How to Transition From Acting on TV to Directing TV

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Photo Source: Eddy Chen

So, you’re an actor who wants to direct.

I booked my first acting job in my early teens. It has taken me a tad longer to land that elusive first directing gig, but thankfully it did happen. My directorial debut finally materialized last spring on an episode of TNT’s “Animal Kingdom,” on which I play Pope Cody, one of the series regulars. And that episode, titled “Jackpot,” debuted last night, Aug. 7.

Maybe you’re thinking about making the transition from acting to directing, too. I’ve learned some tricks over the past couple decades as an actor and now director, and I’m here to share them—here’s hoping you make the leap to director a lot quicker than I did!

1. How do I get hired as a director?
I hate to break the news to you, but actors have terrible reputations. Years of on-set temper tantrums, too many discussions about “my character wouldn’t do that,” and countless early morning hangovers are just a few reasons producers think we can’t be trusted. A couple of rotten eggs have spoiled it for the rest of us. (I’m looking at you Betty White!) You want to direct? Start by being the best actor. Be professional, on time and off book. Come ready to perform the scene. When a director gives you a note, be available and give it your best shot. Long discussions about how to achieve the scene only slows the day down. How does being the best actor get you a directing job, you ask? Your reputation is everything in this town. All decisions are made by a committee, and you never know who will end up hiring you as a director.

READ: How to Become a TV Director

2. How do I show them I’m serious?
I was a series regular on “Southland” for five seasons. I let the producers know I wanted to direct in Season 2. Simply making them aware didn’t move the needle, though; I had to prove my devotion. On my days off, I shadowed several directors. When you’re willing to give up your precious free time, they will take you seriously. Sadly, I never got the chance to direct “Southland.” (We were canceled twice. Yes, TWICE!) A couple of years later I was cast in “Animal Kingdom.” I continued to build my reputation and trustworthiness through my unwavering dedication to professionalism. I showed up on time. I was always prepared. And I was there on my days off. That’s what it took.

3. How do I define my strength?
I understand how to communicate creatively with actors. Actors need a safe environment in order to take risks and to arrive at emotionally challenging places. As an actor, I know how to create that atmosphere on set. One of the first things they recommend to new directors at the Directors Guild of America is to take an acting class. We actors speak our own language. To me, performance comes first and everything fills in around that. It’s what draws me in as a viewer. If the performance is horrendous, but the lighting is perfect and the camera angle is tight, I don’t care; I’m changing the channel. My strength as a director comes from the actor’s performance. Here, performance is king.

4. I got the job! What are some first-time director tips?
My favorite directors are collaborators; thus, that’s the culture I created my first time. Leave your ego out of it and always go with the best idea, even if it’s not yours. If the crew feels uninhibited and is allowed to contribute creatively, they’ll feel like they share ownership of the project and deliver their best work. Listen to Mike the prop guy! He’s been thinking about this thing from a different point of view. When things go terribly wrong and you have an hour left to shoot three hours of footage, your director of photography will bail you out. They know what shots you need and what you can sacrifice. Lean on your DP. They will save your ass. And when filming an emotional scene that is going to stretch an actor to their limit, ask if they want to begin with their coverage. Actors know their emotional stamina; you don’t want to burn them out. So if they do elect to start with their coverage, be ready. Make sure everything is perfect before you roll because you’re about to get a hell of a performance.

I have so much more to say, but I’m saving it for my next column, “How to Make a Career out of Being No. 3 on the Call Sheet.” In all seriousness, I wish you the best of luck on your journey to becoming a director. From here on out, I’ll see you on Tuesday nights on TNT and “Animal Kingdom.”

Shawn Hatosy stars on TNT’s “Animal Kingdom” alongside Ellen Barkin and made his directorial debut on the series Aug. 7.

Ready to get to work? Check out Backstage’s TV audition listings!