Natalie Zea has been a working actress for almost two and half decades, starring on such dramas as “Passions,” “Dirty Sexy Money” and “Justified,” as well as comedies including “White Famous” and “The Detour.” But for the first time, she has sat down in the director’s chair to helm an episode of television.
“Actresses, if they’re smart, are hyper-aware of having an expiration date, and I want to stay in the business,” Zea tells Variety. “And the only real way to guarantee-ish that is to get behind the camera. We’re not all Helen Mirren.”
It had been in her “back of mind” for a few years to think about directing, so when she booked the role of Robin Parker in “The Detour” three years ago, she saw an opportunity to make it a reality. “I didn’t ask for anything in the first two seasons,” she says, planning to ask to direct in year three. “This is a good way to start because nobody’s going to just hand me an episode to direct.”
Ahead of her directorial debut, she tells Variety about the scenes she found most challenging to be in charge of, the advice David Duchovny gave her that she took to heart, and her plans for directing vs. acting.
How helpful were your first two years on “The Detour,” building relationships and watching other directors?
The assumption is that it’s so much easier directing a show that you’re on because you’re already familiar with so many things, but the unique difference with our show is that we travel every season, so we don’t take our crews with us. We have a new crew every year, and the tone is the same, but it’s a completely different concept every season. And everybody shoots out of order within an episode, but we [also] shoot out of order in the season. I think the first thing we shot was a scene from episode 7, so I shot fairly early on — I think it was the third or fourth day. I didn’t know anybody’s name [on the new crew]. The landscape was totally unfamiliar. So on one hand it’s a disadvantage but on the other, it will help when I go onto the next one because it won’t be such a vast difference in terms of familiarity.
What’s the most important part about getting people to trust you when you don’t even know all their names yet?
There’s a lot of faking it! There’s a lot of being asked questions that you don’t even know what the question is, and you’re like, “Oh yeah, I’m pretty sure, that’s that.” Not to drop names, but David Duchovny is an actor and a director, and he’s a friend of mine and he always encouraged me to direct, and I asked him — I was like, “Look, I’m going to do this because you said I should, but do you absolutely have to know what you’re doing?” And he said the only rule I have is never say “I don’t know.” And I really took that to heart. It could be a no-brainer, but the willpower it took for me not to say “I don’t know” was continuous — because sometimes I actually didn’t know what they were talking about or I just didn’t care, it wasn’t important to me in the moment. So it was a very sage piece of advice.
There are always a lot of moving pieces in episodes of “The Detour” and usually quite a few stunts. What was the most challenging scene for you to bring to life?
They gave me a goddamn hockey game! It was trial by fire and a half: “Sorry, this is the one you’re getting.” I also had to do a dream sequence where I was in a fat suit, and that day was challenging for different reasons. I didn’t anticipate the psychological fallout that comes from putting on a suit like that and having to be in charge of a crew. A lot of complex things come up.
Did you have to wear the suit for longer than it took to shoot the scene?
We shot that first, and then I got out of it. But in doing that, there were many, many hours where I wasn’t able to be on set while they were shooting, so I ended doing a storyboard for the entire sequence so I could give it to everyone on the crew, and it could basically kind of direct itself. Our schedule is so breakneck there was no way for us to take a three-hour break while I got out of my hair and makeup. That was challenging. I didn’t have a lot of control that day just because I wasn’t there — I wasn’t physically present for three to four hours of the day.
When you look at the completed episode now, how do you feel about what you accomplished and how you had to prove yourself?
Had I gotten an easy episode to do it would have been a more, I guess, pleasant experience to shoot, but I wouldn’t have walked away with a feeling of, “Oh now I can shoot anything.” Not only was this a challenging script for me as a director, but the show in general is a very, very difficult show to shoot. I don’t envy any guest director that comes out — which is kind of why we don’t have guest directors. Because it’s such a wild, wild west situation on the set of “The Detour” I knew I could kind of kill it. I do know the actors and the characters and the [vibe] very well. And I’ve been on other sets and every set has its own set of problems and I’ve encountered, I want to say, most of them. So I have an arsenal of, “I’ve been in this situation as an actress, I am familiar with the goings-on.”
Beyond your role on “The Detour,” are you looking to focus on directing?
I recently had a meeting where I was told there was going to be a target on my back because I’m also an actress, and I guess some people could perceive that as, “Oh she’s an actress who’s dabbling in directing and taking jobs away from people who are busting their a– for their first gig” — which I get. But I feel like the Lake Bells and the Zoe Lister-Joneses and the Greta Gerwigs of the world are proving that you don’t have to choose one as a primary in order to be taken seriously. You can two-hand this whole thing. Just because I want to continue on being an actress, that doesn’t mean I would take directing jobs any less seriously or that it was a mere hobby. I think we’re getting to a place where we can do both or even other things and not have it be just a side hustle. I would hope. It’s hard. But women are great multitaskers and have done much harder things, like have kids and marriages and full-time jobs. I would like to continue to do it, but I don’t want it to take the place of the other thing.
When people say things like you have a target on your back, does that make you want to just develop your own stories to direct to ensure you can still do what you love?
These meetings are very helpful, especially where the message is like, “Look kid, you’ve got a ways to go” because it shows me that I am very privileged and that I was, for lack of better word, handed this episode. Having shot an episode of your own show is just one notch up from having never shot an episode of TV. So I do want to do my own stuff because I can and I have ideas and I have resources and the desire to. It’s time, and a lot of it is time. Life gets in the way, and it’s so much easier to show up on a set for two weeks as a guest director than to put together something of your own, but you’ve got to find the time, and I’ll do that. I’ll invent new hours in the day.
How do you think the female filmmaker Friday movement on social media will aid with job creation or visibility of those already working?
It’s certainly great within the confines of female filmmakers and us becoming more familiar with each other. I have no idea if it has any impact beyond that. I think it will be interesting to see [if it does]. It may be a slow burn, and that’s all right, we’re getting places, I think. If a hashtag helps, great, I will hashtag away.
And in making you more aware of each other, that creates a network of support and hiring to counterbalance the “you have a target on your back” people.
Right. And that’s the thing, there are so many different points of view. I was pointing out the negative, but I’ve had meetings where people are like, “F— those people, we need more women behind the camera!” That’s been great. It’s been really fascinating to see how disparate the opinions are. That’s information, and as long as I’m armed with information, I can sort out which is helpful and which isn’t.
“The Detour” airs Tuesdays at 10:30 p.m. on TBS.