Harris, Stiller, Eastwood helm themselves

For some, it’s an itch they just have to scratch.

Ron Howard and Rob Reiner have largely left their acting careers behind to focus on directing, while others such as Sean Penn choose to keep their dual pursuits running on parallel but intersecting tracks. Then there are those, from Charlie Chaplin to Warren Beatty to George Clooney, who’ve opted to direct themselves.

This year, a crop of high-profile actors fall into the latter category, directing and starring in films that could figure prominently in the upcoming awards season.

Ed Harris saddled up to play Virgil Cole, a no-nonsense lawman in his Western “Appaloosa,” while Ben Stiller pushed the envelope in front of the camera as a fading action star and behind it as helmer of the raucous action-comedy “Tropic Thunder.” There’s also Clint Eastwood, who returns to the screen for the first time since 2004′s “Million Dollar Baby” as a racist Korean War vet who bonds with an Asian neighbor in December’s buzzed-about drama “Gran Torino.”

When wearing two hats, it helps to have a passion — if not an obsession — for the material. Harris, a longtime fan of the genre, optioned the Robert B. Parker novel “Appaloosa” even before he’d finished reading it in 2005 because he found himself emotionally compelled by the story in a way he hadn’t been since 2000, when he directed his only other film, “Pollock.”

Stiller had lived with the idea of “Tropic Thunder” even longer: The first kernel of the concept came to him more than two decades ago, when he filmed a small role in Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun” in 1987. By the time a shooting draft of the script — co-written with fellow actor Justin Theroux — was ready, Stiller had already directed himself in three films and felt prepared, and driven, to realize the project exactly the way he’d long envisioned it in his head.

According to Harris, such familiarity makes the prospect of both acting and directing more thrilling and rewarding than daunting.

“You have all this time to process it all before you actually begin filming, so by the time you start, you’re really well-prepared,” says Harris, who also co-wrote and produced his film. “I knew this character. I’d been living with him for years. I knew what I wanted to achieve scene by scene. So it was very fulfilling to finally be on set and get to work.”

For those actor-directors who’ve kept their pursuits separate but equal, the idea of juggling both can seem overwhelming.

“I don’t see myself doing that,” says Tom McCarthy, a veteran actor perhaps best known for playing a journalistic rat on HBO’s “The Wire,” who has directed two films, including this year’s “The Visitor.” “When I’m an actor, I like being an actor. I have too much respect for acting to say I’m ready for (directing myself).”

For Harris, though, switching gears felt natural: “I’m pretty good in terms of my focus and concentration.”

Viggo Mortensen, who co-stars in “Appaloosa,” says Harris was uniquely suited to sliding effortlessly between the two gigs.

“He’s in the moment,” says Mortensen, who first worked with Harris when they co-starred in “A History of Violence.” “He’s somehow able to stay relaxed enough to be attentive to everything that’s going on around him, whether it’s the actor opposite him or what’s going on with the camera, and incorporate anything that’s useful.”

Both on set and in the finished film, Mortensen says Harris makes things look deceptively uncomplicated.

“It seems natural and easy, and a lot of times people think that’s not a big deal,” Mortensen explains, “but you would never say that if you were watching a symphony and there was a very beautiful, fluid violin solo that hit every note.”

Even so, Harris relied on Candy Trabuco, a trusted friend from his theater days and an associate producer on “Pollock,” to help him evaluate his performance on set.

“She has a really great way of asking certain questions about character that make you think,” he says. “She’s a great sounding board. I could say, ‘Is this aspect of the scene coming through?’ so I didn’t have to constantly self-evaluate. She was invaluable.”

After directing himself for more than three decades, Eastwood is well-practiced in that particular art. Still, he’s known for surrounding himself with a core group of longtime collaborators who help him keep things running smoothly on set.

“His crew is the most well-oiled machine I’ve ever seen,” says Michael Kelly, who plays a cop in Eastwood’s other film this year, “Changeling,” which the director did not act in. “He trusts everybody around him to do their jobs, which allows him to focus on doing his.”

Eastwood has been an awards-season favorite since the early ’90s when he directed and starred in “Unforgiven.” He steered himself to a best actor Oscar nom for that film, along with one for “Million Dollar Baby.”

Harris, likewise, directed himself to a nomination for “Pollock.” The two men, who worked together on the Eastwood-helmed film “Absolute Power,” are part of a select group of only 12 actors in Academy Award history to direct themselves to acting noms. Of those, only two have won: Roberto Benigni for “Life Is Beautiful” and Laurence Olivier for “Hamlet.” (Also, Chaplin won an Honorary Oscar for “The Circus” and Olivier for “Henry V.”)

Actors directed by other actors have fared better when it comes to both nominations and wins. Eastwood has a particularly impressive track record, directing five winners, including Gene Hackman for “Unforgiven,” Sean Penn and Tim Robbins for “Mystic River,” and Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman for “Million Dollar Baby.”

Tim Robbins helped longtime partner Susan Sarandon emerge victorious for “Dead Man Walking,” while Beatty helped Maureen Stapleton take home a supporting actress Oscar for “Dick Tracy.”

Harris directed Marcia Gay Harden to a win for “Pollock,” and Robert Redford did the same for Timothy Hutton in “Ordinary People.”

As to awards themselves, Harris acknowledges, “It’s always great to be recognized, but I also know that the whole award thing has so much to do with whether (the studio) is going to have a campaign for the film and how much money they’re going to spend, and if anybody even saw the darn thing.”

He maintains that, whatever comes, he considers “Appaloosa” a personal triumph.

“Directing is very rewarding, and I also enjoy acting,” Harris says. “I hope to keep doing both. I just like being responsible for (a movie), whether people like it or not. For better or worse, when all’s said and done, it’s your vision that’s out there.”

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