It’s a bit of a tired cliché in Hollywood. After years of being on the silver screen, A-list actors decide they want to be the ones who are really in charge: the man in the director’s chair. Big names like George Clooney, Ben Affleck and Clint Eastwood have all made their names even bigger by directing blockbusters from behind the camera.
But now, there’s a new guard on the way. More and more female actors are stepping up to test their hand at directing, too — and they are making waves. From Angelina Jolie and Jodie Foster to Eva Longoria, top actresses are making movies that have garnered awards fodder and critical acclaim.
Halle Berry’s directorial debut Bruised was years in the making. After making history as the first (and thus far only) Black woman to win the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, Berry’s career met unique challenges — ones she met time and again. Now, as a filmmaker, she’s calling the shots.
Maggie Gyllenhaal is following suit, too. The Oscar nominated actress has earned rave reviews for her adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter. These two women join a growing list of Hollywood leading ladies who are making challenging, thoughtful feature length films.
Let’s look at some of the biggest movers and shakers taking their turn behind the camera.
A version of this article was originally published in August 2017.
Eva Longoria has plenty of experience both in front of and behind the camera as an actress and producer, and in 2023, she made her directorial debut with Flamin’ Hot, the story of how a Frito-Lay janitor came up with the popular snack.
“I immediately knew I was the only person who could tell this story,” she previously told SheKnows of the film, which hits theaters June 9. “I really felt that in my bones. I was like, ‘This I know. This I can add value. This world I can build out because I’m from it.’ ”
Katie Holmes has conquered so much with acting, from her iconic TV characters to her unbelievably-likable movie roles. However, Holmes has also shown her incredible directional chops in projects like All We Had, the short called Eternal Princess, Along Together, and most recently, the upcoming drama Rare Objects.
Regina King is an absolute queen when it comes to Hollywood. An Emmy and Oscar winner, the If Beale Street Could Talk star has been stepping behind the camera directing TV episodes for years. But in 2020, her feature film debut, One Night in Miami, showed that King’s talents are limitless.
Rebecca Hall’s list of credits is truly staggering. And given that she’s worked in the industry for so long, it’s so exciting to see her directing career take off. The Prestige actress’ directorial debut is Passing, which is currently on Netflix! The film has earned a lot of praise, and we can only hope the positive response means that Hall will continue to flex her directing talents in the near future.
After years acting on the TV series House and earning roles in independent films, Olivia Wilde was ready to bring the stories she loves to the big screen. Booksmart was Wilde’s first feature length film, which debuted in 2019 to positive reviews from critics. Now, the filmmaker is poised to have yet another success with Don’t Worry, Darling, slated for 2022 release.
There’s really nothing that Halle Berry can’t conquer when she sets her mind to it. In 2021, the Oscar winner’s directorial debut, Bruised, made its debut. Not only did Berry direct the film about an MMA fighter looking for a second chance, she also stars in it!
Maggie Gyllenhaal has been acting for decades, which is why it’s so surprising that she just debuted her first directorial feature! Gyllenhaal adapted Elena Ferrante’s mesmerizing novel The Lost Daughter, and has earned fanfare from critics.
Clea DuVall is an icon of the ’90s thanks to films like But I’m A Cheerleader. Over the years, however, the actress has taken a step behind the camera. After directing 2016’s The Intervention, DuVall made a splash with her touching romantic comedy Happiest Season.
At just 15 years old, Jodie Foster landed her first Oscar nomination for her role in Taxi Driver. Years later, she won her first Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for her work in The Silence of the Lambs. Since the early ’90s, however, Foster has been directing feature length films. As of now, she has four feature titles to her director’s name, and we’re sure the list will just keep growing!
Courteney Cox made a name for herself as one of the six leads on the sitcom Friends. But as her career grew, so did the projects she took on. In 2014, Cox directed her feature film debut with Just Before I Go, and between 2012 and 2015 she directre more than 10 episodes of her sitcom Cougar Town.
Drew Berrymore made the unlikely leap from being an internationally known child star to having a successful career as an adult actor. Then she made another step to becoming a producer. Finally, in 2009, she took a seat in the director’s chair to make Whip It, an empowering film about a misfit (played by Elliot Page) who finds confidence when in a women’s roller derby team. Barrymore also plays “Smashley Simpson” in the movie.
In her words: Barrymore told the Washington Post, “I’m always curious about the people who say, ‘Why did you want to direct?’ and ‘Would you direct again?’ I literally have this sort of anger when they ask me. Like, have you not read my bio? I started a [production] company 15 years ago. This is our 10th movie we’ve produced. Do you think it’s a whim and an accident? I have been training for this for 10 to 15 years.”
Angelina Jolie is likely one of the most well-known actresses to sit in the director’s chair. She started directing feature-length films in 2011 with In the Land of Blood and Honey, a stark film about the Bosnian War.
She followed that with the Unbroken, a big-budget WWII drama about war hero and Olympian Louis Zamperini. In 2015, she directed By the Sea, which she also wrote and starred in. Finally, in 2017, Jolie sat in the director’s chair for First They Killed My Father, about human rights activist Loung Ung and the horrors she suffered as a child.
In her words: Jolie told the Directors Guild of America that finding success as a director after you’ve made your name as an actor is largely about putting on a game face and working hard. “I think people watch how you present yourself. If you come in and you’re there to roll up your sleeves and work hard, you’ve got a lot of ideas and you’re there to help solve problems, then you become that person to them.”
After starring in Frances Ha in 2012, actor Greta Gerwig really hit her stride on camera, moving on to star in other female-focused films such as Mistress America and 20th Century Women. But it wasn’t until she wrote and directed the award-winning Lady Bird that she truly became a household name. Gerwig also went on to direct 2019’s Little Women, which earned similar fanfare.
In her words: “The goal is that everything in a movie has meaning,” Gerwig said in an interview with Variety. “Nothing is just there because it’s there. We spent a ton of time layering Lady Bird’s room, talking about picking the paint color she would have chosen when she was a little girl. We wanted every image to have integrity, so that it didn’t feel adorned, but that it felt placed.”
Brie Larson took a few years to direct two short films before launching into directing a feature film. Her movie, an independent comedy called Unicorn Store, debuted on Netflix just a few years ago. Larson, who won a best actress Oscar for her role in Room, also stars in the film, along with well-known names like Samuel L. Jackson and Joan Cusack.
In her words: “For me, the idea of directing is not about success for me personally, it’s about putting more pieces on the board,” Larson told USA Today. “I just want women to feel like they can take the risk.”
It was only a matter of time before Black Swan actress Natalie Portman stepped behind the camera. In 2008, she directed her first short, Eve, and she directed her first feature length film in 2015, A Tale of Love and Darkness, in which she also stars. In her words: “[Directing] kind of felt intuitive after acting for 25 years,” Portman told W magazine in 2016.
“But of course there were things completely new and foreign. It was hard for me to express what I wanted to right away, people are asking you your opinions and guidance a thousand times a day, and my instinct was to apologize for myself and be wishy-washy and just say, ‘I don’t know,’ or, ‘You tell me,’ but you can’t be that way as a director. You have to say, ‘This is how I want it.’ You have to give clear and direct guidance, because they’re all there to help you make your vision. It definitely feels like a female thing to me, how I wasn’t comfortable being the boss right away. It didn’t come naturally to me, I had to learn it.”
Kristen Stewart‘s been in the acting game since she was 9 years old: Her first role was an uncredited part (“Girl in Fountain Line”) in the TV movie The Thirteenth Year. Since then, she’s blossomed into not only a bona fide actor with 67 nominations under her belt but also a director. It makes sense, too, considering she’s the daughter of a screenwriter/director and producer. Stewart has four directing credits to her name: three shorts — including Come Swim, which showed at Cannes last year — and one film, The Chronology of Water, currently in pre-production.
In her words: “The coolest female directors I’ve ever worked with are such compulsive freaks,” she said in an interview with The Guardian in May 2017. “You ask Kelly Reichardt [director of Meek’s Cutoff and Certain Women] what it’s like to be a female director and she’s just like, ‘I don’t have an answer because I couldn’t do anything else with my life.’ The female artists who do the best work, they’re just so focused that nothing is going to get in their way. Kelly, f**king, they’re just workers. It’s hard to talk about, because you need to talk about it to change it, but at the same time it’s like, ‘Just do it.'”
Elizabeth Banks likes new challenges. And when you’ve already starred in a share of successful movies, including The Lego Movie, Hunger Games and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, you might have to turn to directing to keep things interesting.
Banks and her husband, writer and producer Max Handelman, have been working together for 25 years, and they love taking on big projects. After directing Pitch Perfect 2, Banks took on Charlie’s Angels.
In her words: Banks told The Hollywood Reporter, “[Directing is] something I’ve always wanted to do. I directed plays in college. I’m very bossy, and I got to a point as an actor where I’d been on 65 or 70 sets. I always find video village. I’m that annoying actor. I never stayed in my trailer. Doing TV and film, it’s always been a learning experience. I love now — with a movie like Charlie’s Angels — getting to do action and visual effects, and I loved on Pitch Perfect the huge challenge of making a movie musical. I mean, that’s no small feat. It’s a big job, and I like the constant challenge.”
French actress Julie Delpy might have become famous in the United States for her roles in movies like Before Sunset and Before Midnight, but you might not know that she is also an experienced writer and director with a number of feature films under her belt.
In her words: Delpy talked with IndieWire about the double standards that come with being a female director. “It’s a man’s world, especially in Hollywood. There’s this fear that women are ’emotional.’ There’s this stigma about women being hysterical… that we’re not as organized, that we can’t rule a set.
Not many people know that singer and actor Barbra Streisand was yelling into a megaphone and directing high-budget films before many of the directors on this list were born.
She was behind the camera for Yentl (which she starred in), The Prince of Tides (which she starred in), and The Mirror Has Two Faces (yep, you guessed it, she starred in that, too).
In her words: Streisand told The Hollywood Reporter, “I would say I’m an actress first, only because I started singing because I couldn’t get a job as an actress, and I started directing because I couldn’t be heard as an actress.”
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