Five Fantastic Directorial Debuts By Famous Actors Over the Last Five Years

It is not uncommon for actors to transition to directing at some point in their career. However, it is rare for their debut as a feature film director to be critically or commercially successful. Yet we’ve seen our fair share of these talented debuts over the last few years…

Many well-known actors have talents that go beyond acting. Their interest in the dramatic arts isn’t fully expressed by their abilities to act. Many branch out into writing, producing, and even directing. Of those three areas, the most difficult and complicated job may be as director. The job of a director is to convey an artistic vision to the audience through the film product, but this process is easier said than done.

In addition to the technical abilities required by a person to direct a film, there is also an artistic, and interpersonal side. A director doesn’t necessarily have to be proficient at operating production equipment, but they need to be able to convey their expectations to those crew members who are. Likewise, they need to be able to understand both the subtleties and big picture of the story they are trying to tell on screen. Finally, they have to be able to use their experience as an actor to get the best out of the actors in their film. In other words, they have to be able to motivate and encourage others to do their best work. 

Many people who became famous actors have attempted to direct a film. Many have done very well, while others were quickly forgotten. Just like in any other field, people with experience in the industry are the ones who are able to be the most successful. For actors becoming directors this is also true. I feel like their experience as actors helps them to become better directors than someone who may have transitioned from a writing, production, or other aspect of filmmaking. 

Proof of this is how many excellent films we have seen lately from major actors who are debuting as feature film directors. Below I have listed 5 examples and explain how the talents of the actors-turned-directors enhances the end product. These are just 5 examples which came to my mind, there are many others which deserve just as much recognition. 

Lady Bird (2017) – Directed by Greta Gerwig

Synopsis: Marion McPherson, a nurse, works tirelessly to keep her family afloat after her husband loses his job. She also maintains a turbulent bond with a teenage daughter who is just like her: loving, strong-willed and deeply opinionated.

Greta Gerwig had always wanted to become a writer, but she just couldn’t find much success in that field. When she was not accepted into a masters program for playwriting, she decided to give acting a try. It is through her acting which she was able to find more and more opportunities to write. She actually co-directed a film in 2008 with collaborator Joe Swanberg before she found mainstream success in the early-to-mid 2010’s. 

Gerwig’s turn as director seems to combine her best attributes as writer and director. As a writer she became known for her wit, and as an actor she was able to convey herself in a personable and identifiable way. The characters she played tended to focus on themselves, but she did it in a way that didn’t make them seem too selfish. Instead, she makes her characters feel like they are motivated to better themselves, even if they don’t know how to do that. By being expressive in their needs and desires, Greta is able to clearly depict their struggles, and in doing so the audience can see parallels in their own lives. 

In Ladybird, Greta showcases everything she had learned about making films during her decade+ long career as an actress. She utilizes techniques from her idols, and as an actor is able to capture some really fantastic performances from her cast. Ladybird went on to be named among the best films to be released in 2017. It was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay – all of those nominations speaking very highly of Gerwig’s many talents. 

A Star is Born (2018) – Directed by Bradley Cooper

Synopsis: Seasoned musician Jackson Maine discovers — and falls in love with — struggling artist Ally. She has just about given up on her dream to make it big as a singer until Jackson coaxes her into the spotlight. But even as Ally’s career takes off, the personal side of their relationship is breaking down, as Jackson fights an ongoing battle with his own internal demons.

The 2018 version of A Star is Born was the third remake of an original 1937 film. All of the previous versions of this film saw significant fanfare at the time of their releases. They featured major stars and received many major awards nominations and wins. Just as importantly, they were all commercially successful. The last remake, from 1976 was a smash hit, starring Barbara Strisand and Kris Kristoffersen. The original story, and its entertainment value have proven to be timeless. 

So, to say that the director of a new version of A Star is Born had big shoes to fill would be an understatement. The film was originally supposed to be helmed by heavyweight director Clint Eastwood, and had all sorts of big-name stars attached to it. Yet, the film experienced many production issues, and kept getting delayed. With such huge expectations, there was understandably a lot of hesitation and uncertainty. Yet, the studio ended up selecting an unproven director to take over. This turned out to be an excellent decision. 

Cooper negotiated a contract so that he would not make any money upfront in order to get the opportunity to direct. It was a huge risk, and he was betting on himself. That is the kind of commitment you see when you actually watch the film. This is Bradley Cooper wearing his heart on his sleeve, and fully committing himself to the role as actor and director. He has stated that his goal was to make an authentic film, and his decisions as director were skewed in that direction. With the end result we can clearly see how this film was a labor of love, which makes it all that much more impactful to watch.  

Eighth Grade (2018) – Directed by Bo Burnham

Synopsis: Thirteen-year-old Kayla endures the tidal wave of contemporary suburban adolescence as she makes her way through the last week of middle school — the end of her thus far disastrous eighth-grade year.

On its surface, Eight Grade may seem like an exploration into the life of a girl in her early teens, but for director Bo Burnham it was more personal than that. For him it was a representation of his struggle with anxiety. As a comedian he was able to overcome his fear of performing for other people, but it is still something that he deals with on a regular basis. For him, the struggle made him feel like he was immature, and that is what inspired him to make this film. 

For many of us, our early teenage years are a challenging time. We are trying to figure out who we are and how we fit into the world around us. For people growing up these days, the situation is even more complicated with social media and the internet, both of which might instill false ideas and pressures on young minds. In particular, these are areas where young people feel like they have to be something which they are not. For Bernham, that was something personal he was familiar with. He started his career producing YouTube videos, and knew how unforgiving the online environment could be, and knew the effect would be even more difficult on a younger person. 

All of this inspired Bo Burham to write, and then direct a film about his personal experience with fear. He wanted to show how his struggles were universal, and he knew that he would have to direct the film in order to make it as personal as possible. He did not have any experience directing, and studied for 8 months straight before starting production. The resulting film was a critical success, and clearly exudes Burnham’s commitment, while also showcasing his abilities as a comedian to make nuanced observations about the complexities of life. 

Booksmart (2019) – Directed by Olivia Wilde

Synopsis: Academic overachievers Amy and Molly thought keeping their noses to the grindstone gave them a leg up on their high school peers. But on the eve of graduation, the best friends suddenly realize that they may have missed out on the special moments of their teenage years. Determined to make up for lost time, the girls decide to cram four years of not-to-be missed fun into one night — a chaotic adventure that no amount of book smarts could prepare them for.

Olivia Wilde comes from a family with a long history of writers. Her grandfather was a novelist, and her father and mother were both journalists and documentary producers. So, from an early age Wilde had been encouraged to be creative. Her career in the film industry progressed as most actor-directors have, first making an impression on television before moving to feature films and gathering experience along the way. In addition to her successful career onscreen, Wilde has been an outspoken activist for worker’s rights, healthcare, education, and feminism. 

All of those attributes have found their way into Wilde’s blossoming career as a film director. In the 2010’s she worked to produce several documentaries and also acted in her first broadway production, and those experiences helped pave the way for her opportunity to direct a feature film. Booksmart itself had originated as a screenplay written by Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins, but had yet to be produced into a film despite being well liked. When Wilde received the screenplay it had gone through some revisions. She had her own ideas to make it even better, and decided to direct. 

Olivia’s decision to direct the film was partially inspired by political changes resulting from the 2016 US election. She liked the opportunity because it would be a story which could empower women, and show what they are capable of when working together. She took a similar approach with the actual production of the film, making sure to keep the actors involved with her decisions, while also adapting the film as she went along to incorporate their ideas as well as the rest of her crew. Most of all, Wilde wanted to challenge traditional tropes associated with women, especially young women. She wanted to show the importance of their perspectives and opinions, which aren’t always appropriately demonstrated in mainstream media.   

One Night in Miami (2021) – Directed by Regina King

Synopsis: On the night of Feb. 25, 1964, in Miami, Cassius Clay joins Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Malcom X, and they discuss the responsibility of being successful black men during the civil rights movement.

Aldis Hodge and Director Regina King on the set of ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI
Photo: Patti Perret/Amazon Studios

Regina King has made a name for herself thanks to the success she has found as an actor in television and film roles. She is an Academy Award winner, a Golden Globe Winner, and holds the record for the most Emmy awards for an african-american performer. But in addition to her work as an actor, King has actually also been working as a director. One Night in Miami may be her feature film debut, but she has nearly a decade’s worth of experience in working as a director for television programs and documentaries. 

King is known for her work on powerful dramatic films and television shows. Her television credits as director include episodes of Southland, Scandal, This is Us, and Shameless. For her first project as director of a feature film, she also wanted to create something that was dramatic and envisioned a historical romance. However, when she was approached to work on a film adaptation of the play One Night in Miami, she jumped at the opportunity. For her, this film felt like it was a romance, but from her perspective to the men depicted. She saw them all as people who have had a significant impact on her life as well as millions of others. Furthermore, the people depicted in the film come together to appreciate each other. 

She was also attracted to the opportunity because it was fictional, but based on real life. By not being constrained to tell a story that already happened, she had more freedom to depict these powerful people in a different light. This allowed her to approach their stories and their opinions more directly, which makes the film more impactful. It also allows for an ideological exploration which is what makes the film so engaging, and different than just a historical reenactment. Finally, as an award-winning actor herself, King is able to get the best out of her cast, which only adds to the impact of the film.