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14 Great Actors Who Became Directors

To those of us on the outside looking in, breaking out as an actor in Hollywood can seem like reaching the pinnacle of success. After being inspired by a favorite movie or teacher or whatever else and deciding to make this their chosen field, actors have to cope with the anxiety of auditions and missed opportunities before finally getting that first role. And even though a select few have had great first roles right out of the gate, most actors have to wade though years of background parts, embarrassing commercials, and guest spots on "Law & Order" before they're able to sink their teeth into something of substance. With a lot of luck and persistence, they may eventually find themselves appearing in a major franchise, carrying a film on their shoulders as the lead, and maybe — just maybe — winning an Academy Award for all their years of dedication to the craft.

For many, this might be more than enough. But there are a number of actors who aren't satisfied with merely appearing in front of the camera. Whether it's something they've always wanted to do, or something they gradually took an interest in after working on so many different projects, there's more than a few performers who have found their way to directing. Sometimes it's a one-off project to satisfy their curiosity and/or tell a story that's near and dear to their heart, while other times it becomes as much a part of their career as acting. So, here are 14 acclaimed thespians who have gone on to direct.

Clint Eastwood

Perhaps the most prolific example of an actor-turned-filmmaker, the back half of Clint Eastwood's career has been almost exclusively dominated by his work behind the camera. It is more than a little impressive considering that he was already one of the biggest stars in the world before he turned his attention to directing. From humble beginnings as the co-star of the hit series "Rawhide," Eastwood became an international icon in the mid-1960s for portraying the Man with no Name in a trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns from director Sergio Leone. He then followed that up with an equally iconic role as Inspector Harry Callahan in 1971's "Dirty Harry," along with its four sequels, the cumulative impact of which made him a household name and a long-running standard for tough guys on film.

Yet even in the '70s, Eastwood already had his eye on the director's chair. He made his directorial debut the same year as "Dirty Harry" with "Play Misty for Me," a psychological thriller that he also starred in. He continued to direct somewhat regularly through the '70s and '80s, with notable hits including "Sudden Impact" (the highest-grossing of the "Dirty Harry" films), and "The Outlaw Josey Wales." 

However, it was 1992's "Unforgiven" that really put him on the map as a prestigious filmmaker, as it ended up winning four Academy Awards, including best picture and director for Eastwood (via IMDb). He later repeated this success with "Million Dollar Baby" in 2004, which also won four Oscars including best picture and best director (via IMDb).

Robert Redford

One of the most high-profile, charismatic leading men of the '70s and '80s, Robert Redford has been working steadily in film and television since 1960. His big breakthrough role was the co-lead in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," from which he transitioned to warmly received performances in hit films like "The Sting," "All the President's Men," and "The Natural." 

Redford has stayed in the spotlight for most of his career since then, and although in 2018 he announced that he would be retiring from acting following the release of David Lowery's "The Old Man & the Gun," he did end up making a small cameo in "Avengers: Endgame" the following year (via Time).

Though his time in front of the camera may be over, his time in the director's chair has impressively earned him just as many accolades as his performances and in some cases, more so. He made his directorial debut with 1980's "Ordinary People," which went on to win four Academy Awards, including best director (via IMDb). In fact, despite Redford's many praiseworthy performances and work both on and off-screen, that best director trophy is the only Oscar he's ever won besides an Honorary Award he received in 2002 (via IMDb). 

And while he may have peaked early in terms of accolades, he continued to rack up a total of 10 directing credits, with the most popular among them including the early Brad Pitt vehicle "A River Runs Through It" and the investigative drama "Quiz Show," which also earned a number of Oscar nominations, including best picture and director (via IMDb).

Kevin Costner

Known for his rugged good looks and a certain salt-of-the-earth kind of charm, Kevin Costner's first major role in "The Big Chill" may have been all but deleted from the film (via Yahoo!), but that didn't stand in the way of his eventual rise to stardom. After reuniting with "The Big Chill" director Lawrence Kasdan for 1985's "Silverado," Costner quickly broke out as a bankable leading man with hit films like "The Untouchables" and "Field of Dreams." 

The actor has worked consistently in Hollywood ever since thanks to his ability of balancing romantic roles (such as in "The Bodyguard") with more action-heavy parts (as in "Wyatt Earp"). Though nowadays he'll frequently play a supporting role to the next generation of super stars ("Man of Steel" or "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit"), he's recently found great success leading the cast of the Paramount+ series "Yellowstone."

That said, the actor didn't wait long to turn his attention towards directing. In 1990, less than a decade after his first film role, he helmed and starred in the epic Western "Dances with Wolves." It proved to be a roaring success, earning a whopping seven Academy Awards, including best picture and best director for Costner, who was also nominated for best actor (via IMDb). Since then he has only directed two additional films: 1997's "The Postman," and 2003's "Open Range," neither of which found as much success. However, the recently announced "Horizon" may look to reignite his directorial career.

Sarah Polley

Canadian actress Sarah Polley was only 6-years-old when she made her film debut in 1985's "One Magic Christmas," which she followed up with a more prominent role in Terry Gilliam's fantasy classic "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" in 1988. As she grew up, she built up a sturdy resume of character acting work, with a long-running stint on the Emmy-winning series "Road to Avonlea" (via IMDb), and collaborations with directors as varied as Atom Egoyan ("The Sweet Hereafter"), David Cronenberg ("eXistenZ"), and Doug Liman ("Go"). 

Mainstream audiences perhaps still know her best as the lead of Zack Snyder's 2004 "Dawn of the Dead" remake. However, despite a relatively successful career, Polley hasn't acted in a film since playing a supporting role in 2010's "Trigger."

That change in focus can likely be attributed to her directing career. After helming a series of shorts in the late '90s and early 2000s, Polley made her feature directorial debut with the critically acclaimed drama "Away from Her" in 2006. The film's heartbreaking examination of the toll that Alzheimer's can take on a long-married couple earned two Oscar nominations for Julie Christie's performance and for Polley's screenplay (via IMDb). 

Polley followed that up with the 2011 dramedy "Take This Waltz" and the 2012 documentary "Stories We Tell." Her latest film "Women Talking" is an adaptation of Miriam Toews' 2018 novel of the same name. It premiered to rave reviews at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival and has already earned significant buzz as a potential contender for the 2023 Academy Awards (via Gold Derby).

Sylvester Stallone

As far as action stars go, few are more iconic than Sylvester Stallone. After breaking out in a big way with 1976's "Rocky" — which earned him Oscar nominations both for writing and acting (via IMDb) – Stallone proceeded to play the on-again-off-again boxing champion in a whopping seven additional films, including the wildly popular "Creed" spin-offs. He became equally famous for playing the tortured Vietnam vet John Rambo in a total of five "Rambo" films. 

In the '80s and '90s, he was rivaled only by Arnold Schwarzenegger for being the most popular purveyor of action cinema in the world. More recently, he used that clout to launch the "Expendables" franchise, which saw him paired him up with various fellow action stars of past and present.

For all of his fame in front of the camera, Stallone wasted no time securing a spot behind it. A mere two years after "Rocky" put him on the map, he made his directorial debut with the wrestling drama "Paradise Alley," which he also wrote and starred in. He went on to direct four of the "Rocky" sequels ("Rocky II," "Rocky III," "Rocky IV," and "Rocky Balboa") as well as the fourth Rambo movie (simply titled "Rambo") and the initial installment of "The Expendables." By far the most unusual entry on his directing resume, however, is also the only one he doesn't star in: 1983's "Staying Alive," which served as a sequel to John Travolta's smash hit "Saturday Night Fever."

Ben Stiller

Renowned funnyman Ben Stiller didn't have to travel far to find the influence of show business, as his parents –Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara — are both talented comedians in their own right. After putting in the work in various film and TV bit parts for a few years, he co-created and hosted "The Ben Stiller Show" in 1992, which only ran for 13 episodes but was still well-liked enough to earn an Emmy for its writing (via IMDb). 

After a few more years of supporting roles and independent films, he finally broke into the mainstream with a lead role in 1998's "There's Something About Mary." From there he's starred in a number of comedy hits, including a voice role in the long-running "Madagascar" series, and fronting a pair of trilogies in both "Meet the Parents" and "Night at the Museum."

Curiously for someone who is largely thought of as an actor, Stiller had actually been directing well before other filmmakers saw him as a leading man. He made his feature debut with 1994's "Reality Bites," which he then followed up by helming Jim Carrey's "The Cable Guy" two years later. Perhaps his most beloved directorial outings came in the 2000s, when he directed and starred in both the fashion model romp "Zoolander" and the Hollywood satire "Tropic Thunder." Most recently, he executive produced and directed six episodes of the popular AppleTV+ series "Severance," which is a departure from the outwardly comedic material that Stiller is normally associated with.

Greta Gerwig

Indie darling Greta Gerwig rose to prominence in the mid-2000s thanks to her collaborations with mumblecore filmmaker Joe Swanberg. After making her feature debut in Swanberg's 2006 dramedy "LOL," Gerwig co-wrote and starred as the lead in his follow-up film, "Hannah Takes the Stairs." From there, she proceeded to work with a variety of directors in the low-budget and indie film sphere, including the Duplass brothers ("Baghead") and Ti West ("The House of the Devil"). She has worked perhaps most notably with director Noah Baumbach, with whom she's also in a relationship (via Elle). She appeared in his films "Greenberg," "White Noise," and "Frances Ha," the latter of which she co-wrote with him.

Though she has either written or co-written a number of the projects she has been involved with, Gerwig got her first taste of directing quite early in her career. She and Swanberg co-directed "Nights and Weekends" in 2008, and the two of them both wrote and starred in this film about a couple struggling with their long-distance relationship. 

However, it was 2017's "Lady Bird" that really announced Gerwig as a directorial force to be reckoned with. The critically acclaimed coming-of-age story received five Academy Award nominations, two of which were for Gerwig's direction and screenplay (via IMDb). She followed that up two years later with a fresh adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women," which proved to be a similar awards contender. It earned six Oscar nominations, including one for Gerwig's screenplay (via IMDb). She is currently writing and directing a live-action film about "Barbie," which star Ryan Gosling claims is the best script he's ever read.

Mel Gibson

Despite spending much of the second half of his career courting controversy and problematic behavior with a number of drunken tirades and anti-Semitic remarks (via Newsweek), Mel Gibson will likely still go down in history as one of the most prolific movie stars of all-time. One of his very first roles was also one that brought him to almost immediate international attention: Max Rockatansky, the protagonist of George Miller's seminal "Mad Max." 

Gibson reprised the role in a pair of sequels ("The Road Warrior" and "Beyond Thunderdome"), before launching into "Lethal Weapon," a four-film franchise that made him even more of a household name. In his heyday, he balanced action roles like "The Patriot" with romantic leads like "What Women Want."

As a director, Gibson made a rather modest debut with his 1993 adaptation of Isabelle Holland's "The Man Without a Face." But for his follow-up, he ratcheted up the scale tenfold by delivering the historical wartime epic "Braveheart." The wildly successful film that went on to win a total of five Academy Awards, including best picture and best director for Gibson (via IMDb). 

He did not direct again for nine years, before delivering a box office sensation with "The Passion of the Christ" in 2004. He has since helmed the Mayan action-adventure "Apocalypto" and the WWII drama "Hacksaw Ridge," the latter of which scored 6 Oscar nominations, including best picture and best director (via IMDb). According to Variety, he is currently slated to direct a 5th "Lethal Weapon" movie, after the passing of franchise director Richard Donner.

Jordan Peele

Known equally for his comedic work as for his contributions to the horror genre, Jordan Peele is a multi-hyphenate with talent to spare. After he and frequent collaborator Keegan-Michael Key spent a number of years writing and performing for the popular sketch show "MADtv," they both found incredible success when they teamed up for their own comedy series, "Key & Peele." 

Over the course of 5 seasons, the duo displayed an incredible range in a wide variety of sketches that showed them performing in registers both silly and serious. They were able to parlay the show's success into the 2016 film "Keanu," which they both starred in and which Peele co-wrote, and they will reunite for 2022's stop-motion horror film "Wendell & Wild."

Beyond his long resume of voice acting work and his partnership with Key, Peele has made a name for himself as one of the most exciting voices in the horror landscape. His directorial debut, 2017's "Get Out," was a sensation both at the box office and with critics. Peele made history at that year's Academy Awards by being the first African American to win best original Screenplay, as well as the first nominated for producing, directing and writing in the same year (via Vanity Fair).

Two years later he followed that up with "Us," which didn't get as much awards love but was still a huge financial success. His latest, 2022's "Nope," kept that streak going, delivering the biggest opening weekend for an original film since, well, "Us" in 2019 (via Variety).

Bradley Cooper

Few actors working today can lay claim to the sheer versatility that Bradley Cooper demonstrates on a regular basis. After getting his start with smaller roles in comedic films like "Wet Hot American Summer" and "Wedding Crashers," his star rose almost overnight with the release of "The Hangover," which quickly catapulted him to A-list status. 

It didn't take long for him to demonstrate his dramatic chops with Oscar-nominated performances in "Silver Linings Playbook" and "American Sniper" (via IMDb). He has even become a mainstay of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing surprising emotional resonance to a CGI raccoon named Rocket, whom he provides the voice for in the "Guardians of the Galaxy" trilogy (not to mention two "Avengers" films, "Thor: Love and Thunder," and the "I Am Groot" series of shorts).

To date, Cooper has only directed a single film, but it's a doozy. The 2018 remake of "A Star Is Born" — which was the fourth incarnation of that story –  landed an impressive eight Academy Award nominations (via IMDb). Cooper nabbed three of those nods for best picture, director and actor. Cooper's direction gave weight and poignancy to the tragic tale of a romance that develops between a fading country star and the aspiring singer who gradually outshines him. 

Next on his directing docket is a film called "Maestro," currently expected for a 2023 release, which he has co-written as well. The film sees Cooper playing famed conductor Leonard Bernstein and is said to take place over 30 years, focusing on the complex relationship between Bernstein and his wife (Carey Mulligan).

Regina King

Boasting a presence that can be soft and vulnerable as well as firm and commanding, Regina King has been delivering one surprise after another over the course of her nearly 40 years in show business. After getting her start as a series regular in "227" and playing a minor role in John Singleton's "Boyz n the Hood," King found herself picking up increasingly mainstream roles. 

For a while, she was relegated to playing the love interests of bigger stars, such as Cuba Gooding Jr. ("Jerry Maguire"), Will Smith ("Enemy of the State") and Jamie Foxx ("Ray"). But it was her role as a fiercely protective mother in "If Beale Street Could Talk" that finally gave her the recognition she deserved, resulting in an Academy Award for best supporting actress (via IMDb). By the time she delivered her Emmy-winning turn in HBO's limited series "Watchmen" (via IMDb), her status as a leading lady had been cemented.

As a director, King's highest profile outing comes in the form of 2020's "One Night in Miami...," which is an adaptation of the stage play by Kemp Powers. Imagining a fateful 1964 meeting between cultural icons Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown, the film was a critical hit and earned three Academy Award nominations (via IMDb). 

However, longtime fans will know that "One Night in Miami..." was not her directorial debut. She also has previous directing credits on TV projects including "Shameless," "This Is Us," and "Being Mary Jane" (via IMDb). According to Variety, she has been tapped to direct an adaptation of the fantasy comic "Bitter Root," which she will also produce. 

Drew Barrymore

Hollywood icon Drew Barrymore has come a long way since emerging as a precocious child star in hit films like "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" and "Firestarter." After a brief but memorable role in 1996's "Scream," the actress became a romantic comedy mainstay. She appeared in everything from "Never Been Kissed" to "Fever Pitch," and starred opposite Adam Sandler in a trio of films including "The Wedding Singer," "50 First Dates," and "Blended." 

She also took on a starring role in director McG's reboot of "Charlie's Angels," as well as its sequel "Full Throttle." Not to be pigeonholed, she went on to deliver a more dramatic performance in the 2009 TV movie "Grey Gardens," for which she received an Emmy nomination (via IMDb). More recently, she received praise for her turn in Netflix's horror-comedy series "Santa Clarita Diet."

Though Barrymore's acting output has slowed recently in favor of her talk show — "The Drew Barrymore Show" — she has dipped her toe into the field of directing. That came in 2009 with the release of "Whip It," an adaptation of Shauna Cross's novel starring Elliott Page as a social misfit who finds a new sense of belonging in the form of a local roller-derby league. The film was warmly received by critics, who praised it for overcoming its sports-drama clichés with a healthy mix of charm and humor. Though rumors occasionally emerge about a second directorial outing for Barrymore, nothing official has come forth as of yet.

Denzel Washington

Few would argue that Denzel Washington isn't one of the greatest actors working today. After getting his start on stage and in a recurring role on medical series "St. Elsewhere," Washington hit the big time with a scene-stealing role in 1989's "Glory," for which he won his first Academy Award (via IMDb). He quickly racked up a wildly impressive resume, delivering knockout turns in films like "Malcolm X," "Remember the Titans," and "The Hurricane." 

Before long, he found himself back on the Oscar stage again, this time winning the best actor award for his ferocious performance in 2001's "Training Day" (via IMDb). The veteran actor has shown no signs of slowing down, delivering acclaimed performances in everything from Robert Zemeckis' 2012 drama "Flight" to Joel Coen's 2021 Shakespeare adaptation of "The Tragedy of Macbeth."

One might think that a list of credits as outstanding as Washington's would be enough, but that hasn't stopped him from stepping into the director's chair. Throughout his behind-the-camera filmography, he has shown a penchant for working with up-and-coming actors, such as with Derek Luke in "Antwone Fisher" (Washington's directorial debut), or with Jurnee Smollett and Nate Parker in "The Great Debaters." 

He directed and co-starred with Viola Davis in an adaptation of August Wilson's "Fences," which went on to win her an Oscar for best supporting actress (via IMDb). Most recently, he helmed his first directorial outing in which he does not appear, ceding the spotlight to Michael B. Jordan and relative newcomer Chanté Adams in 2021's "A Journal for Jordan."

John Krasinski

After being plucked from relative obscurity for a principal role in NBC's "The Office," John Krasinski went from being a waiter with only a handful of film and TV credits to being one of the most influential people in Hollywood. Though many fans will always associate the actor with the role of lovelorn paper salesman Jim Halpert, it's actually rather incredible how much he has been able to change his public image from affable funnyman to credible action hero once the long-running series ended. 

Beginning with a starring role in Michael Bay's wartime thriller "13 Hours," and culminating with a portrayal of the title character in the Amazon Prime adaptation of "Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan," the goofball has evolved into a charismatic leading man.

A big part of that shift in Krasinski's public perception can be credited to his directorial output. While he started his behind-the-camera career with a few independent dramedies ("Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" and "The Hollars") and a handful of episodes of "The Office," it was an unexpected swerve into horror territory that proved to be a surprisingly good fit. 

With 2018's "A Quiet Place" and its sequel, "A Quiet Place Part II," Krasinkski directed and co-starred with real wife Emily Blunt as the parents of a family trying to survive in a world where aliens are attracted to sound and have wiped out much of the populace. Both films were massive critical and commercial successes, instantly elevating him as a genre director to watch out for.