Indie pics offer tube thesps a chance to branch out

Self-motivated stars are finding the Tribeca Film Festival a friendly place to be, with a lineup peppered with projects produced, written or directed by actors continuing to branch out into other parts of the biz.

This year’s fest, running April 18-29, includes films from Jenna Fischer (“The Office”), who produced romantic comedy “The Giant Mechanical Man,” and Chris Colfer (“Glee”), who wrote and exec produced coming-of-age pic “Struck by Lightning.” The approach may lead to more prominent film roles for up-and-comers like “Whitney” co-star Zoe Lister-Jones, who wrote “Lola Versus” (after having gotten her writing-producing start with 2009′s “Breaking Upwards”); mumblecore mainstay Alex Karpovsky, writer-director of “Rubberneck”; and legit thesp Tom O’Brien, writer-director of “Fairhaven.”

Even more experienced names, like Rob Lowe, are on offer, with the multihyphenate having exec produced political satire “Knife Fight.” (Exec producer/co-writer/actor Jason Segel’s “The Five Year Engagement” will open the fest.)

“In the old days, the people who controlled actors’ careers kind of told them, ‘No, you’re a TV actor and that’s all you’re going to do,’ and studios were less willing to cast TV actors in films. Independents saw it as a way of getting a marketable actor in a story that had risks,” says Tribeca Enterprises’ Geoff Gilmore, who recently joined the festival’s programming team and also oversees TribecaFilm, the day-and-date distribution outfit that picked up U.S. rights to Fischer’s “Mechanical Man,” set for an April 17 VOD bow and a limited theatrical run.

Colfer’s rise from obscurity to a starring role on “Glee” happened quickly, but his transition to features wasn’t quite as easy.

“A lot of what I was offered was very similar to what I’ve already been doing on ‘Glee,’ and was almost the opposite of what I wanted (“Struck by Lightning”) to be — an inspirational, motivational film.”

He wrote “Lightning” as a therapeutic way to vent about his high school experience, he says. Taking the reins as executive producer, Colfer shot the project during “Glee’s” hiatus. The 22 year old says his writing projects came from ideas developed in high school and earlier, including a Disney TV pilot based on a children’s book he penned, and the concept for a suspense thriller he recently scripted and hopes to exec produce and star in this summer.

“Every person has a shelf life, whether they choose to accept it or not,” Colfer says, “and I have a lot of things I’d like to do before mine expires.”

Not all actors enjoy writing as much as Colfer, but Fischer’s less-than-pleasant first experience as a writer-director — 2004 mockumentary “LolliLove” — ultimately led her to produce instead.

“It was just too hard,” she says. “But I loved getting the film up off the ground and helping assemble the team. I love Excel spreadsheets, being organized, making phone calls. … I think my secret calling in life is to be a really high-powered executive secretary.”

Fischer notes she had been in Los Angeles for eight years before she got her audition for “The Office.”

“I’ve always had to be very scrappy and industrious,” she says. “That aspect of my personality lends itself to producing, and I think that’s what I like about it. You can sit around and wait for work to come to you, or you can go out and make the work yourself.”

Perhaps “Parks and Recreation” star Lowe is the best case study of an actor straddling different parts of the media to achieve career longevity.

“My plan is no different from others who have remained relevant over a long term: You’re always working on something self-generated that you’re passionate about,” he says, who is also a strategic adviser and investor in Miramax. “Inevitably most of them go nowhere, but some of them go somewhere, and that’s the horse you ride.”

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