Top five actor/director relationships
Matthew Bowden, Screen Editor, examines five creatively fruitful acting/director partnerships
When doing press for his summer blockbuster Nope, Jordan Peele accounts how he pulled his leading man Daniel Kaluuya to the side when shooting Get Out and said to him, “You’re my De Niro man. You’re my De Niro”. Undoubtedly referring to the titanic collaborative dynasty established between icons Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, this seemed a bold assertion to make considering the pair’s lack of experience. However, the barnstorming critical and commercial success of Peele’s 2017 satirical horror, followed by this summer’s intangible yet engrossing thriller, suggests Peele’s comparison is on track to being fulfilled. Considering this artistic duality, let’s explore five instances of repeated relationships between actors/actresses and directors that have resulted in cinematic gold.
Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan
What these two lack in volume, they more than make up for in quality. Gerwig and Ronan have combined for two excellent films: 2017’s coming-of-age modern drama Lady Bird and later the most recent adaptation of historical coming-of-age drama Little Women. In both, the accomplished Irish actress plays headstrong, independent female protagonists desperately fighting to mask their respective vulnerabilities. Gerwig takes great pains to champion their ambitious sensibilities; Lady Bird’s Christine dreams of East Coast colleges despite financial restrictions, while literary icon Jo is swimming against the patriarchal tide in trying to establish herself as a respected female writer, without her characters constantly having to get married. Lady Bird in particular is such a charismatic, sincere film; a love-hate semi-autobiographical letter from Gerwig to her hometown of Sacramento. Together, these two have raised the bar for telling mainstream female-led narratives, which are still sorely in short supply within the Hollywood roster
Thomas Vinterberg and Mads Mikkelsen
Similarly, this Danish pair have only combined for two feature films, but such is their heft that it feels like more. 2012’s The Hunt, about an elementary school teacher falsely accused of sexual harassment, is subtly brutal in depicting how he goes from a respected member of the community to a downtrodden outcast. Mikkelsen is astonishing in the leading role – physically disintegrating before us as the small town’s hysteria swells to breaking point. The highly disconcerting nature of the film’s ending solidifies its status as one of the most underrated psychological dramas of recent times. Nearly a decade on from this success, Vinterberg and Mikkelsen came together again for Another Round: a highly entertaining, tongue-firmly-in-cheek comedy drama about whether measured alcohol consumption can act as a penicillin for the male midlife crisis. Vinterberg does brilliantly in fore fronting the film with a heady spirit of indulgence without losing sight of the perilousness of what these fools are embarking on. Mikkelsen again excels as the central figure, with the closing scene offering a poignancy that completely juxtaposes their first work.
Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg/Nick Frost
This might seem like cheating to essentially merge Pegg and Frost together, but they are two halves of one incredible whole when it comes to British comedy. Under Edgar Wright’s helm, they are responsible for the infamous Cornetto Trilogy: starting in 2004 with Shaun of the Dead, sandwiched by the irrepressible Hot Fuzz and finally closing with The World’s End. The chemistry between the two is essential for Wright’s amiably hilarious brand of wit and visual comedy. One of the most impressive aspects is the variety displayed by Pegg and Frost over the course of the three films. They both start by playing innocent dossers in Shaun of the Dead, before Hot Fuzz delivers the incredible dynamic between Pegg’s straight-as-an-arrow London cop and Frost’s less conscientious (putting it politely) West Country counterpart. The World’s End flips this around, pitting the notorious rebel Gary King together with Frost as a dour corporate lawyer. While the latter is slightly less regarded than the first two, all of them are insatiably rewatchable – even writing about it now makes me want to watch Shaun chuck vinyl records at zombies or hear PC Danny Butterman say “Lundun”.
Bong Joon-ho and Song Kang-ho
Bong Joon-ho displayed that the “one-inch tall” hurdle of subtitles could be pole-vaulted over when his social-commentary thriller Parasite swept up most of the big awards at the 2020 Oscars, leaving nothing but Donald Trump bleating in his wake. More long-term Bong fans would appreciate that prior to Parasite, he had directed numerous excellent films, like Memories of Murder, The Host and Snowpiercer. What these all have in common is the presence of Song Kang-ho. The South Korean actor achieved national recognition for his captivating performance in Bong’s aforementioned sophomore feature. He plays an incompetent rural detective who becomes way in over his head when forced to confront a gruesome serial killer. In only a manner that Bong can, he finds humour in the black-hearted absurdity of the situation, which allows Song to give a brief glimpse of the comic chops that are so exquisitely on display in Parasite. Hopefully off the back of Parasite’s enormous acclaim, Bong and Song can charm us together at least a couple more times.
David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen
Notorious as the master of body-horror, this creative partnership is noteworthy in its early stages for Cronenberg’s movement away from that genre. His first collaboration with Viggo Mortensen (A History of Violence) finds the director dabbling in organised crime, while his immediate follow up, Eastern Promises, sees him diving head-first into it. Mortensen’s acclaimed range of performance is on full display in these films; going from a sweat-soaked, seemingly everyman American, to a ruthless enforcer who is a valuable cog in the Russian mafia. He was awarded Oscar nominations for both roles – rare instances where the Academy showed shrewd judgement. He has appeared in two more films with Cronenberg; playing Sigmund Freud in A Dangerous Method, and, much more recently, starring in Crimes of the Future, which resembles a definitive return to Cronenberg’s original roots. The relationship has come full circle.