9 Underrated Actor and Director Collaborations

by Robbie Jones and Sarah Cook

When an actor and director meet during a filming project, it can go one of many ways: Absolutely hatred (See: Bjork and Lars Von Trier,) complete indifference, or absolute admiration. That last one has seen some of the most popular pairings in cinematic history. Quentin Tarantino & Samuel L. Jackson, Paul Thomas Anderson & Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and, sigh, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. But as time goes by, we’re seeing more and more relationships between filmmakers and the loyalty between talent has helped produce some of the most evocative movies of our time.

So this editor and writer have teamed up to celebrate our favourite, and perhaps underrated pairings.

Quentin Tarantino and Michael Madsen

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Tarantino has always kept a nice group of talented actors close for his films, the most frequent of course being Samuel L. Jackson, but there’s another actor he’s partnered with multiple times, a man who became iconic in Quentin’s first picture Reservoir Dogs, and that’s Michael Madsen. Sure, he hasn’t done a whole lot of important work in his career, recently only starring in direct to DVD movies and celebrity Big Brother, but Madsen was a defining part of Reservoir Dogs, immortalising the eccentric torture technique of Mr. Blonde for all time. In addition to that, he played a great villain in Kill Bill and was essential to an excellent ensemble cast that dominated The Hateful Eight. See, what makes them so great together is the fact that they’re clearly friends, as Tarantino is with many of his collaborators. He even had plans for a Mr. Blonde/Vincent Vega spin off. He has faith in Madsen, and recognises his potential and utilises him better than any other director can, or has ever realised they could.

Stanley Donen and Audrey Hepburn

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Stanley Donen is a director mostly defined by one genre; the musical. He co-directed Singing in the Rain with star Gene Kelly, as well as many others like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, On the Town, Damn Yankees, and It’s Always Fair Weather. He combined his musical talents with one of the greatest actresses of all time, Audrey Hepburn, for a great little film called Funny Face. But they would also team up for entertaining mystery rom-com Charade and deeply moving drama Two for the Road. Hepburn is an icon, a legend of the art, and this director elicited some of her best ever performances. She’s delightful in Funny Face and Charade, but Two for the Road is arguably her best performance full stop. They were quite wonderful together, and that’s made even more impressive by one thing by the genres of these films. It’s not unusual for an actor and director to consistently deliver with one particular genre – For example, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro in Crime – but to tackle three separate genres and deliver the same outstanding work together is remarkable. They didn’t have to rely on the familiarity or comfort of one, they proved they were capable of doing anything together.

Paul Thomas Anderson and John C. Reilly

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The most frequent collaborator in PTA’s filmography was of course the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman, but let’s never forget that the director had an amazing three film streak with John C. Reilly. You had his debut with Hard Eight, in which Reilly played a down on his luck gambler put back on his feet by an experienced older gentleman (Phillip Baker Hall); Boogie Nights, playing Mark Wahlberg’s laid back porn co-star Reed Rothchild; and Magnolia, joining an ensemble cast as timid police officer Jim Kurring. All three films are brilliant, the latter two masterpieces of the 90s, and Reilly is outstanding in all of them. His best performance of course is in Hard Eight, as it’s his most central and most connected role in any of the films. Anderson knows how to get the best out of him, and even though Reilly has starred in a ton of films, these still stand out amongst them.

Damien Chazelle and J.K. Simmons

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Okay, you’ll need to hear me out on this one. Yes, the pair have only made two films together, but let’s just look at those two films; you have La La Land, a musical where Simmons plays only a small role, but you still remember him very well, and then you have Whiplash, one of the most intense and unbelievably brilliant films to come out this decade. In Whiplash, Simmons delivered the best performance of 2014 and the best performance of his entire career, under the direction of Chazelle who has a serious passion towards his craft, to the point that Simmons slips into La La Land perfectly, like he was meant to be there. It may be early days, but I’m convinced that these two will work together many times in the years to come. They have to, they go together so well that it would be stupid not to. This was a match made in heaven, and I can’t wait to see it develop.

J.J. Abrams and Simon Pegg

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We aimed for unobvious pairings and I think we cracked it with this one. You’d never think it, but Simon Pegg and J.J. Abrams have worked together four times; Starting with Mission Impossible 3, then onto the two Star Trek films, and then Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Pegg is a ferociously funny man, and his brings that same humour to his M:I and Star Trek roles, also adding a serious side to it that Abrams develops well. Abrams has a flare (Pun definitely intended) for Sci-Fi, a genre that Pegg is very passionate about, and their mutual love for it is what makes them a perfect pairing. And it’s amazing to think Pegg has been starring in his films from his directorial debut all the way up to his biggest financial success. Again, it’s not something you’d think about, but there’s something very sweet about it.

Michael Smiley and Ben Wheatley

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There’s a video out there which showcases Michael Smiley’s insults in all of Wheatley’s movies. And it is glorious! With the exception of Sightseers, Ben Wheatley has cast Smiley in every one of his movies. From the underrated Down Terrance to the recent gun outing Free Fire, Irish actor Michael Smiley has always been a feature and we’re so much better for it. The added addition of Smiley makes him a household name in Wheatley’s epics. With the dark comedy director really solidifying his work recently and making waves, it’s great to see Smiley with it. With perhaps the most acclaimed work being trippy A Field in England, Smiley always presents a menacing, puzzling, and completely compelling character that we can’t wait to see in Wheatley’s work.

Fede Alvarez & Jane Levy

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Horror scream queens have always been there. From Hitchcock to Craven, there have been some fantastic pairings that have illuminated and chilled us in horrors. The new one has to be Fede Alvarez and Jane Levey. Granted, there have only been two films in which Alvarez and Jane Levy have worked together but they have been two of the most fucked up mainstream horrors to come out of the recent years: The Evil Dead remake and Don’t Breathe. Some how together they have seriously gotten under our skins and the work with Alvarez helped push Levy from sitcom star to genuine horror superstar (she’ll pop up more and more on the cult seen, mark my words.)  Alvarez is directing the second entry in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series and we hope that Jane Levy is cast as the new Lisbeth because she’d fucking flaw it.

Lone Scherfig & Sam Claflin

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This post was inspired by this relationship and, yes, it’s another pair with just a pair: The Riot Club and, more recently, Their Finest. Though this feels like a very fresh relationship, it is pretty spectacular too. Why? Because Lone Scherfig really taps into Claflin’s creepy side, even with antagonist Buckley. It first started with the swarmy Alistair in The Riot Club, a movie specifically about gross rich privileged boys. To come from The Hunger Games where he portrays a sexualised contestant and make him so ruthlessly classist and shitty takes skill that Scherfig has. Yet still, he’s layered. You never see too much of his father’s control but it’s weaved in intrinsically through direction and performance. This continues with Their Finest where the film-making couple tell stories through the characters and the chemistry on the screen. We hope they pair up again, there’s another story here.

Ryan Coogler & Michael B. Jordan

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This pairing. I live for this pairing. This film-making pairing is pure gold. Starting with Fruitvale Station and getting us solely hyped for Marvel’s upcoming Black Panther film, this director and actor duo has given us a lot already and we hope the relationship continues. The aforementioned Fruitvale Station was an indie drama based on the last day in the life of police shooting victim Oscar Grant and, boy, did the direction and performance really convey the gravitas of this tragic life in a stirring and emotional way. Following up this slow-burning hit, Coogler and Grant worked again on Creed, the recent entry in the Rocky franchise and it blew everyone away, even folks who weren’t fans of the original boxing series. They both should’ve been nominted for more awards for bringing an extra level to a stale franchise. Sweat pouring, heart-thudding, and poignant too, we’re excited to see what both of them give to the upcoming Marvel entry.

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