It’s not uncommon for actors to want to stretch their creative muscles and be taken more seriously on the business side of things as their careers grow to new heights. Many actors, from those who started in the business as children, including Fred Savage, Jason Bateman and Matt Shakman, to the likes of Zach Braff and Tony Goldwyn, took the initiative to establish themselves as directors in order to increase their chances at career longevity. This television season, Jesse Williams, Alex O’Loughlin, Justin Baldoni, Jussie Smollett and Ben Feldman are among the actors that took advantage of the relationships they cultivated while acting on their shows to sit in the director’s chair for the first time, joined by Kerry Washington, Gina Rodriguez and others on the actress side.
“I want to pursue directing full force, but I’m also blessed to have really started with my family,” says Smollett. “To do it with ‘Empire,’ they’re rooting for me, I’m not getting on that set with anybody saying, ‘Oh let’s see what this loser has.’ They want me to succeed because they want the show to succeed.”
The fact that an average broadcast television season consists of 22 episodes, while on cable and streaming a series usually boasts 10 to 13 episodes, allows for more opportunities for actors to get behind the camera compared to film, acknowledges Nicole Haggard, a professor at Mount St. Mary’s U. who founded the Center for Women in Hollywood and co-authored the paper “Women in Hollywood: The Ongoing Fight for Equality” in March. This is especially important for the push for parity.
“What we’ve seen is that in broadcast last year it was 17% female directors and that’s a pretty big jump from 8% in 1997. In film we don’t usually see those big jumps,” Haggard says. In cable and streaming, female directors made up 15% overall.
That percentage is on track to grow again, as even more women have gotten the opportunity to helm an episode, or two or three, of their shows this season. Long-time series stars including Washington, Rodriguez, Laura Prepon, Lana Parrilla, Darby Stanchfield, Natalie Zea, Sarah Wayne Callies and Constance Zimmer all added TV director to their resumes this year.
“Actresses, if they’re smart, are hyper-aware of having an expiration date, and I want to stay in the business,” Zea told Variety around her directorial debut on “The Detour.” “The only real way to guarantee-ish that is to get behind the camera.”
In January, writer-producer-director Aline Brosh McKenna started a “female filmmaker Friday” hashtag on social-media sites Twitter and Instagram to encourage women who work behind the scenes to share images of them doing so as a way to inspire future generations and also create a network in which they can support each other and potentially make professional connections. After the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, McKenna feels the most important thing is for more women to be hired in decision-making roles.
Haggard agrees. Directors are responsible for shaping the perception of characters — not only through the specific stories they tell but also shot composition and staging, she points out .
“Sometimes when women are talking, the camera will cut away from us so you won’t see us talking,” Haggard says. “So thinking about how a director and an editor work together — a female director might catch onto that. It’s all about power. What does it mean to be the director? You have the power to shape the audience. We get really involved in this idea of the privilege of, when you watch something, what are you forced to see? What we see in TV is that across spectrums of age, leadership, occupation, marital status, we still have these really ingrained issues.”
Eva Longoria who started her career as an actor, but has spent this past year focused on directing, including episodes of “The Mick,” “Black-ish” and “L.A. to Vegas,” admits that behind-the-scenes works “isn’t for everybody.
“I know a lot of amazing actors who are amazing actors and have no desire, nor the tool set, to direct or produce. Directing is an entirely different mindset than acting,” she says, adding that in order to be successful as a director, one must be a “multitasker.”
Still, she, too, encourages actors who do have the necessary mindset for directing to give it a try. After doing an episode of “Jane the Virgin” herself last season, she told series star Rodriguez to ask for a chance, as well.
“I told her, ‘Nobody’s going to give you the opportunity [better] than when it’s your show,’” Longoria says.
Rodriguez her advice and took the mantle of an episode during this fourth season of “Jane the Virgin.”
Similarly, after watching her co-star Shiri Appleby step behind the camera in the second season of “UnReal,” Zimmer asked for a shot, too.
“What better place than to direct on a show that I had come to know so well?” she says. “I know the other actors, the writers, the crew, the sets better than the directors who come in because we’re living in those sets. I do think it’s a perfect opportunity and a great way for most actors to get their start. If you can do it on a show you’re on, you have a lot more going for you already from day one.”
Zimmer was inspired to start directing, in part, from her time on the “Ellen” sitcom, on which she worked with director Gail Mancuso. But she notes that the timing of a first directing gig is important. For her, it was a matter of shadowing another actor-turned-director (Tom Verica on “Scandal”) to learn about the prep work that becomes necessary when you’re in charge of the whole set, not just one specific character.
“As a director you’re thinking about everybody else’s choices outside of your own and how to make sure your actors are comfortable with the choices you may have made based on how you’re going to shoot the scene,” Zimmer points out.
But because directing requires additional disciplines than acting, it is not a step these actors have taken lightly — or overnight.
Prepon attended film school while she was simultaneously working on “That ’70s Show,” and directed a web series and some short films prior to “Orange Is the New Black.” There she learned the importance of “prepping [a script] every which way” so that when she steps on set she can feel comfortable enough with the material that no matter what challenges arise, she will make her days. “My flexibility comes from my preparation,” she says.
But, she notes, having a background in acting offers a lot, as well.
“Because I’m an actor, my instincts tend to be pretty accurate in regards to how I block a scene — especially if I know the actor, we have a shorthand, so I know they’re going to like how I blocked the scene because I know them and they trust me. And once you have that trust, it’s great,” Prepon says.
And although some career directors may feel threatened by actors stepping onto their turf, the fact that television shows often use a different director per episode means there are ample opportunities and seats at the table for everyone.
“Sometimes you know the opportunity you want for yourself, and you have to create it for yourself,” Nzingha Stewart says, “so I am fully, fully supportive — especially in a nurturing environment where everybody wants them to win and they already know the shows inside-out [and] they know how everybody works. … There are some really great actors who are really sensitive [to the process] and want to do a great job.”