When actors step behind the camera to shoot an episode, it's twice the work—and twice as rewarding
On a soundstage in Hollywood, veteran actor David McCallum reaches into a corpse and pulls out a gushy-looking organ. Kidney? asks his NCIS co-star Michael Weatherly. Liver, McCallum responds, plopping the glob onto a scale.
As the scene ends, instead of standing in his place on the set with the rest of the cast to see if the scene needs another take, Weatherly dashes over to a TV monitor and watches a playback. Print it," he declares, and the crew moves on to the next shot.
Wait a minute—is this guy an actor or the director? Today, on set of the episode called "One Last Score," he's both.
"I was so excited to get to work, I actually had to go for a run this morning to burn off some energy," says Weatherly, the latest member of an elite group: actors directing episodes of their own shows.
A BUILT-IN KNOWLEDGE BASE
"Actors on series often make very good directors," says Criminal Minds' Joe Mantegna, who's been directed twice by his co-star Matthew Gray Gubler—in last year's "Mosley Lane," about a couple who've been abducting children, and more recently, in "Lauren," actress Paget Brewster's final episode on the show. "They have a built-in advantage over other guest directors—they know the territory, they know the world."
Gubler, who's been with the show since its start in 2005, agrees. "Oftentimes, directors come in and they've never really seen the show and they don't know the characters. I know these people's characters as well as I know them individually in real life."
Getting to direct can come out of years of desire, as in Gubler's case. While studying directing at NYU, he interned with filmmaker Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums). "I hung out at his office, copied scripts, basically spent a year and a half of my life with him, and just absorbed everything I could," he says. And when the right time came along on Criminal Minds, he asked executive producer Ed Bernero, who had seen some of Gubler's documentaries, for a chance. "He was all on board with it."
But being the man who said "cut" on longtime collaborators such as Brewster wasn't easy—even though the actress herself asked Gubler to direct the episode. "We scheduled her very last scene to be shot on the last day of filming," he explains. "It was incredibly moving. I'd been in denial the whole time about what was obviously happening. She did this incredible scene, and then I had to say, ‘That's a wrap for the night ... and that's a wrap on Emily Prentiss [Brewster's character].' It was hard. There were a lot of tears."
A SUPERNATURAL NATURAL
Jensen Ackles never thought about directing an episode of his show, The CW's Supernatural, until the late veteran director Kim Manners mentioned it. "In the first season of the show, he said to me, ‘You're gonna direct one of these,' " Ackles recalls. "I said, ‘Oh, OK, Kim. Yeah, sure.' He said, ‘You will. And when you do that, I'll be right there.' "
It took another five years, but Ackles eventually directed this season's "Weekend at Bobby's." The episode focused on two of the show's more minor characters, Bobby Singer (Jim Beaver) and Crowley (Mark Sheppard), as Singer struggles to come up with a way to trick the demonic Crowley to give him back his ransomed soul.
Again, the actor's longtime professional relationship with his cast mates paid off when it came to directing Beaver on the set. "There's a very kind relationship he and I have built over the past several seasons," Ackles says. "He basically showed up and said, ‘Tell me what you want me to do, and I'll do it. Whatever I can do to help, I will. I'm here for you.' "
Like most directors, Ackles also had a hand in casting the guest actors in the episode. So when it came time to figure out who would do the voice for the TV newscaster Bobby Singer is listening to, it was a no-brainer: Ackles' veteran voiceover-actor father, Alan Ackles. "I saw ‘Newscaster' in the script, and I knew, ‘Well, that's easy. My dad can phone that in.' And he literally did. He phoned it in from the studio in his house in Texas, sitting in his bathrobe, sipping his coffee."
CSI: Miami's Adam Rodriguez made especially sure he wouldn't have to juggle too many plates while on set—both acting and directing—on his recent episode, "Hunting Ground." The actor not only directed the episode, about humans hunting humans, but wrote it as well.
"I knew that I was taking on this new challenge, and there are a tremendous number of responsibilities that go along with directing," he says. "The director has to be on top of every detail of everything that goes on, every minute of the day. I didn't want to bite off more than I could chew, so I just sprinkled myself in the episode."
One of the biggest challenges that actor/directors have to face is directing themselves. "That was the hardest thing about it," recalls Gubler. "I realized that at some point, I had to act in it, too. It takes a different part of my brain to act than it does to direct," he says.
"I was able to go back and forth, but it was definitely harder than I thought," Weatherly adds. "When you're in a scene as an actor, you have to fully commit to the scene. You can't be thinking, ‘Should I be switching to a different lens?' or ‘Wait a minute, was that extra crossing at the right time?' And you can't be acting in the scene and saying ‘Action!' or ‘Cut!' That's just too weird." Instead, the first assistant director was called on to start and stop scenes.
When setting up a shot—both for how it will look on camera and for "blocking" the actors (planning and arranging the way they move within the scene)—Weatherly "would jump in, and we would rehearse three or four times and get the shape of the scene going, and then step away so I could watch it, just for camera angles and things like that."
Gubler employed a different method of keeping an eye on things while he was in a shot. "If I was in a scene with my co-workers, I'd be sitting there with a digital monitor on my lap tucked inside an FBI file, so I could watch the angle being shot over my shoulder, as I was being filmed," he explains. "I just had to make sure the camera never caught me with my eyes looking down at it."
Neil Patrick Harris faced a different kind of challenge when directing an episode last season ("Jenkins") of How I Met Your Mother. With no live audience to laugh at the actors' jokes, the cast—and director—need to figure out where, and how long, to leave gaps for laughter.
"We have to choose when we think the laughs will come, because they're added later," Harris explains. "Then we have to decide whether a line is a double-laugh and you're supposed to pause halfway through it for the laugh, then finish it off with the second laugh line, or whether you rattle through the whole thing and wait for a laugh at the end."
Harris is about to direct a new pilot for CBS—this one with a live audience. "That's its own beast," he says. "You don't want them to laugh at everything. You need to rattle through a lot to earn the actual laugh. That's true whether you're on stage in front of a crew or in front of an audience."
IT'S NOT JUST ABOUT YOU
As for directing their cast mates, the actor/directors found the experience a great education, learning so much more about characters they'd been playing opposite for years. "Usually, when I open a script, I'm only dealing with one character—mine," says Ackles. "But now I had to study all of the characters and put myself in their shoes." Adds Weatherly, "When you're an actor, you're really just trying to make the scene that you're in work, to serve your character in the scene. But as a director, each moment that's played by each different character has to be given the same weight."
Directing guest stars can be a blast, especially if the guest is game, as was the case for Harris on Mother, and special guest star Amanda Peet. "I had to ask her to give me her best ‘porn acting,' while she's pouring this syrup and maraschino cherries down her face!" Harris recalls. "When you have guest cast on, you never know just how far they'll go to make the joke work. So having a then-barely pregnant woman just flipping her hair back and forth and pouring cherry all over her face was pretty awesome."
Working with a veteran like David Caruso, Rodriguez was able to take advantage of the actor's years of experience to create an ending for the episode that was truly moving. "He had some great ideas and would make suggestions, and then we would build on them together. I was happy to take all of his years of film experience and put them to work. And watching [Caruso] from behind the camera gave me an even greater appreciation for what he does."
"Caruso and Adam crafted the penultimate scene from Adam's script," says executive producer Ann Donahue. "They fashioned a kind of High Noon moment between [Caruso's character] and the bad guy that gave the audience the cleansing ending they needed. It grabs the audience's attention, their feelings. It brings tears at the end, and hope. No crew can make that happen without a very good director. That's Adam."
"It made me so much more aware of the massive undertaking each episode is," says Weatherly, who also got to see firsthand just what kind of a director he would make, the tables now being turned. "I'd always wondered if I would be, like, the quiet type that sits behind the monitor, or would I be the really loud, screaming, lose-your-temper, gallivanting-around type?" Fortunately for his cast mates, he was the former. "I just hope they let me do it again."