directorial debuts

The 18 Best Directorial Debuts From Actors

Photo: Neal Preston/Warner Bros.

In Hollywood’s long history, many an accomplished actor has decided to step around the camera and try their hand at directing. It makes a lot of sense. Directors usually spend at least two years working on an individual project, while a successful actor can star in anything from three to six films over the course of 12 months. During their time on set, actors can just sit in their trailers until it’s their turn to shoot — or they can treat that experience as an immersive film school, picking up little tidbits from each director that they work with, eventually coming to the realization that they might actually be able to do this job.

That’s exactly what the likes of Clint Eastwood, Angelina Jolie, Jon Favreau, Regina King, Jodie Foster, and Denzel Washington, to name but a few, have done over the years. Robin Wright is the latest thespian to make this transition, as Land, her first foray into feature filmmaking, hits theaters on February 12. But which actors have taken seamlessly to filmmaking? Below, we rank the 18 best directorial debuts from actors.

18. That Thing You Do! (1996) — Tom Hanks

In the mid-1990s, Tom Hanks, fresh off back-to-back Best Actor Oscar wins for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, could pretty much do whatever he wanted. It made sense that he would leverage that goodwill to try his hand at directing. What’s somewhat surprising is that his debut, That Thing You Do!, actually proved to be a bit of a box-office disappointment, grossing less than $35 million from a $26 million budget. Over the years, though, the appreciation for Hanks’s story of a fictional 1960s one-hit-wonder pop band has only grown, especially as it’s basically the movie equivalent of a warm hug. Plus, it goes without saying that the Wonders’ titular song is still ridiculously catchy 25 years after the film’s release. (Available to rent on Amazon.)

17. Shadows (1959) — John Cassavetes

It didn’t take long for John Cassavetes to turn to directing. Even after he rose from a bit-part TV actor in the 1950s to star in major Hollywood productions like Edge of the City, Affair in Havana, and Saddle the Wind, Cassavetes couldn’t resist the urge to make more grounded and character-driven films. Cassavetes’s antidote to Hollywood commercialism was Shadows, an intimate film funded by him and his friends, mostly improvised, and focusing on the relationships of three siblings in New York over a two-week period. Cassavetes’s probing and unfiltered look at sex and race meant Shadows wasn’t able to secure American distribution. Until it won the Critics’ Award at the 1960 Venice Film Festival, that is. While Shadows went on to just be a minor success at the box office, it’s now widely acknowledged as one of the most important movies in American independent cinema. (Available on HBO Max.)

16. Ordinary People (1980) — Robert Redford

Robert Redford’s huge success with his 1980 adaptation of Judith Guest’s novel paved the way for the likes of Ben Affleck, Denzel Washington, and Bradley Cooper to follow his path. Before Ordinary People, Redford wasn’t just one of the most popular actors in the world for over a decade; after the likes of The Candidate, Three Days of the Condor, and All the President’s Men, he was seen as America’s conscience too. With Ordinary People, he was able to use the intimate connection audiences felt with him to his advantage, and the story of an upper-middle-class family falling apart provoked stirring responses from audiences and critics alike, before going on to pick up four Academy Awards, including Best Director. (Available on Amazon Prime.)

15. Eve’s Bayou (1997) — Kasi Lemmons

Kasi Lemmons was far from a household name by the time she directed Eve’s Bayou. However, thanks to her appearances in the likes of School Daze, The Silence of the Lambs, and Candyman, there was no denying that she had appeared in some of the most popular movies of the previous decade. Lemmons used what she learned from these experiences to craft a beautiful, complex exploration of family, guilt, and trauma, which she tells in a searingly honest — yet still mesmerizingly surreal — fashion. Lemmons thrived as a director so much that she left behind acting altogether, and she most recently oversaw the Netflix drama series Self Made, as well as the Oscar-nominated biopic Harriet. (Available on Amazon Prime and Hulu.)

14. In a World … (2013) — Lake Bell

In a World … could only have been made by an actor. Around its release, Lake Bell admitted that she had long been fascinated by the world of voice-over talent, which she was able to morph with her own struggles and pursuits as an up-and-coming actress. This not only brings a personal detail that makes the comedy more illuminating but also makes it increasingly hilarious too. Bell’s casting decisions also help to elevate In a World … even further, as her chemistry with Demetri Martin, Ken Marino, Michaela Watkins, and in particular Fred Melamed means that the entire film flies by, especially since it only has a breezy 93-minute run time. (Available on Cinemax.)

13. Charlie Bubbles (1968) — Albert Finney

On the face of it, Albert Finney’s Charlie Bubbles sounds pretty autobiographical. Finney’s titular character is a successful writer who travels up from London to his hometown of Manchester to take his son to a soccer game. But far from resembling the kitchen-sink dramas he had starred in before, Charlie Bubbles is a surreal and absurd comedy that Finney uses to reveal his own toil with success in an honest and imaginative fashion. Unfortunately, its release was botched, so Charlie Bubbles has long been overlooked by modern audiences, even though it is Finney’s only film as a director, was written by A Taste of Honey’s Shelagh Delaney, and marked the movie debut of Liza Minnelli. (Available on Blu-ray at Amazon.)

12. This Is the End (2013) — Seth Rogen

After being part of the writing team on Undeclared and Da Ali G Show, co-producing The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and writing Superbad, Pineapple Express, and The Green Hornet, it was almost inevitable that Seth Rogen and his creative partner Evan Goldberg would one day make the leap to directing. Obviously it wasn’t a surprise when their apocalyptic comedy This Is the End proved to be hilarious. What did stand out, though, was just how ambitious and personal the film was. Rogen and Goldberg hysterically skewered themselves and their celebrity friends, including James Franco, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, and Danny McBride, combined with a spectacle that’s usually reserved for blockbusters. (Available to rent on Amazon.)

11. Bastard Out of Carolina (1996) — Anjelica Huston

As the daughter of one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema, it feels only right that Anjelica Huston followed her father, John Huston, behind the camera. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Glenne Headly, and a young Jenna Malone are particularly revelatory in Huston’s dramatic adaptation of Dorothy Allison’s 1992 novel, which is set in the Deep South and focuses on Leigh’s single mother struggling to raise her daughter. As you’d expect, Huston ekes out incredible performances, but she’s also able to find heart in its harrowing subject matter, without shying away from the brutality. Sadly, Huston has only directed one other movie, 1999’s Agnes Browne. (Available on DVD at Amazon.)

10. Yentl (1983) — Barbra Streisand

It feels wrong that bona fide icon Barbra Streisand has only directed three movies, especially when you consider the scope and all-around magic of her 1983 romantic musical directorial debut Yentl. In fairness, it took her 15 years to make Yentl, which revolves around a Polish girl (played by Streisand) dressing and living like a boy in order to attend school. Streisand injects the film with the humor, charm, and musical prowess that defined her career, while also bringing an intensity that never overpowers, but instead enhances the experience. (Available to rent on Amazon.)

9. Henry V (1944) — Laurence Olivier

It’s safe to say that Laurence Olivier had more pressure on his shoulders when he made his directorial debut than anyone else on this list. As well as having to adjust to his new creative position, Olivier was told by none other than British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that his adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Henry V had to aid the British war effort and lift up the morale of the country. That didn’t seem likely when British critics weren’t overly impressed by Henry V, however audiences did soon respond to it euphorically. The US reviews were much more rapturous, while Olivier was even given a Special Academy Award for his Outstanding Achievement as actor, producer, and director. Olivier’s own review of the film went even further, though, as he later said, “Looking back. I don’t think we could have won the war without ‘Once more unto the breach…’ somewhere in our soldiers’ hearts.” (Available on HBO Max.)

8. Gone Baby Gone (2007) — Ben Affleck

While Gone Baby Gone wasn’t solely responsible for resurrecting Ben Affleck’s career after his critically panned performances in 2003’s Daredevil and Gigli (it was his performance in 2006’s Hollywoodland that reminded people he could really act), his astounding work as its co-writer and director helped Affleck on his journey to be taken seriously again. Set in Boston, of course, Affleck’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel follows two private investigators as they hunt for an abducted young girl. Affleck doesn’t sugarcoat this dark and depressing story, bringing a cynicism and reality that makes the entertaining mystery crime thriller stand out. Gone Baby Gone stars Affleck’s younger brother, Casey, and it’s undeniable that the brotherly bond makes the emotion of the film even more impactful. Though it should be noted that it’s Amy Ryan who steals the film as the mother of the missing girl — so much so that she earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. (Available on Showtime.)

7. Away From Her (2006) — Sarah Polley

After her leading role in Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, Sarah Polley stepped behind the camera to work on the touching 2006 Alzheimer’s drama Away From Her, which she wrote and directed. Polley’s directing could be misconstrued as relatively simple, but it’s actually just confident. She seems aware that showy flourishes would distract from the script, story, characters, and performances, which includes arguably Julie Christie’s finest work. Polley would later go on to prove her mastery of narrative with her deeply personal 2012 documentary Stories We Tell. (Available to rent on Amazon.)

6. Easy Rider (1969) — Dennis Hopper

It’s impossible to measure Easy Rider’s success in box-office gross or critical acclaim. Its impact goes beyond that, as it kick-started the American New Wave movement that changed cinema and pop culture forever. There’s more to Easy Rider than motorcycles, leather jackets, long hair, and the opening riff of Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” though. Hopper and his co-writer, producer, and co-star Peter Fonda were so entwined with the counterculture and America of the late 1960s that they were able to create something that resonated with a new generation of moviegoers, while simultaneously lamenting what the country had become and where it was going. (Available to rent on Amazon.)

5. A Star Is Born (2018) — Bradley Cooper

A Star Is Born really didn’t need to be as good as it is. Bradley Cooper’s 2018 film marked the fourth incarnation of the romantic drama. Lady Gaga had never acted in a leading role before. Cooper had never directed. It starred Andrew Dice Clay! Yet, Cooper found a way to update this timeless story, taking a modern and incisive look at creativity, jealousy, drugs, and love. But while Cooper’s acting, singing, and chemistry with Gaga took most of the plaudits around its release, it’s his deft and subtle direction that leaps out upon repeat viewings. Every emotional beat lands — you’re immediately enchanted by Jackson and Ally, both as individuals and a couple. Cooper expertly guides the film in a manner that suggests he could easily become a Hollywood staple, both as an actor and director, for the next 30 years. (Available on HBO Max.)

4. Get Out (2017) — Jordan Peele

When it was first announced that Jordan Peele would direct a horror movie, many assumed that it would be funnier than it was scary. While Get Out is undoubtedly funny, it’s also a distinctive and truly original horror film, simultaneously subverting and honoring the genre. In fact, even though it was released just four years ago, Get Out’s impact can already be felt — and not just when it comes to film, where it raised the bar of what audiences expect from the genre. Peele captured the changing mood of the country (Vulture declared it the First Great Movie of the Trump Era), making mainstream audiences confront their own actions — or lack thereof. (Available to rent on Amazon.)

3. This Is Spinal Tap (1984) — Rob Reiner

When Rob Reiner decided to make the jump from starring in TV’s All in the Family to directing, no one could have foreseen the streak of incredible movies he would make throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. But while Stand by Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery, and A Few Good Men are each exemplary, nothing can quite match This Is Spinal Tap. First of all, it is endlessly quotable, to such an extent that turning something up to 11 is now part of the everyday lexicon. It’s also the perfect example of what makes Reiner such a good filmmaker, as he is able to both magnificently satirize rock bands and documentaries of the era, while simultaneously convincing viewers that Spinal Tap was a real band. No other filmmaker can merge humor and humanity quite like him. (Available on HBO Max.)

2. Citizen Kane (1941) — Orson Welles

With the release of Mank on Netflix in December, many people are either returning to Citizen Kane or watching it for the first time. But while David Fincher’s engrossing account of the career of Herman J. Mankiewicz raises questions about the origins of Citizen Kane, there can be no denying that, as its director, co-writer, producer, and star, Orson Welles is the film’s creative tour de force. Even now, 80 years after its release, the film’s ingenious structure and assembly, the magnificence of its performances, and the combined virtuosity of Bernard Herrmann’s score and Gregg Toland’s cinematography prove that Welles either instructed them exquisitely or knew it was best to just sit back and let them work their magic. Either way, the proof is in the pudding, and Citizen Kane is still one of the best films ever made. (Available on HBO Max.)

1. The Night of the Hunter (1955) — Charles Laughton

Everything about The Night of the Hunter just works. Robert Mitchum’s Reverend Harry Powell is one of the most frightening villains in movie history, and while its plot of a serial killer–slash–minister wedding a widow to steal $10,000 is relatively simple, Laughton embeds it with such wisdom and beauty that it plays out like a fairy tale for adults. Key to this is Laughton’s Expressionist approach, which makes The Night of the Hunter look and feel dreamlike, as well as utterly gorgeous. He mixes this with a biting cynicism toward the older characters, who are either evil, stupid, or reactionary, except for Lillian Gish’s Rachel Cooper. Unfortunately, audiences and critics failed to appreciate The Night of the Hunter at the time of its release, and Laughton was left so devastated by the poor response to the film that the Best Actor Oscar winner never directed again. (Available on Criterion Channel.)

The 18 Best Directorial Debuts From Actors