Thesps act the part of helmers

'ER's' Innes, 'X-Files's' Anderson made the leap

Actors who really want to direct have had long been the butt of jokes in Hollywood. However, this past TV season, several of the familiar faces in front of the cameras have bee doing boffo jobs behind the scenes as well.

When Laura Innes, Dr. Weaver on NBC’s “ER,” was hired to direct an episode of the top-rated doctor drama, the Emmy-nominated actress felt a bit overwhelmed. Although she had intensely studied the helming process for years, the producers of the show asked her to handle last season’s “Power” episode, a pivotal and challenging show in which the Chicago hospital faces a massive power outage.

“Right away, they gave me a lot to bite off and chew,” says Innes. “Anthony Edwards said to me, ‘You must be prepping in your pants.’ But it was good because it was so much work, I didn’t have time to worry about anything.”

Innes’ directing debut was critically acclaimed and she was hired again to helm this year’s sweeps episode, “Be Still My Heart,” which is receiving considerable Emmy buzz. She also recently helmed NBC’s new hit drama “The West Wing.” Suddenly, she is a highly coveted TV director.

“I was hesitant to even call myself a director prior to ‘West Wing,'” says Innes, who will be directing several shows next year as well as additional “ER” episodes. “Directing is such a huge thing to understand and do well. It’s a very long process.”

Although Innes’ quick rise as a director is impressive, she’s cer-tainly not breaking ground. She is, however, part of an emerging breed. Conventional thinking was for years that TV stars directed episodes of their shows solely out of vanity. However, as shown by Innes and former “thirtysomething” star-director Peter Horton, who helmed a pivotal episode of ABC’s “Once and Again” that is also considered a possible Emmy contender, actors are getting plenty of work and praise.

“Being an actor helps directing because you know more about the life of a scene than anyone else,” says former “Murphy Brown” star Joe Regalbuto, who directed over 30 episodes of “Murphy” as well as episodes last season of “Friends,” “Veronica’s Closet,” “The Norm Show,” and “For Your Love.” “Actors have a great sense of what is real and honest and they know that if something doesn’t work, the actor is the one with egg on their face.”

Innes and Regalbuto agree that in many ways directing is a natu-ral progression from acting. After working on a show for years, it becomes a major part of an actor’s life and many want to become involved in other creative areas. Starting one’s directing career with actors and crew who are familiar with you is appealing. From there, other jobs seem less daunting.

“I was interested in directing and got some offers from cable networks but I thought the best thing would be to start with our show because it’s familiar,” says “The X-Files” co-star Gillian Anderson, who made her directing debut with the show last season and hopes to direct another episode this season. “It was great to be creative in so many ways. I mean, I could choose the color of the cushions on the couch. It was intense and fantastic.”

While actors agree that segueing behind the camera is a fulfilling experience, it’s not without it’s challenges. Regalbuto says display-ing leadership while being a fellow actor can be a delicate balance. Anderson found being in a scene with another thesp while directing and giving them notes a difficult task. Innes says keeping an even keel is much more important as a director.

All agree, however, that the biggest change for actors donning the helmer’s hat is in approach.

“You get caught up in the technical stuff, but the first time you see a cut of a show, it all makes sense,” says Regalbuto. “You can actually see a beginning, a middle and an end, and you realize you have to always remember the big picture.”

“By no means do I mean this to be condescending, but I feel like a good director when I’m doing the same things that make me feel like I’m being a good parent,” says Innes. “My ego is not involved, my eye is on the prize, I’m taking the high road, being strong and com-passionate and having boundaries.”

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