Five underrated directorial debuts by actors

Feature by Eleanor Capaldi | 17 Feb 2016
  • Miles Ahead

Inspired by Don Cheadle's upcoming directorial debut, Miles Ahead, we look back at five underrated first features by talented actors who could quite easily give up their day jobs if they so desired.

It is the director who ultimately steers the good ship celluloid. The creative control this affords has tempted many successful actors to experience the view from the other side of the lens. Most recently, Don Cheadle has taken this step. His feature Miles Ahead, a biopic of Miles Davis in which he also stars, is screening at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival. The transition is far from unprecedented, so we take a look at five examples of what we feel are underrated early works by actors who've turned their hand to directing.

George Clooney: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

When not publicising Scottish social enterprises, George Clooney has a habit of occupying the director’s chair. In his first attempt, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Clooney takes on Charlie Kaufman's tale of gameshow-host-cum-CIA-hitman Chuck Barris. Clooney lets colours pop under a layer of gossamer sheen, lending an unreal element to proceedings – a reference perhaps to the role of Barris’s own imagination in his claims. Clooney revisited the television studio again in the McCarthy-era drama Good Night and Good Luck.

Samantha Morton: The Unloved

Samantha Morton travelled from the Children’s Television Workshop in Nottingham to Hollywood, bringing her emotional honesty to projects such as Minority Report, Code 46, and Synecdoche, New York. Then, in 2009, she turned her hand to directing with The Unloved. Drawn from her own experiences as a child in care, this unflinching debut uses longer takes effectively, allowing pressure to build and uncomfortable moments to linger. Her leading actress (Molly Windsor) speaks little, which in itself speaks volumes about the silence which too long faced those in her position.

The Unloved

Jodie Foster: Little Man Tate

Jodie Foster, star of original kids' classics like Freaky Friday, first stepped into the director’s chair with Little Man Tate, in 1991 – the same year she picked up her second acting Oscar, for Silence of the Lambs. The story of a genius born to a working class single mum (who she also plays), Foster experiments with sharing the child’s perspective as he navigates a world in which he is misunderstood. An alternative perspective was also her subject in 2011’s The Beaver, where she lends a sympathetic eye to the unorthodox solution of finding expression through a felt hand puppet.

Julie Delpy: Two Days in Paris

An experienced actress in her native France, it was Julie Delpy’s performance as the quick smart Celine in Before Sunrise that helped bring her to audiences more widely. Delpy made an experimental directing attempt in 2002’s Looking for Jimmy. Searching for a friend overnight in LA, Delpy shot in real time over 24 hours. In 2007, she made her first attempt proper in Two Days in Paris. Placing her anxious American boyfriend in the middle of Parisian permissiveness, a comedy of manners ensues. An even better sequel, Two Days in New York, which Delpy also directed, followed five years later.

Drew Barrymore: Whip It

Already a prolific producer, Drew Barrymore gathered an epic line-up of ladies (including Kristen Wiig, Juliette Lewis and Ellen Page) to star in her dynamic directorial debut Whip It. In this tribute to roller derby, Drew deftly navigated mother-daughter tensions, best friendship and discovering the guts to pursue what you don’t even know you’ll be good at until you try. Which could very well be a story arc to inspire any would-be actor-turned-director.


Miles Ahead screens at Glasgow Film Festival and is eligable for the annual GFF Audience Award: 20 Feb, GFT, 9pm | 21 Feb, GFT, 21.45pm

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