15 Actor-Director Relationships That Defined Careers

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A great actor-director relationship is not an easy thing to come by. While many filmmakers and thespians have made perfectly good films without the benefit of a strong working relationship, great collaborations can turn out work that defines careers. Here is a list of 15 actors and directors whose collaborations did just that.

Quentin Tarantino & Uma Thurman

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Uma Thurman’s work with director Quentin Tarantino on Pulp Fiction made her a 90s sex symbol. Nearly ten years later, their work on Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2 transformed Thurman into an action movie icon despite the fact she has never been closely associated with the genre.

Martin Scorsese & Leonardo DiCaprio

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Before he teamed up with Martin Scorsese, we all knew DiCaprio was a great actor based on his work in films like The Basketball Diaries and Titanic. It was Scorsese who took the boyish superstar and made a man out of him with films like Gangs of New York, The Aviator, Shutter Island and The Departed. The pair are currently collaborating together on The Wolf of Wall Street.

Tim Burton & Johnny Depp

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Before he was recognized as one of the finest actors of his generation, Depp spent much of the 90s trying to shirk his teen idol image. His films with Tim Burton, Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands, made audiences take notice of the actor’s chameleon-like skills and the director’s weird, whimsical style. Subsequent collaborations like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, Sweeny Todd and Dark Shadows denote Depp and Burton’s mutual commitment to making  darkly fantastic stories together.

David Cronenberg & Viggo Mortensen


Viggo Mortensen had been working as a character actor some twenty years before Lord of the Rings came calling. Though Peter Jackson helped make him a star, David Cronenberg announced Mortensen as an acting force to be reckoned with. Mortensen’s performances in A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and A Dangerous Method show a diversity and commitment to character that earned both the actor and director Academy Award nods.

Spike Lee & Denzel Washington

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Though he won Academy Awards for Glory and Training Day, Denzel Washington’s most celebrated performance is likely that of the title character in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. Though Lee and Washington had worked together before on Mo’ Better Blues, X represents the pinnacle of their talents and is regarded by most critics as among the most iconic biopics ever made. Lee and Washington would go on to work together on He Got Game and The Inside Man.

Tony Scott & Denzel Washington

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Denzel Washington’s work with Spike Lee may have spawned a career defining performance, but Tony Scott took the respected actor and put him among audiences’ favorite action heroes. The pair’s first film together, Crimson Tide, posited Washington as an unlikely but morally firm underdog. Together, Scott and Washington would develop this persona in several different and successful iterations, from a washed up mercenary (Man On Fire) to a desperate ETF agent (Déjà vu). The pair last collaborated on the train-on-the-loose thriller Unstoppable, which was the late director’s last film.

David Fincher & Brad Pitt

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David Fincher and Brad Pitt would collaborate to great success on Se7en, but it was Fight Club that cemented the pair’s partnership. The film’s nihilistic tone and ultra-violent content failed to appeal to critics, but audiences embraced the film and Pitt’s multi-layered, punk rock performance. Fincher and Pitt’s follow-up, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, received more critical and mainstream esteem, earning 13 Academy Award nominations.

David Lynch & Laura Dern

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Though Laura Dern saw mainstream success with Jurassic Park and Rambling Rose, the actress was previously a favorite muse of arthouse director David Lynch. Blue Velvet cast her as the epitome of teenage, white bread suburbia. Later, Lynched flipped that archetype into a steamy femme fatale in the fantasy crime epic Wild At Heart. The pair would cap off their working relationship with Dern’s ultimate “woman in trouble” role in the very experimental Inland Empire.

Christopher Nolan & Christian Bale

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Everyone knows Christopher Nolan brought a grim sense of reality to the Batman universe. That tone was buoyed by the vulnerability and humanity shown by Christian Bale as Batman/Bruce Wayne. Though The Dark Knight trilogy will likely be their legacy, the pair would refine their working relationship with The Prestige. That film cast Bale as a ruthlessly ambitious turn-of-the-century magician and remains one of his finest performances to date.

James Cameron & Arnold Schwarzenegger

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Arnold Schwarzenegger first took audiences by storm as Conan: The Barbarian (1982), but James Cameron would make him a household name as the title character in The Terminator. Their follow up, T2, raised the bar by making Schwarzenegger’s Terminator a good guy and, by proxy, making us believe that gun-toting cyborgs can learn the value of humanity. The pair would refine Schwarzenegger’s screen persona down to a parody in the hit spy thriller True Lies. Their collaborations remain the standard by which all other Schwarzenegger films are judged.

Ridley Scott & Russell Crowe

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Though Russell Crowe was an established character actor throughout the 90s, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator turned the Aussie into the epitome of stoic masculinity. The pair would continue to tweak this sort of  archetype with Robin Hood and American Gangster. In a fun detour, Crowe would gain 63 pounds for a much less heroic, desk bound CIA Chief in Scott’s Body of Lies. For that film he lent his soft spoken hero persona to another actor on this list, co-star Leonardo DiCaprio.

Steven Spielberg & Tom Hanks

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Tom Hanks is to Stephen Spielberg what John Wayne was to John Ford. The pair seem to inspire the best in each other behind-the-scenes. Hanks’ everyman approach epitomizes Spielberg’s sensibilities, resulting in great supporting work in Catch Me If You Can and the sweetly sentimental rom-com The Terminal. However, Saving Private Ryan is the benchmark of their collaboration, putting the Hanks-Spielberg archetype of American wholesomeness up against the perils of D-Day. The result is one of the most inspiring and earnest war tales in cinema history.

The Coen Brothers & Frances McDormand

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Frances McDormand’s knack for understated humor has combined well with the Coen Brothers’ cross-genre forays into suspense. She began her collaboration with the duo in Blood Simple, a neo-noir that cast her as an ultra-capable femme fatale/woman-in-peril. Later, her turn as a folksy, pregnant police woman in Fargo gave a relentlessly bleak crime story a memorable sense of humanity and humor. The part also earned her an Academy Award. The Man Who Wasn’t There had her as the shrewish housewife of a would-be blackmailer. The trio’s last film, Burn After Reading, put McDormand in the shoes of an air headed personal trainer in another blackmail plot, thus bringing the serio-comic saga full circle.

Will Ferrell & Adam McKay

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Will Ferrell and Adam McKay first met while working on Saturday Night Live and parlayed their friendship into a series of feature-film collaborations. Ferrell has his share of non-McKay successes, but Anchorman, Taladega Nights and The Other Guys are among Ferrell’s biggest hits critically and commercially. The pair are poised to conquer audiences yet again next year with Anchorman 2.

Wes Anderson & Bill Murray

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You can thank indie all-star Wes Anderson (above center) for ushering America’s favorite smartass, Bill Murray (to Anderson’s left), into the dramatic phase of his career. Anderson deflects Murray’s manic screen persona into more understated and neurotic territory in films like Rushmore, The Life Aquatic, and Moonrise Kingdom. This burnt-out, latter day version of Murray’s screen persona was re-used in a non-Wes Anderson movie, Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation, earning the actor his first Academy Award nod.

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