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7 Actors who became directors

Eva Mackevic

BY Eva Mackevic

1st Jan 2015 Film & TV

7 Actors who became directors

As everyone's favourite Scottish actor Ewan McGregor makes his directorial debut with American Pastoral, we take a look at a number of other successful actors who decided to step behind the camera. 

Based on the iconic novel of the same name by Philip Roth, American Pastoral is a lofty project. Yet critics have been less than favourable throwing around phrases like “the great American nothing” or “flat and strangled”. 

American Pastoral directed by Ewan McGregor

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Ewan McGregor is not first one to find himself in this kind of predicament with actors such as Angelina Jolie, Natalie Portman, and Ben Affleck having been deprecated for their directorial debuts. However, there is also a number of success stories for Ewan to get inspired by. Here are some of the biggest ones: 


1. Clint Eastwood

Who would’ve thought that the hunky, blue-eyed cowboy would go on to become one of the greatest directors of all time? Before he made his smashing directorial debut with Play Misty for Me, he was best known as the poncho-wearing, gunslinging, monosyllabic tough guy from Sergio Leone’s Westerns. 

Clint Eastwood

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Play Misty for Me was quite an entrance. An intense psychological thriller, it tells the story of a disc jockey being stalked by an obsessive female fan. Although its portrayal of mental illness, women and homosexuality hasn’t quite aged well and will now seem largely crude and dated, the film did pave the way for a new type of psychotic female antagonist, such as Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction.

Eastwood went on to make a number of now-iconic films and won two Best Picture Oscars for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby.

Key films to watch: Play Misty for Me, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Unforgiven, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby.



2. Sean Penn

Speaking of Clint Eastwood and Mystic River, it would be a shame not to mention Sean Penn who scored a Best Actor Oscar for his role in the film. In addition to being an acclaimed actor, Penn's filmmaking efforts have been esteemed just as highly. It all started in 1991 with a raw, gritty crime drama The Indian Runner based on Bruce Springsteen’s song “Highway Patrolman” about a conflict between two very different brothers.


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Since then, Penn has made five more films, including his latest, The Last Face which premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, as well as directed a number of music videos, including Shania Twain’s "Dance with the One That Brought You".

Key films to watch: The Indian Runner, The Pledge, Into the Wild.


3. Angelina Jolie

Talking about Angelina seems almost redundant given all the tabloid treatment she’s been given since… well, since she first appeared in the Hollywood world (eccentric marriage to Billy Bob Thornton, making out with her brother, the affair with Brad Pitt—the list goes on). Perhaps her move into filmmaking was an attempt at establishing a more serious reputation for herself.  


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Yet despite exploring weighty, politically charged topics such as the Bosnian War, the Second World War, and PoW Camps, Jolie’s first two feature films received mostly mixed to negative reviews while her 2015 drama By the Sea was deemed as a “vanity project”. The latter tells the story of a broken marriage and was the first film Brad Pitt and Jolie appeared in together since Mr. & Mrs. Smith during which they allegedly began their affair.

If nothing else, By the Sea serves as a fascinating, fictionalised prediction of things to come in their real life relationship. 

Key films to watch: In the Land of Blood and Honey, Unbroken, By the Sea. 


4. Ben Affleck

Similarly to Jolie, Affleck probably hoped to revitalise his career when he decided to give directing a go. After a slew of early 2000s bombs like Surviving Christmas or Gigli (which, allegedly, makes Affleck twitch till this day), he sure needed it. Except for, in his case, it actually worked.


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His directorial debut Gone Baby Gone, based on his favourite novel, was met with rave reviews. A crime drama set in a working-class Boston, starring his brother Casey Affleck, it was described by critics as complex and thoughtful and Ben Affleck’s directing as showing great promise. And they were right: Affleck went on to make the critically acclaimed The Town and Argo which won three Oscars in 2013, including Best Picture.

He’s come a long way since his 1993 short I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meat Hook, and Now I Have a Three-Picture Deal at Disney.

Key films to watch: Gone Baby Gone, Argo.


5. Sofia Coppola

Coppola is as famous a female director as they get. She became the third woman to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar and won a Golden Lion, the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, in 2010 for her drama Somewhere.

Sofia Coppola

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She started her career as an actress, though. The daughter of the legendary Francis Ford Coppola, she began appearing in his films as an infant—most notably in The Godfather trilogy. She made her directorial debut at the age of 28 with The Virgin Suicides which received high critical acclaim. It was followed by a number of largely successful films, including Lost in Translation which won her an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay; Marie Antoinette and Somewhere

She also directed a number of TV ads and music videos, including the famous "I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself" by The White Stripes.

Key films to watch: The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, Somewhere.


6. Mel Gibson       

Gibson had already been a huge movie star when he decided to give the whole directing business a go. He was encouraged by Hollywood studio executives to try directing as early as 1989, but he rebuffed the idea until four years later when he made The Man Without a Face. Like many first-time directors, he opted for an adaptation of a novel for his first project, in this case, Isabelle Holland’s 1972 novel of the same name, and received respectful reviews from most critics.

Mel Gibson

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And the rest, as they say, is history. Gibson made Braveheart in 1995 which won five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, followed by the highly controversial The Passion of the Christ—a massive box office hit which provoked a lot of criticism for its extreme violence and perceived anti-Semitism, among many other things.

Key films to watch: The Man without a Face, Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ


7. Gary Oldman

Known in the acting world for his chameleon-like ability to transform into any character through changing his looks and accent, Oldman’s director’s credits don’t exactly take up a whole lot of space.


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Yet the only feature he made—1997's Nil by Mouth starring Ray Winstone—is a true cinematic triumph. The film is loosely based on his own life growing up on a council housing estate in south London. Oldman spent a year and a half prepping, making and releasing this labour of love, putting a massive amount of his own money into the project. And it was worth it: what he ended up with was a deeply moving, disturbing story of a dysfunctional family.  

Oldman worked on some happier subjects, too: just look at this super fun video of him meeting Jack White before shooting his live show Unstaged – a project that White handpicked Oldman to direct.  

Key films to watch: Nil by Mouth


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