Directing for episodic TV is a thankless job, a position lower than the showrunner, head writer and the show's stars. You're lucky if the studio gives you a reserved parking space. But for established actors, the gig offers the opportunity to prove they can be just as valuable behind the camera as they are in front of it.
That's why marquee names like Michael Chiklis, Marlee Matlin and Billy Porter all signed up to helm episodes of Fox's new legal drama, "Accused."
"I just think that it's a natural progression for an actor," said "The Shield" veteran Chiklis during a virtual news conference last month. 'That's why there are so many examples of us who do it well and successfully, because we're storytellers at our core."
"Accused," premiering at 8 p.m. Sunday on KMSP, Ch. 9, is an anthology series with a different case every week, each seen through the eyes of a defendant in a complex trial. It's sort of like "Law & Order," except this time viewers will often find themselves hoping for a not-guilty verdict.
While developing the series, producer Howard Gordon selected a number of directors whose backgrounds matched up with the stories. Some of his picks just happened to be familiar names.
"The opportunity to have this show and for it to sort of be the Trojan Horse for these voices is one of the most incredible pleasures of my career," said Gordon, who was also a producer on "24" and "Homeland."
For "Ava's Story," an episode about a deaf surrogate mother who kidnaps a baby, he tapped Matlin, the first non-hearing actor to win an Oscar, even though she had no previous directing experience.
"As an actor for 35 years I've always thought, 'I'll just focus on developing a character and do my thing,'" Matlin said through interpreter Jack Jason. "I show up on set. I go to makeup. I go to hair. I go into my trailer. I wait for my call. Now, as a director, my time passes so quickly. I mean, 12 hours has already happened? It's a completely different experience. It accesses a different and creative side of my personality."
Porter, whose performances have earned him a Tony, Grammy and Emmy, was brought in for "Robyn's Story," an episode about a drag queen who falls for the wrong guy.
"I have wanted this expansion to happen, so it was an immediate yes for me," said Porter. "I love in this space for my life that I get to shape these narratives and control these narratives in the most authentic way possible. That is a gift."
Veteran directors would have done decent jobs with both of these episodes. But the relative novices sprinkle a little magic that would be hard for others to conjure up.
The drag scenes in "Robyn's Story" are injected with the kind of sensuality and spunk rarely seen before on screen. The highlight of "Ava's Story" is a scene in which the title character (Stephanie Nogueras) opens up to the jury about the struggles of growing up deaf in a hearing world.
"As we began shooting, I just made it my point, especially with my deaf actors, to communicate clearly, without any barriers," said Matlin. "Many of them said they never had a director talk to them this way because we've never worked with a director that's deaf."
Matlin, Porter and Chiklis may not reach the heights of other actors-turned-directors like Clint Eastwood and Greta Gerwig. But they're off to promising starts.