I’m standing in the middle of a downtown Los Angeles warehouse, wearing a bulletproof vest under my wardrobe, sweating. It’s mid-May 2018. The sun is setting.
Today I’m a first-time director on production day three of eight for TNT’s “Animal Kingdom,” currently in our third season. I’m also playing the role of Pope (a complicated psycho with a heart of gold).
Loren Yaconelli, our director of photography, taps me on my shoulder and points to a wall of west facing windows. “We have an hour and thirty minutes left to film in here…”, she whispers, then hustles off. This is s–ty news. I have at least three and a half hours worth of filming to complete this scene. There’s a good chance I’m not going to make my day, and it feels like everything is riding on this moment. My future directing career? My reputation? My children’s school tuition? Things would actually get worse (damn squibs), but I’m ready for it; I’ve been preparing for this since I was 13.
Why would I want to be a director?
It was 1989. I was a curly-haired 13-year-old kid with auburn locks and my fair share of acne — the spitting image of Huckleberry Finn if he were styled by Boyz II Men (offensively busy cardigan over a turtleneck). I was as surprised as anyone when I booked a role in a Pepsi commercial. “Zip, Zero, Nada! It’s a winning deal!” Those were my first words on camera. Shakespeare it was not.
There I was, standing underneath the lights, a film crew bustling all around me. It was exciting and terrifying. What I remember most about that day (aside from the candy at crafty) was how the director communicated with me.
Director guy: Could you give me one more read, kiddo … a little less on “nada,” bigger smile on “deal.”
Me: (lost…) Hmmm-hmmm.
Countless, agonizing takes like that, my words and emotions being twisted into mindless, senseless, gibberish. I remember ending that day in my dressing room, confused, exhausted and filled with self-doubt.
Over the next 30 years, I’ve been lucky enough to continue working as an actor. I’ve had a lot of success and made a lot of mistakes. I’ve developed my career by taking scenes, dissecting them and figuring out how to make them real. Along the way I’ve collaborated with many talented and respected film, television and theater directors. Some have become my mentors. I often lean on them when I need advice and others I’ve watched closely, filing away their successful directing techniques into my toolbox.
What inspires me to direct are the ones who let me down. I hope my biggest strength will be my ability to communicate with the actors and crew in a creative language that we all understand, unlike my experience on that Pepsi commercial.
You only get one first time.
Back in Los Angeles, the sun is setting and this warehouse is Swiss cheese. The scene I’m directing is a cinematic chess match, a climactic confrontation between the Cody Family led by Smurf (Ellen Barkin), squaring off against Lucy (Carolina Guerra) and their rival gang. It ultimately goes sideways resulting in tragic consequences for both families.
Kim from make-up wipes sweat from my forehead, giving me an actor touch-up, which reminds me, for the briefest moment, that I’m also still acting. I’m going over some last minute blocking with the cast, I’m using Hot Wheels and pieces from the game Sorry I raided from my kid’s closet to map out the choreography (a trick I learned from Michael Mann.)
Barkin and I get into a thoughtful discussion about whether or not Smurf should also have a gun like the rest of her boys. It’s not scripted that way, but she makes a strong case for why she believes her character should have a gun. Her point is one that I have to seriously consider.
I take a moment. I’m in a location I selected, working with an incredibly talented cast, three cameras and a techno crane. I blocked this scene and I’ve been thinking about how to photograph it for weeks. I read it on a piece of paper and I’m bringing my vision for it to life. Sure, this will end up being my worst day as a director, but I wouldn’t change it for anything. I watch this crew that I’ve become so close to over the years busting their asses, each stepping up in a big way. The level of support I feel gives me an overwhelming sense of pride.
My attention lands back on Smurf.
I’m not looking at Ellen Barkin. The woman I see before me is Smurf, standing near some lights. She’s facing me, back lit.
What an image of power, I think to myself. She just embodies it, her posture, the way she holds her head up. The stillness. Her black leather jacket catches the light and she looks more fierce than I’ve ever seen her.
I go to her, and say “Ellen, in the world of ‘Animal Kingdom’ there is no character more powerful than Smurf. She doesn’t need a gun. She’s not afraid of anything or anyone. She is Queen.”
(And yes, I made my day… minus a few shots.)
Shawn Hatosy stars in “Animal Kingdom.” He makes his directorial debut with the episode that airs tonight, August 7.