How Actors Become Directors: "It's Like the Greatest Film School Ever"

Tracee Ellis Ross, Jodie Foster and Matt Bomer reveal what they had to do to get into the mindset they needed to direct some of this season's most memorable episodes.

Could this year’s Emmys see an equivalent to Lady Bird in its nomination pool? Like Greta Gerwig’s 2017 multiple-Oscar nominee, several Emmy-eligible episodes from acclaimed shows were directed by actors — take Tracee Ellis Ross, who directed an episode of her show Blackish, Jodie Foster (Black Mirror), Jason Bateman (Ozark) and Matt Bomer (The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story). Even if these actor-directors don’t end up vying for winged women in September, they’re demonstrating that acting remains a unique pipeline to directing on television.

“It’s like the greatest film school ever,” says Foster, 55, whose episode of Black Mirror follows a mother who uses technology to trace her daughter’s every move. Actors understand the collaborative nature of sets and are accustomed to the “vocabulary” of each department, she says: “You get to be inside a scene and understand why a scene works or why it doesn’t.”

Actors often say their experience gives them insight into working with other actors — in terms of giving both advice and space. “Knowing when to step back because [the actors] were already doing their thing, that came very naturally to me. I’ve been doing that for most of my life,” says Bomer, 40.

Still, directing demands that actors understand a set in a more “holistic” way than they customarily need to, Bomer adds. The former White Collar actor, who had never directed before Versace, read directing books, asked former directors for advice and went to the Directors Guild of America’s First-Time Episodic Director Orientation Program to pick up technical skills like how to set up a shot, in order to prepare. Ross, 45, who previously has directed on a few side projects and on her UPN/CW show Girlfriends, spent a hiatus week calling up two favorite Black-ish directors, actor-director friends, Black-ish creator Kenya Barris and star Anthony Anderson before helming her episode.

“It’s two different parts of your brain: I direct from my mind and my eyes,” she says. “And then as an actor, I usually work from my body.”

Ultimately, the main challenge, for those who want to helm and act, thespians say, is timing. Ross, who films Black-ish eight months of the year, can’t imagine throwing herself into directing (though “I long to,” she says) until the show ends. Bomer says he has to decide which feature film or episodic projects he wants to dedicate a year or five months to, respectively, between acting projects.

Foster admits that timing has delayed her directing career because she often booked acting jobs six months in advance of production, and the timeline for directing projects was less predictable. “I got caught up with not being able to direct as much as I’d hoped in my 20s and 30s,” she says.  

Still, the Money Monster helmer feels that her acting career has given her more freedom to choose projects and take risks: “I already have an identity, so I don’t need [directing] as an identity: I just want to make things that I love.”

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.