Time for action
Hollywood stars Michael Chiklis and Marlee Matlin are best known for their on-screen performances, but crime anthology Accused sees them both step behind the camera. DQ finds out all about their directing ambitions.
Michael Chiklis and Marlee Matlin are no strangers to film and TV sets. Best known for starring in long-running police drama The Shield, Chiklis has also appeared in The Commish, American Horror Story and Gotham, while his big-screen credits include a pair of Fantastic Four movies.
Matlin, meanwhile, became the youngest ever recipient of the Best Actress Oscar – and the first deaf person to win one of the iconic statuettes – for her role in 1986 drama Children of a Lesser God. She has also had roles in series such as The West Wing, The Practice and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and was part of the cast of Coda, which was named best picture at the 2022 Academy Awards.
With Fox crime anthology Accused, both actors have now stepped behind the camera – Matlin for the first time – to direct episodes of the series. In fact, Matlin has become the first deaf member of the Directors Guild of America as she continues to lead efforts for greater representation of deaf people in front and behind the camera.
“You fall in love with the process,” Chiklis tells DQ. “We’re storytellers innately. We are that as actors, and then it’s only exacerbated by being in touch with every department and to be the filter, if you will, to let talented people be talented and have a say on everything down to the nail polish on an actress’s fingers and the colour of the walls and the furniture. It’s wonderful to make all those choices.”
“It’s like putting a puzzle together,” Matlin agrees.
Produced and distributed by Sony Pictures Television, Accused is based on the BBC series of the same name created by Jimmy McGovern. In the first episode of the US adaptation, called Scott’s Story, Chiklis plays a father pushed to the limit of unconditional love when he discovers his son might be planning a devastating act of violence. He was so impressed with the stories featured and the Toronto-based production that he then asked if he could direct an episode, Jack’s Story, which stars Jason Ritter and Wrenn Schmidt in the tale of a teacher who is accused of a crime when a student asks for help.
The actor was “bitten by the bug” when he landed his directorial debut back on The Shield 20 years ago, and also shot an episode of Vegas in 2013. Now, he continues, “I’ve entered what I call the fourth quarter [of my career], to make an American football reference. I’m going to be directing a lot more in the fourth quarter.”
Working as an actor since he was a teenager, Chiklis has a love of acting, but he is also fascinated by the roles of individual crew members and how everyone on a set works together with the goal of making a series or film.
“It’s a joyous process – and by the way, to see something from the page to fruition, I’ve always said it’s nothing less than a small miracle that anything’s ever even good on film or on television, because so many hands touch it,” he says. “It’s like asking a bunch of cooks to go into a kitchen and cook one chicken. It’s very tough because the chefs have egos and they all want to put their little bit of spice on it. It takes a combination of restraint, skill and cooperation to get it right. When it works, it’s thrilling.”
Matlin’s move into directing comes after she had always “flirted” with the idea of stepping behind the camera but didn’t feel like she would ever have the opportunity to do so. When Accused showrunner Howard Gordon (Homeland) then offered her that chance, she wondered what kind of director she might be.
“That’s what I was thinking about myself,” she says. “Am I going to be an actor’s director? Am I going to be a director who worries about the technical aspects? There are different kinds of directors. Directing my first episode, I was so focused on watching the other actors work, because as an actor I never really did that. I was focused on myself. I was now watching them work and taking cues from them as actors.”
Her episode of Accused – Ava’s Story – follows a couple (Megan Boone and Aaron Ashmore) who are having a baby with a surrogate mother, Ava (Stephanie Nogueras), who is deaf. When the baby is born and found to be deaf too, the parents consider corrective surgery before Ava decides to intervene.
Matlin says her acting experience meant she could put herself in the shoes of the cast and instinctively tell whether they might want to do another take. “We speak the same language, and as an actor’s director – which is what I call myself now – I’m having so much fun watching how they prepare and how they deliver. It’s fun to watch actors grow and it’s fun to be able to work with actors as they get into character, actor to actor and now director to actor.”
Both fledgling directors found their casts appreciate the fact they too are actors, which immediately creates a rapport on set and, most importantly, a sense of empathy and support.
“They know I know where they’re at. I know their process and I know the pressures of it,” Chiklis says. “There’s a certain trust and a shorthand that you develop very quickly, and I do my best to try to set them at ease and go, ‘I’m not going to move on it so we have it [the shot].’ The interesting by-product of that is you end up getting it quicker because you’ve relaxed them.”
Matlin picks up: “The deaf actors I worked with, I clearly had an easy time with because we could communicate from whatever corner of the room and the crew was like, ‘How are these people talking?’ You have to be quiet on a set – but not us. They were so fascinated with that and the communication and the language that was so fluid and so easy. It was so easy to direct.
“With the hearing actors, I had plenty of interpreters, but I would look at them because I wanted to make sure they were completely on the same page as me. I’m very precise and I would watch them [interpret] and then I’d say, ‘Look, stop’ and just talk directly to them because I want them to hear directly from me, from my voice, my affect. It’s a little harder for me because I’m thinking about words to say or if they’re understandable, and sometimes I would see them be awkward.”
In particular, Matlin says working with her first AD was crucial because it was her first time as a director. “Naturally I had thoughts like, ‘Are they happy with my dailies? I don’t know.’ I would reach out to Howard [Gordon], and say, ‘Is everything OK?’ Every single time I would ask, he always made himself available. And it was important to me to be that way. I didn’t want to fuck up anything.”
Matlin had prepared three different shot lists for Ava’s Story before it was time to start shooting. But once she arrived for work, everything quickly changed once she could see the sets and the locations in person.
“Then I had to think about where to place the interpreters for the deaf perspective in the episode, and make sure the camera was in full frame and wasn’t cutting the sign language so that we see the signing,” she says. “I was also thinking about the captions [on screen], so they wouldn’t block the sign language. There was so much to think about.”
Directing is “a fascinating combination of preparation and pliability,” Chiklis acknowledges. “I prepare, but I always know not to get married to anything. One of the days on this shoot, I had this great plan for the first scene. Then in the morning, we’re setting up for the first shot and the fire department showed up. There was a fire alarm going on in the building where we were shooting outside, and I said to the fire chief, ‘How long is this going to take?’ He goes, ‘About a half-hour. I’m so sorry, but we’ve got to go through the protocols. We can’t just leave.’ It was the first half-hour of my day.”
For Gordon, working with a pair of actors-turned-directors was a new experience. “It’s fantastic, I’m never going back,” he exclaims. “Because of its specificity, this show is more like a lot of movies. I brought Marlee in, Michael in, I pass Michael a cut and it’s a process. Marlee’s also involved in every cut, and we’ve been going back and forth because it’s like a movie.”
As they now look to take their next steps in directing, both Matlin and Chiklis say they have a greater appreciation for the art of acting and the expertise of the crew around them.
“You have to get along with everybody. If you get along with everybody, you’ll get the best work from everybody. I kept my door open,” Matlin says.
“I love a harmonious set,” Chiklis says. “That’s a creative atmosphere. It never makes sense to me [otherwise]. I’ve been on sets where it’s oppressive and why would you do that? No one can function.
“There’s also a demand for professionalism. It’s an unspoken thing. On any set I’ve ever been the lead on, it’s like, ‘Hey, you show up on time and you’re prepared between action and cut,’ but otherwise, let’s have fun, let’s enjoy ourselves.”
Matlin’s move into directing is also a breakthrough for deaf creatives in film and television, and it was a responsibility that wasn’t lost on her, from ensuring authentic subtitles rather than closed captions were used on screen to filming scenes with no sound, to put viewers in the position of the deaf characters.
She would also start every day of her shoot sharing anecdotes or stories relating to sign language or deaf people to ensure every member of the cast and crew could feel connected to one another.
“I did give the AD a heads-up that there would be just a teeny bit of a delay when we were working with deaf actors, because you are speaking through a sign language interpreter and there’s a bit of a lag,” she says. “At first they were like, ‘How’s it going to work?’ But then it just became a well-oiled machine. It’s just about patience, that’s all.”