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A-Listers get schooled on set

Road to the Emmys 2012: The Director

When TV actors go behind the camera, they’re not doing it to win an Emmy.

With voters having given only the faintest of recognition to such double threats — the only recent actors-turned-directors to get nommed were “ER” vet Laura Innes for “The West Wing” and Steve Buscemi for “The Sopranos” in 2001 — actors go behind the camera for mostly creative reasons.

John Slattery, who plays Roger Sterling on AMC’s acclaimed “Mad Men,” was the first actor to go behind the camera on the multiple Emmy-winning series, after getting the OK from showrunner Matthew Weiner to shadow Emmy-winning director Phil Abraham through two episodes.

“(Weiner) said, ‘I’m going to give you an episode, under one condition: You have to do a really good job,’ ” says Slattery, who helmed his third episode of the series in season five. “It was a big thing; it was a leap of faith.”

That success rubbed off on series star Jon Hamm, who says he accepted a longstanding open invitation to direct an episode after seeing Slattery and other actors pull it off well enough to assuage his fears of failure.

“The terror of it had washed off,” he says. “I felt a little more comfortable with the idea of sitting behind the monitor.”

Both actors say they rely heavily on their familiarity with the shows and the expertise of the cast and crew to ensure they shoot footage that meets the show’s high standards as well as stays on the schedule. Hamm said his episode had several new challenges for everyone, including breaking in a prosthetic to cover actress January Jones’ pregnancy and make her character look overweight, along with a new camera system.

“I did what I usually do when I’m completely bereft of any experience, and I leaned on the people who have been there before and listened to them,” says Hamm.

Directing actors have an additional hurdle to face in needing to direct scenes in which they also appear as actors. Slattery says on the first such scene that he felt like he was spread a little thin and that it’s essential to be prepped as an actor as well as a director. “I end up giving myself the least amount of attention,” he says.

Hamm says there was some directing by committee when it came to evaluating his own performance.

“I was able to look at the script supervisor and the writer and the producers and say, ‘Are we all happy?’ If I was happy, and they all started nodding, then we moved on,” Hamm says.

While it’s common for actors to direct episodes of their own series, it’s less so for them to direct another. This past season, Buscemi directed NBC’s “30 Rock” when not starring in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” while Bryan Cranston, a three-time Emmy winner for his role as Walter White on AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” helmed an episode of ABC’s hit comedy “Modern Family.”

Cranston says he is a fan of “Modern Family” and friend of co-creator Steven Levitan, but sealing the deal involved at least a little bit being in the right place at the right time. “(Levitan) was clutching his Golden Globe in one hand and a bottle of Cristal in the other, and he said, ‘Hey, you should direct for us!’ And I said, ‘Hey, you got it!’ ” he says.

Having first directed the indie feature “Last Chance” as well as multiple episodes of “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Breaking Bad,” Cranston is far from a novice.

“In directing television, it’s not the director’s vision, it’s the showrunner’s vision,” says Cranston. “The victories come when you give your showrunner everything that you know they need, and then, as well, give them something you know they didn’t expect.”

Cranston says that while directing is an all-consuming job — “I forget to eat when I’m on the set,” he says — he enjoyed working in the series’ style and concentrating on one job instead of two. “Just directing ‘Modern Family’ was a delight because I got to focus on just that,” he says. “Directing yourself … it all comes down to the prep week and how thoroughly you are prepared.”

Slattery says he’s happy overall with how his episodes have turned out — and hopes to do more. “I watch other people’s episodes, who’ve been directing a lot longer, and I see how much I have to learn,” he says.

With showrunners having the final cut in TV, Cranston says you have to trust the process and the shows almost always turn out well.

“It all goes through the wash and you look at it and it works or it doesn’t,” he says. “It’s never going to be completely how you want it, and yet sometimes you’re nicely surprised.”

Road to the Emmys 2012: The Director
A-Listers get schooled on set | Helmers huddle on how to get ahead | Nonfiction directors make strange bedfellows at Emmys | Crisis chat
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