The director/actor relationship is in many respects like any other relationship. It can be rewarding, fraught, competitive and combative, sometimes all at once. The major difference is that in the director/actor relationship, the product of their specific chemistry is up on the screen for all to see.
In honor of our upcoming Joy/Mistress America double – reuniting the David O. Russell/Jennifer Lawrence and Noah Baumbach/Greta Gerwig partnerships, respectively – we have compiled a list of the different forms these relationships can take.
The creative partnership is formed when an actor’s responsibility is increased beyond the realm of their character to the movie as a whole. Martin Scorsese is probably the greatest example of this, with his creative life being split between two great loves: Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. Both actors have moved beyond just delivering incredible performances to producing and assembling the films. They’ve actively brought the director to some of his biggest projects (De Niro with Raging Bull, DiCaprio most recently with The Wolf of Wall Street).
“We were made for each other,” Jennifer Lawrence recently said of director David O. Russell. Not only that, she has pledged to him that “I’ll do anything with you until you die”. Considering his previous combative relationship with actors (George Clooney famously called his time with Russell “the worst experience of my life”), that’s no small pledge.
The Good Luck Charm
With the exception of Insomnia, every film Christopher Nolan has made in Hollywood has featured Michael Caine, supposedly because he brings good luck to the production. Caine recently told Empire, “I always say to him, ‘I’m not your good luck charm, you are mine!’” But according to Nolan, it’s more than just superstition. “He comes so prepared and he is just so good with such a minimal effort. I cast him in every film just as an example to everyone else.”
Likewise, it’s hard to imagine a Quentin Tarantino film being complete without Samuel L. Jackson’s mellifluous voice. Which makes sense, as the director has described Jackson (along with the similarly gifted Christoph Waltz) as “one of the greatest actors ever to say my dialogue”. Even in the World War II epic Inglorious Basterds, where no character would seem available for Jackson to play, his voice can be heard as the narrator, explaining everything from the murder spree of Hugo Stiglitz to the flammability of 35mm nitrate film.
Actor as Director Surrogate
When Tim Burton first met Johnny Depp, it’s hard to imagine that it wasn’t like staring into some kind of funhouse mirror, one that can warp your offbeat features into teen idol good looks. From Edward Scissorhands to Dark Shadows, Depp has been an avatar of sorts for Burton; a darkly charismatic weirdo who can explore the director’s funhouse creations.
Director VS Actor
Alfred Hitchcock, infamous for his inhuman treatment of actors, seemed to reserve a particular aggression towards his Marnie and The Birds collaborator Tippi Hedren. Allegedly in response to her turning down the director’s sexual advances, Hitchcock found every excuse to make Hedren’s characters’ suffering her own. In one legendary Birds scene, Hitchcock elected to use real instead of mechanical birds for an attack sequence. According to Hedren, “a cage had been built around the door where I was supposed to come in, and there were boxes of ravens, gulls and pigeons that bird trainers wearing gauntlets up to their shoulders hurled at me, one after the other, for a week.” The sequence may have become legendary, but it left Hedren with very real scars.
Unlike with Hitchcock and Hedren, it seems the aggression between Kinski and Herzog was deliberately cultivated and exploited by both parties equally. In the appropriately named documentary My Best Fiend, Herzog tells the viewer “Every grey hair on my head, I call Kinski”, while later admitting, “We belonged together. We were willing to go down together…The only thing that counted in the end was the result on screen.” After watching legendary films like Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre, the Wrath of God, it’s hard to argue with those results.
On Friday the 26th of March The Astor will be playing Joy and Mistress America