Last week, I was chatting with NYU professor Paul Thompson and he asked me about the predominance of actor-directors.
In the past, I have looked at the writer-director hybrid, as well as other facets of directing (including age, gender, career path and hardest working), but never the actor-director. It’s certainly a relevant topic, as actor Bradley Cooper’s directing debut, A Star Is Born, is receiving rave reviews and an impressive box office haul.
To get a sense of how many actors are directing (and vice versa) I looked at all movies released in US cinemas between 1988 and 2017 (11,841 movies) and zeroed in on the directors who’ve also received acting credits.
How many directors have also received an acting credit?
This topic is slightly more complicated than it at first seems. Let’s start with the simplest articulation of the question: what percentage of movie directors have received movie acting credits?
Across the 30 years I studied, 28.4% of directors have at least once received an acting credit on a movie within the same database.
This is higher than credits in most other roles, save only for producer and screenwriter. Almost half of the directors have also received one producer credit and a whopping 71% of directors also got a writing credit. (You can read more about writer-directors here). Whilst these give us a pleasingly simple answer, there is more to be found in the detail.
Shooting oneself in the head
The previous chart showed that just over a quarter of directors have also acted in any movie in my dataset, but how many are casting themselves?
In order to work this out, we need to first remove a common Hollywood trope – the director’s cameo. For this research, I am trying to understand how the roles of actor and director intertwine and so just having one shot where the director plays a non-speaking, incidental role does not help my end goal. For example, Steven Spielberg has played such iconic roles as Party Guest in Vanilla Sky, Alien on TV Monitor in Men in Black and Popcorn-Eating Man in Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World.
To filter out most of these cameos, I removed all “uncredited” appearances. These are credits which appear on IMDb under cast credits but which were not in the final end roll of the movie. Most of Steven Spielberg’s acting roles were “uncredited” and this helps us to get closer to what we want to study, namely actual actors rather than cameo appearances. (You can read more about “uncredited” credits here).
Using this tougher criterion, we discover that 11.6% of movies released between 1998 and 2017 had an official cast credit for their director.
Actor-director vs director-actor
I have been using the phrase “actor-director” rather than “director-actor” purely because it sounds better to my ear. however, we need to look at the data to discover which is the better reflection of the phenomenon. Are more actors moving into directing or are directors moving into acting?
There are two ways we could determine this – focusing either on which role they have a greater number of credits for, or looking at which came first in their careers.
Let’s start with the ratio of acting to directing credits.
In my dataset, Steven Spielberg has six acting credits and 21 directing credits, meaning that only 22% of his “acting / directing” credits were as an actor. Compare this to someone like Steve Buscemi who has 60 acting credits and four directing credits, so 94% of his acting/directing credits were as an actor. The former is clearly a director who has appeared in films whereas the latter is an actor who occasionally directs.
A figure of 50% would mean the person has exactly the same number of acting and directing credits on movies in US cinemas between 1988 and 2017. As you can see below, a third of directors that have received acting credits have received the exact same number of directing credits. A large proportion of these people have directed and starred in just one or two movies, but a few are people who seem to take on the two roles simultaneously, such as James Gunn, who has five apiece.
N.B. The chart above rounds to the nearest 10%, which is why some come out at 100%. These are people such as Morgan Freeman who has 55 acting credits and one directing credit, meaning that his ratio is 98.2%, rounded to the 100% bar in the chart.
So by this metric, 30% are directors with acting credits, 38% are actors who have directed and 32% are true hybrids.
What came first – the acting or the ‘Action!’?
The second way we can break down the numbers is to look at which of the two roles come first in their career.
In my dataset, the biggest gap between first movie credits for the two roles was 67 years, for an actor called Conrad Janis. Conrad’s first film acting role was in 1945 (in a movie called Welcome Home) but he waited until 2012 to direct his first movie, Bad Blood. The opposite example is director Yash Chopra who directed his first movie in 1959 and received his first acting credit 45 years later as the narrator of his 2004 film Veer & Zaara.
One in five actor-directors received their first film credits for both acting and directing on the same movie. A further fifth earned their first directing credit before their first acting credit. The remaining 60% of writer-directors were actors first, and directors second (only in chronology, not ability).
So these two approaches lead me to conclude that the actor-director hybrid is more commonly created when an actor becomes a director than when a director decides to come out from behind the camera.
The data for today’s research came from IMDb, Wikipedia and The Numbers. As a reminder, this research looks at movies, not TV shows, short films, TV movies or any other such media. That means that I was only looking at directors of movies who also had movie acting credits.
This is not an in-depth look at actor-directors and as such, I can’t take account of a few things I would like to. For example, acting gigs are easier to get and quicker to complete than directing gigs, so it would be easier for someone to rack up acting credits than directing credits. They could do a day apiece on eight movies in a year but it might take two years to direct a movie. Secondly, I’m not accounting for their significance in the cast. As discussed above, I took one step towards weeding out cameos but there is much more to be done to fully take into account their acting role. This could be done via things like “Were they on the poster? or “Where did they appear in the end credits?” If anyone is interested in picking up where I left off then drop me a line and I can help. It could make for a fascinating dissertation, university project or academic study.
For the second chart, I narrowed the time focus to 1998-2017 as cameo credits reporting was more patchy in the pre-internet age of movie data collection and I want to have a consistent data collection method for the whole time series.
Interestingly, the first chart in today’s research paints a slightly different picture of writer-directors than that shown in my study two years ago. Back then, I focused just on top 100 grossing movies and looked to see if the director was a writer on the same movie they directed. Using this methodology, I found that 28% of these movies were led by writer-directors. In today’s research, I looked at all movies in cinemas (an average of 395 movies a year) and whether the directors of these movies have received any kind of writing credit on any movie (i.e. not just the ones they directed). Using this criterion the result was that 71% of directors have also been a writer, even if just once.
This is a great example of why your criteria matters, and how any one answer can’t be the last word on a topic. Both of these findings are accurate, and not at all antithetical, but each would lead the reader to a different mental picture of the writer/director relationship. So next time someone quotes a statistic – make sure you also get the context and criteria before accepting it as gospel.
I’m very grateful to Paul for his question. When he first asked me I thought that it would be a topic which results in a clear answer/trend. However, the more I got into the data the more I realised that the reality is far more blurry.
For example, some directors you may think of as “pure directors” also turn up as performers in other movies. How many of you remember Martin Scorsese’s role in the kids’ animation Shark Tale? His character lends money to other sea-creatures and relies on his mob enforcer (played by Robert DeNiro) to collect. Despite the fact that this makes him a loan shark in Shark Tale, his character is actually a pufferfish. For a film with no end of puns, this feels like somewhat of a missed opportunity.
And there are actors who most people would not know had also directed a movie. These include:
- Philip Seymour Hoffman (directed Jack Goes Boating)
- Nicolas Cage (Sonny)
- Morgan Freeman (Bopha!)
- John Malkovich (The Dancer Upstairs)
- Ed Harris (Pollock and Appaloosa)
- Robert De Niro (A Bronx Tale and The Good Sheperd)
- William H. Macy (Rudderless, Krystal and The Layover)
- Ben Stiller (Reality Bites, The Cable Guy, Topic Thunder, Zoolander and Zoolander 2)
- Ewan McGregor (American Pastoral and a section of Tube Tales)
- Stanley Tucci (Final Portrait, Blind Date, Joe Gould’s Secret, The Impostors and Big Night)
- Elizabeth Banks (a segment of Movie 43, Pitch Perfect 2 and is currently shooting the remake of Charlie’s Angels)
As I mentioned in my notes above, I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface of this topic.