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TV Stars Shine Behind the Camera

Actors-turned-helmers focus on more than their roles

For an actor who’s spent years in front of the camera, John Slattery says, there’s a temptation to slide into the director’s chair.

“The idea slowly starts to form,” he says. “‘What would I do if given the chance? What would I do if I was shooting this?’ Then you hear yourself saying that and you go ‘Why don’t you try to make that happen?’ ”

Not all actors are tempted to direct, but for those who do, there’s no better place to start than the series in which they perform. They know the cast and the producers, and are able to focus on making their vision a reality.

Robin Wright, for example, took the plunge into directing during Season 2 of her Netflix series “House of Cards.” “(You wonder) ‘When can I implement all that knowledge that I gathered over this decade?’ The show was a safe haven to go and just free-fall,” Wright says. She had very deliberate and definitive ideas about directing, but wasn’t hesitant to ask questions. “I found that it was more beneficial to step out of the fear and the anxiety of how I have to pretend that I’m perfect.”

Bryan Cranston, who directed the first episode of “Breaking Bad’s” final season, says for actors who want to direct, “It comes down to: Are you going to take that opportunity and is it time for you?” He seized the opportunity while he could, but learned, as actor-directors often do, that it can be difficult for a helmer to be his own star. “You have to really know what your character wants and how to project it because you don’t have a director’s objective viewpoint on your acting work. So you have to be careful.”

With more of an ensemble show to work on, “Parks and Recreation’s” Nick Offerman, who directed the “Flu Season 2” episode this past season, says jokingly, “It’s a very gentle education that I’m receiving. When I had to step in front the cameras, there were always producers on hand to make sure that we got my mustache from the appropriate angle.”

Wright enjoys being “mother of the ship” as director, and “Scandal’s” leading man, Tony Goldwyn, echoes that: “There’s a kind of energy where you seize the reins.” He may play the commander-in-chief onscreen but as director, he says, it’s important not to be a dictator. “It’s important to have a style that lets everybody know that their input is valuable and necessary.”

Goldwyn looks for a theme in each episode to tell that story visually. He directed the episode “Mama Said Knock You Out,” where it was all about Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) doing shuttle diplomacy in the halls of the White House. “That became, for me, the visual throughline of the story,” Goldwyn says.

Slattery, a fixture on “Mad Men,” has directed five episodes of the series, though he is ineligible for this year’s Emmy’s race because his most recent episode as director, “A Tale of Two Cities,” aired after the cutoff date. The episode marks the first time in the show’s history where they used a Steadicam, based on a pitch from Slattery. He says directing has made him more comfortable as an actor. “There’s less of a burden to carry a scene. Directing made me more loose and relaxed as an actor, not to feel like the whole thing was riding on my shoulders.”

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