For free updates and exclusive new content Sign up

For free updates and exclusive new content sign up

Conquered Acting? Try Stepping Up to Directing

A young white man in black jeans, white boots and a tiger print jacket plays at a piano as he floats in the air

This month brings the directorial and screenwriting debut of Dev Patel to cinemas with revenge saga Monkey Man. The actor, who made his debut in TV’s Skins before conquering the big screen in films such as Lion and Slumdog Millionaire, is the latest in a long line of British stars to turn director – sometimes to critical acclaim and sometimes also to huge, world-conquering success.

Just a few months ago, another Skins alumnus, Daniel Kaluuya, made his screenwriting and directorial debut with sci-fi drama The Kitchen (alongside co-director Kibwe Tavares and co-writer Joe Murtagh), about a future London where only a few hold-outs still cling to public housing. An equally buzzed-about actor, though one who has recently worked at the other end of the social spectrum, is Emerald Fennell (The Crown, Barbie), who broke through with Promising Young Woman in 2020 and turned heads in 2023 with Saltburn. That was a hilarious look at the richest ranks of the aristocracy, starring Rosamund Pike (Radioactive) and Barry Keoghan (The Banshees of Inisherin).  

Other British directors are already global hit-makers. Dexter Fletcher began as a child actor and spent decades working in the likes of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Recently he’s been spending more time behind the camera on films like Wild Bill, the musical Sunshine on Leith and the imaginative, daring Elton John biopic Rocketman. No wonder he’s now lined up to direct a new Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr (Oppenheimer) and Jude Law (Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore).  

The Kitchen

Promising Young Woman

Fletcher’s contemporary and Wild Bill star Andy Serkis mixes appearances in huge franchises (Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings) with directing. His filmmaking debut was the heartbreaking Breathe in 2017, about a young couple facing a devastating polio attack. That starred Andrew Garfield (Never Let Me Go) and Claire Foy (All of Us Strangers). Serkis followed up with Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, featuring voice and performance capture by Christian Bale (The Prestige), Naomi Harris (Casino Royale) and Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog, Sherlock) before Hollywood came calling. 

Like those two, many actor-directors have crossed paths and encouraged one another. Richard Ayoade wrote and directed on TV early in his career with cult comedy hit Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, so it was no surprise when he made his big-screen directorial debut with the acclaimed coming-of-age comedy / drama Submarine. Ayoade obviously inspired Submarine’s young leading man, Craig Roberts. He turned director with Just Jim, and followed that in 2019 with Eternal Beauty to wide acclaim. Then Ayoade’s Darkplace co-star Alice Lowe (Sightseers) made her directorial debut in 2016 with Prevenge, with Timestalker to follow soon. 

Meanwhile Roberts’ co-star Paddy Considine (Dead Man’s Shoes, Hot Fuzz) debuted the blistering domestic violence drama Tyrannosaur, starring Olivia Colman (The Favourite) and Peter Mullan (My Name Is Joe). His next was a moving look at a boxer struggling with profound injuries in Journeyman, starring opposite Jodie Whittaker (Doctor Who). 

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle


Also tackling tough subjects was Oscar-winner Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour, Slow Horses) with his – to date – only film as director, Nil By Mouth. Like Tyrannosaur, it’s a deeply upsetting tale of domestic abuse, one that won at the BAFTAs and at Cannes. Idris Elba is also currently a one-time director thanks to distinctive crime drama Yardie in 2018, though that at least is soon to change as he wraps shooting on astronaut drama Above the Below. Incidentally his Yardie leading man Aml Ameen made his own first film with charming Christmas hit Boxing Day in 2021. 

Some of the best-known UK actor-turned-directors are what might be called the Shakespeareans. The great Sir Laurence Olivier made a film adaptation of Henry V as his contribution to the British World War II effort. Another acclaimed stage actor, Richard Attenborough, would follow in his footsteps with Oh! What A Lovely War and the Oscar-winning Gandhi.  

More recently, Sir Kenneth Branagh made his name adapting Henry V again in 1989, and has gone on to huge blockbusters and a successful series of Poirot films including Murder on the Orient Express and A Haunting in Venice. Ralph Fiennes, who has played some of the Bard’s most complicated characters onstage when he’s not appearing in the Harry Potter films, turned director with Coriolanus in 2011. He followed that with The Invisible Woman in 2013 and The White Crow in 2018, both well-received by critics. 



Then there are the TV hit-makers. Meera Syal became a household name thanks to The Kumars at No 42, but she also wrote the film Bhaji on the Beach and has been a mainstay on Goodness Gracious Me. She’s just one of a grand tradition of great comics cooking up TV magic: look at John Cleese and Fawlty Towers, or Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson writing Spaced. Arguably the most successful British actor turned TV showrunner of recent times, however, is Julian Fellowes. Fellowes was an actor in massive British TV hits like Our Friends in the North and Monarch of the Glen, but nowadays is best known as the creator of the hugely popular Downton Abbey, which ran for six seasons and spawned two (and soon three) film spin-offs. 

If you’re seeking the next Fellowes, consider Amma Asante. Once a child actress on the long-running school drama Grange Hill, Asante won a BAFTA for her debut film as director, A Way of Life. She followed that with a string of historically rooted romances, including Belle, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Summerland) as a mixed-race woman in 18th century London society, and A United Kingdom, based on the real-life love affair between a British woman (Rosamund Pike) and an African prince (David Oyelowo, Spooks). 

The Kumars at No 42


These are just the tip of the iceberg: new British actors turn director all the time. Game of Thrones star Lena Headey just debuted The Trap last year, based on her own short, while Silent Witness star Aki Omoshaybi found time for his debut, Real, in 2019. There will be more to come. With UK actors-turned-director succeeding at both the box-office and in awards season, you have to learn to expect great things.