The Best Actor/Director Partnerships | Iconic storytelling duos in cinema

The Best Actor/Director Partnerships

Written by on | Acting Industry

Actor/director partnerships—the continued collaboration between an actor and a director across multiple projects in their careers—are behind some of the best, most exciting projects ever filmed. Sometimes, the connection is immediate and obvious, like some bold and magnetic attraction that pulls them constantly together. Other times, the collaboration might seem to grow out of nowhere; it may even be built on some true spite and antagonism. But when they work, they really work. Good actor/director partnerships are the secret ingredient to many a brilliant cinema experience.

This article looks at the best actor/director partnerships, examining the ways in which the pair have worked together in their career and what one artist gains from the other. If you are reading this as an actor (or a director) and are keen to find that creative kindred spirit in your own career, we’ll speak on ways to find good collaborators as well.

Of all the list articles on StageMilk, this one was one of the hardest to narrow down. Our initial brainstorm for candidates reached almost thirty pairings—sometimes with multiple entries from the same actor or director! We mention this because the following entries are our own opinions and by no means an exhaustive list. If you think we’re missing somebody particular, let us know in a comment or email and we’ll look to correcting our grievous error…

What Makes Actors and Directors Work Well Together?

Before we jump into the list itself, let’s think on this point. Successful actors and directors will work with thousands of people, even in a very short career of a few years. So what is it that causes people to make a lasting connection in an industry so obsessed with change and the Next Big Thing?

Sometimes, it’s a matter of the actor and director coming up together in the world. Martin Scorsese (who has the honour of appearing twice on this list) did so with many of his early collaborators, such as Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel. Sometimes, it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time: director Elia Kazan studied acting at the Group Theater, where he’d meet some of the country’s most exciting new talents (the method actors that would modernise and change American film and theatre forever.)

But often, it’s about more than career or luck. Actors and directors can find themselves drawn to each other through shared ideals or methodologies of work. They may wish to explore the same themes, or return to a concept or character they’ve played with before. This can keep a working relationship alive, even if the actor and director in question aren’t actually friends. Ultimately, a fruitful collaboration between an actor and a director points to a sophisticated working relationship and an ability to communicate: universally important skills for any artist to practice and develop.

Okay, enough think-piecing. Let’s jump in!

Best Actor/Director Partnerships

#1 Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg

The World’s Greatest Director and the World’s Nicest Man. Match made in heaven, right? Spielberg and Hanks first worked together on bloody war epic Saving Private Ryan. This film wasn’t just very good (it was) and didn’t just do very well (it did); it single-handedly changed the way cinema dealt with violence and war—bringing a documentary shooting style to the battlefield and an everyman appeal to the leading man. Hanks and Spielberg seem to humanise each other, grounding big films and performances in the simplicity of good stories well told and warmly.

You can track Hanks’ influence on Spielberg across a number of great films; he often tends to sit in positions of power as an authoritative figure (Catch Me If You Can, The Post) and yet still deals with bureaucracy and corruption (Bridge Of Spies, Saving Private Ryan). Even The Terminal, a strange comedy-drama from 2004 that doesn’t quite work, is worth examining for how these two great artists meld and mesh.

#2 Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson is a director celebrated for his idiosyncratic style of filmmaking: meticulous production design, stories both twee and harrowing, brilliant soundtracks and a recurring collaboration with a beloved stable of Hollywood A-Listers. While it might seem like a difficult task to pick just one of his many returning actors to talk about, we’re going with Owen Wilson.

Wilson/Anderson typifies what a great actor/director partnership is all about: Wilson was there at the start with Anderson (appearing in his short film and subsequent debut Bottle Rocket), both as an actor and co-writer. As Anderson’s style developed and matured, from The Royal Tenenbaums to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited, Wilson was there: helping his fellow Texan outsider craft Hollywood in their desired image. Wilson continues to cameo in Anderson’s films; we can only hope a more substantial collaboration is on the horizon.

#3 Song Kang-ho and Bong Joon-ho

South Korean film director Bong Joon-ho has been creating striking films for over twenty years, now. Most Western audiences stumbled across him in 2013 with the excellent science fiction film Snowpiercer; and his popularity in Hollywood and beyond simply exploded after the 2019 hit Parasite (the first Best Picture winner not in English). For much of Bong’s journey, actor Song Kang-ho has been there—solving crimes, fighting aliens, riding trains and entertaining children’s birthday parties.

It’s a testament to Bong’s direction that his muse only seems to grow in his abilities as an actor, utilising the solid training on the stage that gives Song such control of his instrument. Indeed, watching Song’s brilliant work, film to film, shows the trust an actor must place in a director as they explore different genres, themes and projects both domestic and international. But while it’s a huge risk, it has clearly paid off for this duo. We can only dream up what their future collaborations might look like.

#4 Doug Jones and Guillermo del Toro

Del Toro and Jones share six collaborations together over a twenty year period; however, it’s fair to say you might not be aware of the latter’s work. At least, not directly. Doug Jones is the actor, mime and contortionist responsible for many of the incredible creatures in del Toro’s films, regularly donning heavy make-up and prosthetics. Chances are, if you’ve watched one of the Mexican master’s movies and been jolted out of your seat by a monstrous figure, it was Doug Jones behind the effects.

This is an important thing to remember: behind all the visual effects and make-up is an actor doing brilliant and concerted work to make that character feel real. Both del Toro and Jones realise this in their collaborations. And while it’s Jones stumbling down the hallway in Pan’s Labyrinth with eyes in his hands we might best remember, there’s also his comic sensibility in the Hellboy films, not to mention his work as an amphibian romantic lead in The Shape of Water. 

#5 Kirsten Dunst and Sofia Coppola

After a lukewarm stint as an actor, mostly in films made by her dynastic showbiz family, Sofia Coppola’s directing career seemed to explode onto the scene in late 1990s and early 2000s Hollywood. For Coppola, Kirsten Dunst has been there since the beginning. She was the anchor of her first film The Virgin Suicides, and has been present for many of the director’s major stylistic turning points in the years since.

Dunst typically portrays women in quiet catastrophe—pinioned by circumstance, society or era into situations where she feels trapped. In earlier roles, Lux Lisbon of The Virgin Suicides or the eponymous Marie Antoinette, the stories end in tragedy. However, more contemporary roles have seen Dunst’s characters navigate their own destinies: while hardly a happy story, The Beguiled is a beautiful film about female empowerment.

#6 Daniel Kaluuya and Jordan Peele

Daniel Kaluuya has only been in two of Jordan Peele’s films, Get Out and Nope. That said, Peele is a director who has only really been solidifying his presence in horror cinema over the past few years; he actually started out in an excellent comedy duo. However, Peele has established himself immediately as a creative force as both writer and director, and Kaluuya seems to be a an integral part of that relationship.

In a Vanity Fair article last July, Peele described Kaluuya as his “favourite actor in the world.” The British-born actor sits as a level-headed protagonist in both films, never defaulting to the obvious horror/genre character choice. Kaluuya’s performances allow audiences to feel grounded within the extraordinary circumstances and stories of Peele’s films. Beyond all the aliens and the racist mind control kidnappers, Kaluuya is the reason these movies feel real.

#7 Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes

John Cassavetes is often regarded as one of the most important figures in New Hollywood in the 1970s—a cultural iconoclast who used documentary filmmaking techniques and improvised development processes to tell intimate stories. Many of his films starred close friends, and his wife Gena Rowlands—with whom he collaborated with on ten excellent projects.

Choosing an excerpt to include with this entry was so difficult, given how many great examples of their collaborations there are. We’ve opted for A Woman Under The Influence, which is perhaps one of their most famous films, and a prime example of their output. But watching Rowlands/Cassavetes’ work also makes you wonder … just how much of his genius was really her? How much of this incredible auteur do we misattribute simply because the role of director and actor were so defined? It’s a fair call to say that Gena Rowlands contributed far more to her husband’s legacy than she will ever be given credit for.

#8 Frances McDormand and the Coen Brothers

Speaking of married couples … Frances McDormand has been married to one half of the Coen Brothers (Joel) since 1984, and has appeared in eight of the acclaimed duo’s films. She’s one of a number of actors that recur within their work, and yet she seems so integral to their style and sensibility—the very philosophy of their art—that their work would not be the same without her input.

She was in their first film, Blood Simple, and cameoed in their latest major theatrical release Hail Ceasar! But of all the projects they’ve shared together, we have to pay special mention to her work as Marge Gunderson in Fargo: an award-winning performance in one of the world’s few perfect films. McDormand’s pregnant police detective typifies so much of what makes her and the Brothers’ work so great. A sense of humanity that shines through in the violence and absurdity of the modern world. Check out this masterclass in acting and filmmaking:

#9 Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler

Michael B. Jordan, with roles in tv series such as Friday Night Lights and The Wire, has been delivering incredible performances for the better part of twenty years. In director Ryan Coogler, he seemed to find a creative partner that saw his potential to become a major motion picture star. Their first production together was Creed a (can’t believe I’m typing this) brilliant, emotional and considered entry to the Rocky franchise. Their latest collaboration was Black Panther, a film a few people saw and thought was good. In between, the underrated true story Fruitvale Station, which dramatises the 2009 death via police murder of Oscar Grant.

On paper, these three films couldn’t be any different from each other. But, anchored by their director and star, they explore themes of legacy and ambition, not to mention endemic racial injustice. Whether hero or villain, Jordan is a charismatic star with an effortless machismo. And yet Coogler knows how to find his vulnerability, elevating a character like Black Panther’s Killmonger from a comic book bad guy to a complex, sympathetic character. To wit:

#10 Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog

Of all the great actor/director partnerships, this one is perhaps the most infamous. Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski made five films together—some of them undeniable classics, all of them fascinating portraits of men who lived on the edge of society and strove for the impossible. Their best, 1982’s Fitzcarraldo, sees Kinski’s eponymous character drag an ocean liner over a mountain; this feat was actually performed by Herzog during the production of the film (and captured at length in the making-of documentary Burden of Dreams.)

Sadly, Kinski’s legendary temper tantrums have long out-shadowed his performances. Herzog’s films are great, but can never quite escape the ego and legend of their star. Herzog, himself, was aware of this fascination with Kinski’s terrible behaviour. In 1999, he made the documentary My Best Fiend, which documents their turbulent relationship and the audience fascination with monsters on screen.

And finally: Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese

We couldn’t not mention this pair. Long before Leo was in every Scorsese picture under the sun, it was Robert De Niro who brought charm and gravitas to some of Scorsese’s least likeable, most compelling characters. From his insanely cool slow-mo entrance in Mean Streets (below), De Niro has been present for some of his collaborator’s most iconic films, including Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas. 

However, like any good creative partner, De Niro was also present for many of Scorsese’s more experimental, risky projects. He headed up muted musical New York New York with Liza Minelli and the hideous(ly good) Cape Fear. One of their high points is 1995’s Casino, which plays out like a more mature—if less likeable—riff on Goodfellas. In the 2020s, their collaboration continues: The Irishman challenged audiences with ground-breaking de-aging FX and an operatic runtime. And their tenth project together, Killers of the Flower Moon, is expected to premiere in 2023. Across half a century, through highs and lows and a multitude of classic films, this is the actor/director partnership for the ages.

Your Name Here!

It all sounds good, right? Why shouldn’t you enjoy such a collaboration? If anything, the steady work would be nice… Lasting, fulfilling actor/director partnerships are rare, but not impossible to foster in your own career. If this sounds like something you’d like to pursue, let us leave you with a few pointers before you begin your search for a storytelling soulmate:

  • Find a director who shares your drive. The biggest killer of any creative partnership, especially at an emerging level, is momentum. Look for a collaborator who is willing to put the same into a project as you, and has the urge to find the next one (and the one after that!)
  • Share common thematic interests. This point is super important when thinking about the kinds of projects you work on. You can do excellent, repeated work with a director. But is it the kind of part you want to be playing? Is the genre right for you? Do you feel connected to the material at all?
  • Make sure you work well together. A good director in a partnership will know how to give you notes and get the best of you, project to project. This point can only be explored, really, by working together once and seeing how well you fit. On paper, a director may be perfect for you. That’s not to say you won’t gel on set.
  • Work on taking notes. We spend a lot of time talking about this on StageMilk, as how to take a note is one of the most important skills for any actor. If you work with a director you like, learn their language and how best to interpret the notes they give you on set or in rehearsals. Above all, learn to trust that they have your best interests at heart. It’s their job to make you look good!

Ultimately, it’s about developing a mutual respect. Learn to develop a sense of respect for your director, and look for that respect being extended to you. If a director puts you through hell to get a brilliant performance, you might sit at home each night after filming and tell yourself it’s worth it. But a partnership, like the ones we’ve outlined above, will likely not blossom. And if it does … well, it probably won’t be too healthy.

Let’s stress this point again: such partnerships are rare. But that’s what makes them so creatively fulfilling. If you think you’ve found a director you’d like to team up with across multiple years/projects, we’d suggest you learn from those who came before you to make your dream come true. Good luck!


About the Author

Alexander Lee-Rekers

Alexander Lee-Rekers is a Sydney-based writer, director and educator. He graduated from NIDA in 2017 with a Masters in Writing for Performance, and his career across theatre and television has seen him tackling projects as diverse as musical theatre, Shakespeare and Disney. He is the co-founder of theatre company Ratcatch (The Van De Maar Papers, The Linden Solution) and co-director of Bondi Kids Drama, a boutique drama school offering classes to young people in the Eastern Suburbs. Alexander is drawn to themes of family, ambition, failure and legacy: how human nature can flit with ease between compassion and cruelty. He also likes Celtic fiddle, mac & cheese and cats.

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