World Cinema

What makes a Actor-Director Pair work?

A filmmaker, over the course of making a movie, collaborates with many people, which in some way or the other affects the creative process. But, there is hardly any creative collaboration more important than that of the Actor and the Director on the filmmaking process, that affects the quality of the film as deeply as any other.

Throughout the cinematic history, there have been many celebrated and successful Actor-Director collaborations, which went on for a number of films. Collaborations, which on some occasions have become legendary, and on some other have ended with spats and bitterness. But, the only thing which has been common among all such celebrated collaborations, is the fact that the work done by those Actor-Director pairs have defied time to stand out as timeless masterpieces, and have brought out the best in both by hitting the creative peaks of the persons involved. Here we try to find answers on what made that happen.

Let’s go way back to late 1930s Hollywood. John Ford, already a successful director, was giving a kid named Duke small uncredited parts in his movies. That kid changed his name to John Wayne and started doing so well, that Ford offered him a starring role in Stagecoach. Over time, something extraordinary was coming out whenever John Ford and John Wayne were teaming up to make westerns. John Ford became a name almost synonymous with westerns and John Wayne became the archetypical Cowboy. The personal bond between the two was so strong that Wayne sometimes passed on other lucrative film offers to star in John Ford films long after he made a name for himself. The passion towards the theme, loyalty and personal friendship off-screen became the factors which resulted in creative fireworks on celluloid whenever they worked together.


John Ford and John Wayne together created some of the best western movies.


Can sharing of passion towards a theme alone set off a fruitful partnership? or is there something more? One of those Actor-Director pairs, which has been universally acclaimed and revered is that of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. It was not only their passion towards the same type of projects that have united them over and over again throughout the years, but there is something deeper there. Not only both grew up in similar neighborhoods in New York which were just blocks apart, both were drawn to the similar kind of movies and themes. So when the finally collaborated after many years in their adult life, they seemed to speak the same ‘grammar of film’. To quote Scorsese “Things just happened, and along the way we’ve found ourselves gravitating toward themes and emotions that have obsessed both of us, and toward characters that were really considered ‘the least among us.’ I think that with ‘The Irishman,’ we reached a kind of culminating point.”.

Things just happened, and along the way we’ve found ourselves gravitating toward themes and emotions that have obsessed both of us, and toward characters that were really considered ‘the least among us.’ I think that with ‘The Irishman,’ we reached a kind of culminating point – Martin Scorsese on his association with Robert De Niro.

Their working together in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, New York New York grew their collaboration into a deep personal friendship, so much so that when Scorsese was going through one of the lowest points in his life and was admitted to a Hospital following Drug abuse, De Niro came to see him and urged his friend to make a particular film if he really wanted to live, and so his friend Marty listened and gave it all into making that one film. That film was Raging Bull and needs no introduction to anyone who has ever been in love with the craft of filmmaking. This bond between the two stayed strong and resulted in films like The King of Comedy, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, Casino and saw a resurgence again in The Irishmen. It was the friendships more than the creative collaboration in this case which made the two completely place their trust in each other.

So, perhaps trust is the most important factor that makes the Actor put his/her faith in the Director. Something that assures him/her that this trust on the Director will help him/her deliver something more than what he/she alone can. The Director on the other hand trust his Actor in such as case that makes him/her have the conviction that the other person will be able to catch those emotions unwritten in between the dialogues, will embody the essence of the character in the performance and will eventually breathe life into the part like no one ever can.

In one of the interviews Nawazuddin Siddiqui said, that when Anurag Kashyap changes the script on the set just minutes before the shoot and writes pages full of dialogues, other actors panic. He doesn’t, as by knowing and having formed a long standing working relationship with Kashyap he can predict what his Director is going to write. He knows what that last scene was and where the character can go from there. So he knows what’s coming in the script, and more often than not he is right. He trusts his Director to write what he believes the character will do, and the Director trusts Nawaz that the Actor in him can deliver the lines, even if he writes the lines just minutes before.

Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski had a troubled working relationship


But if that is the case, why do some Actor-Director Pairs stick together even if they don’t see eye to eye. Take the example of the German Director Werner Herzog and the star actor Klaus Kinski. While working on The Wrath of God, Kinski had creative differences with Herzog and would just not play the character the way his Director wanted. He would throw tantrums and beat the local extras, and in some cases would annoy the crew so much that the crew would go into mutiny. In one such instance during the shooting, Kinski started firing a gun in which one of the extras lost his tip of his finger. Legend has it that, Herzog pulled his gun on Kinski, threatened to kill him and then shoot himself to put an end to this nuisance. What is astonishing, is the fact that the pair kept working together again and again. Perhaps they were feeding off of each other’s creative talents to produce the best works of both.

Actor-Director pair that emerged out of India was that of Satyajit Ray and Soumitra Chatterjee


One global Actor-Director pair that emerged out of India was that of Satyajit Ray and Soumitra Chatterjee. An association that started with Soumitra’s debut film with Ray Apur Sansar, and carried on for 14 films and two short films. No one explored the creative depths of Soumitra as Ray did with roles like Amulya in Samapti,  Narsingh in Abhijaan, Gangacharan in Ashani Sanket and Sandip in Ghare Baire. Each one being were poles apart from the other in terms of range of the character. Just as Ray shaped and benefitted from Soumitra’s acting prowess, Soumitra also admittedly felt indebted by being able to portray some of most iconic characters to have made their way into the popular culture. Again, what worked in their part is not just the common creative congeniality and the mentor-pupil relationship, but also a deep trust and mutual respect for each other at a personal level.

But before I come to any conclusion, one Actor-Director pair which I simply cannot pass without mentioning in this context is that of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. A collaboration that started with Drunken Angels and went on to gift masterpieces like Seven Samurai, Roshomon, High and Low and Yojimbo  but eventually ended with Red beard. Though both admired and respected each other both professionally and personally, something did happen that made them part ways after Red Beard. Kurosawa made Mifune sport a red beard for the movie whose shooting went on for too long. As a result, Mifune was unable to take up any other project which made him suffer a financial blow. This was too much to ask for. (Remember Prabhas giving five years of his life to SS Rajamouli for Bahubali project?) Not only that, the Actor-Director pair allegedly also had creative differences during the shoot of Red Beard which made Kurosawa not turn towards Mifune when he started filming Ran, though Mifune was perfect for one of the leading parts. This association came to an end, though both admitted that they were able to deliver their best when they were in the company of each other.

Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune – One of the most celebrated Actor-Director Pairs


Be it Tarantino establishing a successful working relationship with Samuel L Jackson, Satyajit Ray working time and again with Soumitra Chatterjee or Alfred Hitchcock casting James Stewart in a number of his best films, a successful working Actor-Director relationship only develops from a place of deep trust, a sense of loyalty and at the end, on the solid foundation of mutual respect and unadulterated friendship. Only then, can an Actor unconditionally surrender himself/herself in the hands of the Director, only then can the Director expect the Actor to steer his ship in uncharted territories of the scene and only then can the audiences see creative flair on screen and call it a masterpiece.

Abhishek Mukherjee is the co-founder and owner of Cybertalkies who has spent most of his adult life watching movies and strongly believes he can survive anywhere with just books, movies and a cup of black coffee.