movies in high school,” says Berg, who is also featured in Redford’s “Lions.” “It’s all fun and creatively inspired. For me, it’s a natural instinct to bounce around.

“Directing feels the most creatively and intellectually satisfying, but when Joe Carnahan, Michael Mann or Robert Redford call me, I love putting on a costume and going through hair and makeup and playing. That’s what acting is. It’s kind of innocent; you’re not worrying about money or budget. You allow yourself the reckless creative freedom of acting.”

Bogdanovich, like Berg, acts for fun.

“You end up to some degree playing yourself whatever you do,” he says. “You find yourself in the character.”

Bogdanovich has gone full circle, from teen actor in theater to Adler acting student to critic to director of such films as “Paper Moon” and “The Last Picture Show” and back to actor again.

“Because of ‘The Sopranos,’ people thought I was a film critic who became a director,” he says. “Acting is the only thing in show business I ever officially studied. Directing I learned.”

Bogdanovich figured out the hard way to never volunteer any advice, even to rookie directors, unless specifically asked.

“Some years back on a Noah Baumbach picture, I made a disparaging comment about a lens, and such a terrible hush fell on the set,” he recalls. “I arrive on set with a good deal of baggage. People are intimidated. I purposely don’t think about directing when I’m acting. I want to know what to do, and where you want me, what I have to wear and what are my lines.”

Like “Into the Wild” director Sean Penn, who keeps his acting and directing separate but equal, neophyte director Ben Affleck plans to keep both careers going on parallel tracks. With “Gone Baby Gone,” he cast his brother Casey in the lead role and stayed behind the camera for his directing debut.

“I thought it would be really hard to act and direct at the same time,” Affleck says. “Directing yourself is a third skill, which is managing to make one plus one equal three, in terms of managing time and your brain and being in two places at once.”

Affleck won’t give up acting, though.

“My goal is to be somewhere along the continuum to the left of Sydney Pollack, acting with more frequency,” Affleck says. “I acted with him in ‘Changing Lanes.’ He was a magnificent, wonderful actor. I’ve moved around this business and I have come to see how much it’s about opportunities. You have to get smart about how you avail yourself of them.”

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