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From Morgan Freeman to Matthew Rhys, Actors Take on TV Directing Reins

“The Americans” star Matthew Rhys compares the process of directing an episode to childbirth — once it’s over, you forget how difficult it was in the moment (disclaimer: he is well aware that the comparison is totally baseless, but you get the point).

“The first episode back after directing, you’re just so relieved to be standing on a piece of tape, and not being pecked to death by a thousand questions,” he says. “It’s the episode after that where you go, ‘Oh, I’m a bit bored again.’ ”

Since episodic television relies on a revolving door of directors, actors are excited to take on new work behind the camera. Morgan Freeman, for one, directed the season two premiere of “Madam Secretary” (“The Show Must Go On”) in which the president goes missing and Elizabeth McCord [Tea Leoni] must be sworn into office. Freeman makes a cameo as the Supreme Court chief justice, and helps her take the oath.

The episode was his first directorial stint since his debut in 1993, directing the film “Bopha!” And while Freeman says he prefers the limited time in television as compared to a feature film, the episode still had its trials. “I think the biggest challenge in episodic television is time,” he says. “We cut some wonderful scenes. And you don’t like to cut actors out when they’ve done such wonderful work.”

Freeman will return to the “Madam Secretary” set in July to direct the show’s season three premiere. He says directing allows him to draw from his experiences working with legendary filmmakers. “The idea of directing does become appealing as you work [as an actor],” Freeman says. “Particularly when I worked with Clint Eastwood, I got so many great pointers in directing, just watching him work.” For example, “Positive feedback is the biggest thing, and speed.”

“Coming from the inside you kind of go, ‘Look, I know this dialogue, I’ve used it to annoy directors myself.’ ”
matthew rhys

Multi-hyphenate Adam Arkin directed the final two episodes of “Fargo’s” season two, and also played a small role as Hamish Broker, a midlevel manager of a crime syndicate. He says his relationship between acting and directing has fluctuated over time, starting with his first gig on an episode of “Northern Exposure.”

“For quite a while after that, it was almost exclusively on shows that I had committed to as an actor already,” he says. “Now it’s done a complete 180, in that quite often the acting jobs I get now are connected with shows that I’ve already been established on as a director.”

The two episodes that Arkin directed on “Fargo” included elaborate coordination. He had to arrange sequences ranging in scope from a large-scale ambush at a hotel that is interrupted by a UFO sighting, to an intimate conversation in a car between Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst) and Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson). “There were sequences in those episodes that involved the occasional sleepless night,” Arkin laughs.

So much so that the pressure of acting scarcely crossed his mind. “My focus was probably 98% on the directing part of the equation — even on the day that I was acting,” he says. “There are just a hundred more responsibilities in that role.”

Actors tend to direct shows that they already have ties to, but Regina King says when she expressed interest in directing, director-producer Paris Barclay advised her to do the opposite. “He said, ‘If you want people to really take you seriously, they need to see that you are taking the steps to take it seriously beyond your show. There are a lot of actors who direct on their show. You want to show that your ambition goes beyond what’s convenient.’”

So King applied to a number of directing programs, with her sights set specifically on ABC. “I wanted to work with Shonda Rhimes,” she says. Once she was accepted into the program, King began shadowing “Private Practice,” then “Scandal.”

“Part of the shadowing is you get to observe how the machine works,” she says. “You’re not coming in trying to change anything. You’re coming in, embracing the tone that’s already been set, and trying to put your own signature on it. It’s like you go into a person’s kitchen, and you say ‘Oh, I eat that too. I love chicken parmesan, but I sprinkle parsley on mine.’”

King has since directed “Scandal,” including the season five episode “Pencils Down” in which Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) tries to help presidential hopeful Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young) recover from a campaign PR stunt gone wrong.

As an Emmy-winning actress, King says some of the same tools used in acting translate. “I’ve always had good communication with actors as an actor, so that was not much of shift,” she says. “That was a feather that I could already put in my director’s cap.”

YOU BETCHA: Adam Arkin has directed episodes of numerous FX series including the “Fargo” season two finale.

Recently she also directed an episode of “The Catch,” and moved outside ShondaLand for episodes of “Animal Kingdom” and “Greenleaf,” all while starring in “American Crime” and “The Leftovers.” As her credits would suggest, King says her aspirations are neck and neck. “I don’t want to do one or the other, I want to do both,” she says. “And not particularly both at the same time.”

But unlike many actor-directors who might have a very small part in the episodes they direct, Rhys, who directed season four, episode eight of “The Americans” (“The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears”), is the lead actor. “I was lucky enough to trust an amazing crew,” he says. “I blindly, maybe ignorantly or arrogantly, trusted that [the acting] was there after four seasons, and just thought about the directing.”

Rhys says he was originally supposed to direct a different, less-involved episode, but co-star Keri Russell’s pregnancy led to a condensed production schedule.“I got [episode] eight, which was this beast of an episode that had airplanes and deaths and fights. Everything was thrown at the wall,” he says, “I was given a box of fireworks.”

Before “The Americans,” Rhys got his start directing a few episodes of “Brothers & Sisters” while he was on the show. He says he “was very keen to direct” when “The Americans” started, and even raised the idea with the creators. “Obviously they were very wary to give me an episode in season one,” he says. “They had kind of skirted the issue.” Which turned out to be a relief for Rhys once he realized how labor-intensive the show’s production schedule would be. “This is an absolute sprint.”

But on a broad level, directing and acting do inform one another, and manifest in literal ways. “When I first directed, years ago, it kind of changed a number of things about the way I conduct myself. I’m far more punctual. I don’t come with any ideas anymore. I just say to the director ‘Where do you want me to stand, and how do you want me to say it?’ It kind of makes me act quicker,” he says.

And Rhys sees one more big advantage: He speaks the actor’s language, which means he can see straight through their nonsense. “Coming from the inside you kind of go, ‘Look, I know this dialogue, I’ve used it to annoy directors myself, so don’t use it on me. There’s no magic here. I just need you to stand by the window.’”

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