Actress Shiri Appleby Takes a Full Leap into Directing
With a certain undefinable sparkle that makes you wish you could hang with her every day (all day), Shiri is as good as they come. Growing up in Hollywood, Shiri was in "The Biz" by the time she was three. With a successful, lifelong career in acting on famed shows such as Roswell and Girls, she's set the groundwork for a pivot into directing.
Recently, we hung with the actress, mom of two, and wife to restaurateur Jon Shook (co-founder of beloved LA eateries such as Jon & Vinny's, Animal and more) at her home in Hancock Park. Talking transitioning into directing from acting (see also hustle), why she's selective with her projects, the evolution of women in Hollywood, and her best advice yet. Look out world, Shiri is making moves.
Photo courtesy of Kate Moore
Photo courtesy of Kate Moore
How it all began...
I started acting when I was three years old doing TV commercials and print ads. By the time I graduated high school, I’d done about 70 national commercials and was a regular on a few shows. For the most part, I was your average working child actor. It wasn’t glamorous by any stretch. It was a job. Over Christmas break of my sophomore year in college, my career shifted. I starred in the pilot for Roswell and it got picked up the day after I finished my sophomore year at USC. Suddenly I was no longer in college, and instead, starring full-time in a national TV show.
Breaking into directing...
Over the next 20 years, I worked steadily in television, starring in Life Unexpected, ER, Girls, Chicago Fire, and Elementary. When Life Unexpected ended, I was ready for more and wanted the challenge of directing. I began shadowing directors to break-in, gain experience, and prove myself. As a bonus, every time I’d shadow a director, I would also end up getting a job acting on the show. For example, I shadowed Franklin & Bash, and they cast me in a few episodes. Then, I shadowed the director of Girls, which landed me the role on the show as Adam Driver’s girlfriend — a part that reshaped my career.
With a résumé full of shadowing, I pitched two networks I worked with often to direct a show on one of their networks. They both suggested I get on a show as an actress, make it a hit, and then in future seasons, ask to direct for the first time on that show. Getting the network, Lifetime wasn’t so easy. I really had to prove to the producers I could do both acting and directing. Which is exactly what I ended up doing on UnReal. When the show came out it was a big hit, and the network was thrilled. From that, they gave me an episode to direct! I ended up directing 4 episodes total. One in the 2nd and 3rd season, two in the 4th, including the season finale — which was a huge vote of confidence by the studio.
Meanwhile, Roswell got rebooted (after I had starred in the original 20 years ago) and any time the press would ask me about the show, I would say ‘I can’t wait to direct an episode of it.’ I was relentless. Then, one day someone tweeted that I should direct an episode of the Pretty Little Liars spin-off. I forwarded the tweet to Marlene King (the show’s showrunner) and she responded, ‘We’d love that too!’ Of which I promptly sent it to my agent.
With six solid directing gigs under my belt, two without me acting in the show, my résumé began to fill up. I directed two episodes of Light As A Feather (which just came out on Hulu) and starting this Fall I'm directing a second episode of Roswell, an episode of Law & Order: SVU, and Dynasty.
Ideally, I'd like to star in a show that I’m directing, writing, & producing to put my whole self out there. But I'd also like to direct features I’m not acting in too. Mostly I want to work with people that I enjoy being creative with and inspire me.
Getting the chance to direct Roswell, as a woman, is such an incredible turn of events after having starred in the original.
Keeping it easy is key. Over the years, I’ve learned the importance of coming to work, being prepared, giving an excellent performance, and making the process smooth for the directors and producers. I don’t look in the mirror when they’re doing my hair and makeup, nor do I stress about what I’m wearing, so long as the stylist is happy. In my 20s, everything was more involved and complicated. If I didn’t like my hair and makeup, it would throw me off. Similarly, if I didn’t like my outfit, I would be jilted. However, now, as long as the people running the show are pleased, I’m ready to go.
On women in business...
Women are getting tons of opportunities and more directing jobs than ever. We should all be jumping on them! The crazy truth is, with all the opportunities arising for women, we only make up 4% of the directors working today. Even if every woman I know got a job directing, we’d still be the minority! Therefore, I’m very much a fan of supporting and giving other women opportunities because there’s plenty to go around.
Getting the chance to direct Roswell, as a woman, is such an incredible turn of events after having starred in the original. Growing up in this business, I rarely worked with female directors. In my 20s, I never considered that was an option for me. Case in point, we filmed 61 episodes of the original Roswell, and the entire time, there was only one female director (for the last episode). Now, years later, it's exciting to see the industry change. Through my work directing and acting, I'm able to set a positive example for young actors and offer mentorship — it’s very satisfying.
Advice to those looking to break into the biz...
These days, people are looking for the whole package. If I was starting out now, I’d focus on developing my voice, writing, and putting it on IG or YouTube. Auditioning is not what it used to be. Casting is happening on Instagram and Twitter now. There are so many ways to market yourself with social media. Use it to your advantage!
On managing working, filming, traveling, and being a mom...
This summer, I chose not to put my kids in camp, and have focused on giving them my complete attention. In my line of work, we have long periods off and long stretches on. Therefore, when I have the opportunity to be fully invested in them, I take advantage of it. I’m "that mom." You know, the one that's always in the classroom, going on field trips, and down on the floor doing arts and crafts for hours. I want my kids to know that I enjoy my work, and it means a lot to me, but they mean the most to me.
On the flip side, when I’m working, I’m 100% invested in work. I never try to do both at the same time. I find it’s frustrating for everyone and neither gets done well.
This Fall, when the kids go back to school, I go on the road to New Mexico to direct Roswell for three weeks. Following that, I’m on set all of November and February. As of late, I've become pickier about the projects I take on and the time I'm away. I can’t be gone for six months of the year because I value being a mother and a wife.
Before I began meditating, I'd spend my whole day engaged with either work or my kids. Come bedtime, I was utterly depleted until I discovered meditation. Through my practice, I've learned to recharge. I do this when I wake up in the AM, or I let the kids watch TV for a few minutes while I meditate in my bedroom. Making this a priority has massively changed my life for the better.
And, day to day, THIS is how she gets it done...
During the school year, I try to wake up before my kids, have coffee and journal for a bit — although my daughter is an early bird too, so this doesn’t always happen! Once everyone's up, it’s a hustle out the door for school. Then I work out or go for a hike, followed by a couple hours of emails, pitches, and writing before I pick up my son from school. We have lunch together, and then he comes with me to pick up his sister. If I have a meeting in between, I'll duck out and have the nanny fill in, then jump right back into the schedule afterward. Evenings consist of play, dinner, bed, bath, and all the things.