Elizabeth Guider investigates how platforms and producers are attracting top-end talent in an era of peak TV.
Keri Russell was riveting last season as a Russian sleeper spy in The Americans, with her co-star Matthew Rhys the one training the camera on her as director; Designated Survivor might not have bottled that subtle but insistent suspense if Kiefer Sutherland weren’t on both sides of the camera; Atlanta wouldn’t give off that thumping inner-city vibe if actor-creator-rapper Donald Glover hadn’t turned storytelling expectations on their heads, even reconfiguring what a writers’ room ought to look like and filling it with people new to the entire concept.
By some standards, the global television business is being disrupted as never before, but to the stars in front of the camera the disruption brings a golden age of opportunity. There is opportunity not only to pick and choose among proliferating acting gigs but also to take on challenges behind the camera.
“There’s gigantic competition to get top stars for all these shows being made today,” says Morgan Wandell, the head of international series at Amazon Studios. “If an actor brings a project that he or she is passionate about, then naturally we consider that. We want to work with all talent that can help us stand out.”
Thus, if ever there were a moment for small-screen stars to stretch themselves as producers, directors and writers, it is now. By doing it well and consistently, they can bolster their brand, enhance their skill set, shape the narrative, exercise their clout to get projects made and renewed—and pocket a bit more money in the process.
And it’s not only white males in their 40s taking advantage of this. Increasingly, women and minorities—from Reese Witherspoon, Julia Roberts, Lena Dunham and Gina Rodriguez on the one hand to David Oyelowo, Idris Elba and the above-mentioned Glover on the other—are seizing the chance to pitch projects, tweak scripts or otherwise impact the tone and direction of traditional TV series by moving behind the camera or into the writers’ room.
Some A-listers have even taken a more ambitious and sustained approach by hanging out their own banners and backing projects, some of which they do not appear in as actors themselves.
What’s driving this accelerated move? In an ever-expanding media universe, almost 500 scripted productions are either shooting or in development every year in Hollywood, and small-screen efforts at fiction are proliferating around the world as well.
The blurring of the lines among TV creatives started some time ago, but only recently has it gathered steam. That’s because the overall culture in the U.S. has embraced a more can-do, democratized approach to just about everything, including artistic endeavors—and technology is obliging by breaking down once sacrosanct barriers to entry. In short, anyone with gumption can set up a business, learn a new trade, go into politics—or take on Hollywood. On this last point, nobody sneers nor sneezes at the effort, least of all content suppliers who are perennially under the gun to come up with something arresting and appealing for their audiences.
Moreover, actors have been following the countless producers, directors and writers who have migrated from the film fray to the television trenches. After all, as anyone in the TV biz will contend, movies nowadays, at least of the major Hollywood studio variety, are for kids; television series are for adults—the reverse of how it was 20-odd years ago.
As Rick Rosen, the head of the TV department at WME, put it, “The biggest trend of all is the wave of actors flowing into TV series, many from the film world. That’s because the quality of writing in television has never been higher, nor the opportunities as vast.”
Rosen also says that it’s difficult to quantify the number of A-list actors who have also taken up roles behind the camera, though he easily rattled off a handful of names—Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams, Ben Affleck, Tina Fey—who are successfully doing so.
“There’s no one reason that pushes actors in such a direction, but doing so gives them a sense of comfort that their belief in the project they’re attached to will be sustained throughout the production,” he notes.
Eric Schrier, the president of original programming for FX Networks and FX Productions, adds, “I’d say that, despite the competition, it’s nowadays fairly easy to line up top talent for projects because the quality of writing for television has skyrocketed.”
Carmi Zlotnik, the president of programming at Starz, suggests that, given proliferating production, the talent pool in all areas has been thinned and farmed out. “It’s incumbent on us to search out good ideas and authentic material from as wide a swath of talent as possible. Hyphenates are part of that process, and one of our aims is to foster them.”
WEARING TWO HATS
Greater flexibility on the part of broadcasters, cablers and streamers in the lengths and styles of series—minis, anthologies, limited, etc.—has also attracted actors who might be wary of tying themselves down for multi-year, 22-episode grinds.
“It’s a great time to be in the business,” FX’s Schrier stresses. “Everyone’s working.”
Like most executives World Screen queried, Schrier affirms that dual roles do not as a general rule unsettle sets. He points to his company’s hit drama The Americans. “It’s a very close-knit set,” he says, and one in which the producers (led by Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields) have “fully embraced” the eventual desires of stars (Matthew Rhys and Noah Emmerich) to put on hats as multiple-episode helmers.
“It’s all situational—every set is different, and every actor brings unique talents—but I’d say both Noah and Matthew worked hard to earn their stripes, spending time in the editing suites and pulling out great performances from the cast.”
The crossing of lines—actors who want to direct or produce, showrunners who want to write, musicians who want to act, and so on—is, per most executives queried, enriching the medium and expanding its boundaries.
“From our perspective at FX, these people are artists who, if they so desire, should be encouraged to paint on different canvases,” Schrier says.
Similarly, Starz’s Zlotnik lists several actors who have brought their ideas, their brands or their sizeable social media followings with them to Starz and in the process have been nurtured into sustained hyphenates: Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson in Power; J.K. Simmons, the established star who is now a producer of Counterpart; and, most recently, the rappers-turned-actors Common and RZA, who will topline and help produce an upcoming action series from the Jerry Bruckheimer stable called Black Samurai.
“At Starz we’re always looking for truth and spectacle and for what hasn’t been done,” Zlotnik says. “Talents like these I cited open us up to worlds we haven’t explored and bring an authenticity to the material and to the approach.”
In fact, in many cases, WME’s Rosen points out, it’s the actors themselves rather than a writer or producer or broadcaster who come up with the original idea or concept for a project, like, say, Fey with 30 Rock or Wahlberg with Entourage.
Several other sources, who did not want to go on the record, told World Screen that top actors often have the advantage when pitching projects over a producer or writer. “It’s often harder to turn a big star down because you may want to be in business with them again,” said one broadcast executive who declined to be named.
When asked about the psychology of performers who itch to move behind the camera, few folks wanted to go on the record, though one who was pressed suggested that the urge by actors to weigh in on the lines that they would be speaking has always been “almost irresistible,” like “really good sex,” he quipped. “It’s not hard to imagine strong-minded actors making that leap. Giving notes and getting paid for it, plus a credit? Not that hard to fathom,” he suggested, only somewhat facetiously.
LEAP OF FAITH
Still, the leap can and does often become exciting and enriching for the cast and crew as well as the actor in question. WME’s Rosen hazards that a good 5 percent of the more than 450 scripted projects knocking around town boast an actor who performs, as it were, on both sides of the camera.
Producer Mark Gordon, whose credits range from Saving Private Ryan on the film side to Criminal Minds, Grey’s Anatomy and Designated Survivor on the TV side, has much to say on the issue.
He points to the star of this last series, Kiefer Sutherland, as making notable contributions in his executive-producer role. “Kiefer is obsessively concerned with the quality of Designated Survivor—both its content and the mechanics of the production. He is focused on the script, the crew, the lighting and the photography, not to mention his feel for pacing and atmosphere.”
Moreover, Gordon adds, “I have relied on him to shepherd a great deal there in Toronto (where the series shoots) while I’m in Los Angeles. Essentially, I look to him as a partner.”
Liev Schreiber officially moved behind the camera of Ray Donovan in season three when there was a showrunner switch. The star has now amassed 36 episodes as a producer on the Showtime series. “Liev, too, is heavily involved in the production,” Gordon explains, “bringing a strong point of view to discussions and, among other things, making sure the accents and the setting are as authentic as they can be.”
Yet it can be occasionally unsettling for the cast and crew when actors make the transition to a behind-the-camera role, though turmoil generally has to reach a boiling point before news of discord gets out. When it does spill over, it’s generally because the voices of the showrunner and the thespian-turned-exec producer are discordant.
As a lead producer, Gordon and others say, it’s important to consider only one thing in those cases: what’s best for the show. (A showrunner typically is the glue that holds competing forces on set together; a star often has the clout to clinch a renewal—or precipitate a public relations nightmare.) Once in a while one gets axed from a troubled show, but, per most accounts, these standoffs are increasingly rare.
As for the approach taken by these feisty newcomer streamers (which, it has escaped no one, have rapidly become producers of original series of their own), they too are opening their arms to any actor-hyphenates who potentially bring something special to the party.
Amazon Studios’ Wandell points to the success the company has had with Sneaky Pete, a project that essentially issued from the mind of actor Bryan Cranston, in partnership with David Shore.
“Bryan wanted to branch out, he fully leveraged the project, and only later after we had picked it up did we ask and he agreed to star in it,” Wandell continues. “Out of the flavor he brought to it and his personal panache, it turned into something special for us.”
For Wandell, an actor-turned-hyphenate can affect something really “powerful” if they have the will, the skills and the inclination. That includes enticing other good actors to come on board, as happened, he noted, with the Sneaky Pete project. (Cranston will also be involved variously in Amazon’s upcoming anthology series based on a Philip K. Dick opus called Electric Dreams.)
It’s also becoming more common for actors involved in long-running ensemble series to raise their hands on set and, as one source described it, “humbly” ask producers if they might shadow a director and eventually try their hand at helming.
That has happened on several of Dick Wolf’s shows over the years and on Criminal Minds, where core actors Joe Mantegna and Matthew Gray Gubler have directed multiple episodes.
“If someone takes an interest in directing, that’s great,” Gordon says. “We weigh that desire against the pressures on and the shifting dynamics among the cast in making such decisions. As it turns out, most actors don’t want to, or find they don’t want to, direct continually; the prep is time-consuming and the actual work very intense.”
Actors are not coming out of their trailers and tracking producers and directors for sheer ego gratification. First of all, it takes a lot of extra effort, and second, it’s harder than ever to hide a lack of dedication. Sets are veritable sieves and social media does the rest.
“Pretty much gone are the days of vanity shingles when actors simply wanted to have themselves listed alongside many others on the production roster,” observes Jennifer Salke, NBC’s president of entertainment. She emphasizes that the actors who do take on added behind-the-camera roles are generally “really engaged” with the process, “passionate” about their ideas and “precise” about what they can bring to the table.
To Salke’s mind, the trend toward these dual roles is not overwhelming the biz but rather bringing more spice and diversity to it. And arguably the trend may be accelerating because there are so many outlets for talented individuals who do want to extend themselves. In a number of cases, these thespians have hung out their own production shingles and routinely pitch projects, both ones in which they wish to star and others to which they’re not attached.
“The phenomenon has not been a burden for us here at NBC,” Salke tells World Screen. “I’ve had only incredible success dealing with actors who are exploring these other options available to them.”
Salke points to three female thespians, for example, with whom the network is in ongoing business: Mariska Hargitay, who toplines and functions as an exec producer on Law & Order: SVU, a series on its way to becoming the longest-running legal drama ever; America Ferrera on the comedy Superstore; and Jennifer Lopez on the police drama Shades of Blue.
Peter Jankowski, the president and COO of Wolf Films, has worked with Hargitay for more than a decade. He describes her as “the gravitational pull” on the entire enterprise.
“Even if she didn’t have the EP title, Mariska would still be the boss in a way. She knows the character [detective Olivia Benson] better than anybody; she knows what her character is capable of; she knows what stories work; and she knows better than anyone how we make the show. She keeps actors focused, keeps the set professional…and she creates an environment that people really enjoy working in.”
Ferrera, Salke notes, is “a triple threat,” having taken on producing, directing and acting duties concomitantly on several different series. Having exploded onto the scene a decade ago with her breakout performance in ABC’s Ugly Betty, she now toplines NBC’s Superstore as an actress but also boasts “a diverse, fresh take” on the script.
As for Lopez, she is, per Salke, “very passionate and persuasive about her ideas for shows” and personally sold the network on the pitch for the cop show, only later committing to a starring role in it.
The point is, Salke continues, “these people walk the walk.” They have, she stresses, something to say to the world, an abundance of creative instincts and a high level of professional competence.
And NBC is just one network with a growing number of female actors who are flexing different muscles.
Asked what she’s involved in as an executive producer on Lionsgate’s Ten Days in the Valley for ABC, Kyra Sedgwick says, “Everything. I’m involved in understanding where the series is going, the outlines of every episode. I give notes on every outline and on every draft. I also give notes on edits and cast; I look at tapes and weigh in on ABC’s plans for advertising.”
In short, the Emmy Award-winning actress suggests that she is “much more hands-on” with her new series than she was with The Closer, which ran for seven seasons on the cable network TNT.
Sedgwick goes on to explain that, as number one on the call sheet, she has a “huge responsibility” for what happens on set—the tone of the place as well as the expectations of other actors and the crew. “I gave notes on drafts [for The Closer], but they were drafts pretty far down the line. Now I’m much more involved in things earlier on, which is great, but with great power comes great responsibility. It’s a lot.”
Another result of the active roles actors are now playing behind the scenes is the growing impact of these female voices on culture more broadly. Think Insecure and Girls, shows dreamed up and led by strong female producers who are also actresses in their own right.
As producer Jankowski says about Hargitay’s influence on the wider cultural sphere: “What Mariska has done is create a character that has empowered women and women’s rights and [changed] how we perceive victims. The world has changed dramatically in how we view sexual violence, for example, and I think that’s in no small part due to SVU.”
The success and influence of such series has not been lost on younger or less established actresses.
Kristin Kreuk, an actress who is starring in an upcoming legal drama for the CBC in Canada called Burden of Truth, says, “I’m inspired by the fact that so many interesting women are taking on these added responsibilities, creating a lot of fascinating characters and situations outside the male gaze.”
For her part, Kreuk, whose credits include Smallville and Beauty and the Beast, has set up her own shingle along with a partner and is pitching projects of all sorts. Plus, she is currently doing double duty on Burden of Truth as both the star and an executive producer. “I’ve always been most interested in the storytelling. As an actress I have to be internally focused, digging deep into the characters I play, but behind the camera I have to think about the macro perspective and how all the characters’ stories fit together.”
Her biggest challenge is trying to balance her energy and resources as an actress with the requirements of an exec producer. On Burden of Truth, she helped pitch the project and gave notes.
“Now that we’re in production on the ten-episode order, I spend my days on set in front of the camera and weigh in mostly on the first or second draft of each episode rather than on the pitch or the outline.” Her goal, she tells World Screen, is eventually to transition to full-time work as a producer in her own company.
Regarding how top talent agents are responding to the trend, Michael Katcher, the head of the TV talent group at CAA, tells World Screen that the crucial motivation behind this expansion of roles on the part of actors is their desire “to be at the forefront” of an ever-evolving business. “It’s our job as agents to encourage the ones who want to do this. Some, admittedly, have no stomach for it and we don’t pressure them, but many—actually a boatload—are keen to flex their creative muscles differently.”
Katcher, who represents a number of high-profile thespians, sees his job as helping “build a business for these actors.” He cites his client Lisa Kudrow as one example of an actress who, with her business partner Dan Bucatinsky, has set up a company and pitches an eclectic range of projects, many of which do not involve her on camera.
When it comes to the question of money, the general consensus among financial analysts World Screen queried is that the more hats an actor wears, the more money they’re going to make, especially if there’s a multi-windowed, multiplatformed back end to said series. However, not that much more. Starring in a series is still the most lucrative role most actors can play.
The average add-on to a per-episode salary in front of the camera is between 15 percent and 20 percent. This means that if an actor is paid $250,000 per episode, they’re likely not pocketing more than $50,000 per episode extra to perform their duties as an exec producer.
Nor are actors-turned-directors minting millions from their add-on efforts as helmers.
As British A-lister Tim Roth once said about his desire to direct indie movies: “No one 15 or so years ago wanted to pay an actor as decently as a director, and I had kids to bring up.” (Roth directed The War Zone in 1999. The pay for actor-helmers has of course risen since his quip, but not inordinately.)
“What’s important,” one financial analyst argues, “is for the actor to keep those two quotes separate and not take the salary as an all-in, especially if he or she wants to continue working behind the camera.” That way, he clarifies, the hyphenate would have a quote in the business both as a performer and as an exec producer.
So, what will the business look like in five years?
CAA’s Katcher sees no let-up in the number of small-screen projects that get greenlit in Hollywood.
“There’s great material out there. Some 250 spec scripts are floating around town as we speak.” It may be, as he and several other executives suggested, that the bigger content purveyors (including newcomers to the fray like Apple, Google, AT&T-DIRECTV, Facebook and Snapchat) will take a bigger bite of the overall IP pie. But, in terms of actors with their own creative ideas to put to the test, “I don’t see that leveling off,” Katcher forecasts. “There’s just so much opportunity for them to expand their palate in interesting ways.”
Pictured: Netflix’s House of Cards.