By Lori DeWaal
Special to the Observer 

After a career helping actors fulfill their dreams, Michelle Danner has also found ways to fulfill her own

Despite her "Bad Impulse" Michelle Danner Transitions From Acting Coach to Film Director

 

October 20, 2019

Michelle Danner producing with director Brian Drillinger

The craft of acting is as alluring as it is mysterious, and it takes a being of great passion, insight, and determination in order to succeed. But to teach acting – to inspire creative souls to successfully harvest those tools – requires an even greater commitment, to bring out the best in each and every actor one encounters.

That passion and commitment are the hallmarks of the career of filmmaker, acting coach, and performer Michelle Danner, for decades one of the industry's most respected and successful teachers, and now a successful director who continues to grow and expand her creative universe, hoping to set an example for her students and peers. "The important thing is to keep growing as an artist, to keep raising the bar for yourself," explains Danner. "In order to be passionate, you have to keep expanding, you have to keep growing, you have to keep pushing yourself."

For Danner in 2019, that means anticipating the release of the supernatural thriller "Bad Impulse," while prepping her next feature, "The Runner," scheduled to start shooting at the end of the year. That's in addition to running her weekly acting class, keeping watch over the conservatory programs at the Los Angeles Acting School (which she co-founded), prepping a new one-person play at the Edgemar Center for the Arts, or cheering on her two high-school aged sons as they pursue their own passions.


Danner observes that for her, making the transition from longtime acting coach (she's beginning her third decade) to film director was "a natural progression of wanting to raise the bar in new work, and working with actors in a way that is very collaborative and in-depth."

Danner's ambition was fueled by a childhood spent at the elbow of her father, a producer and show business professional who opened up the first William Morris Agency office in Paris. With family friends like Marlene Dietrich and Sammy Davis, Jr. stopping by her home for dinner, Danner appreciated from an early age what a privilege it was to have access to such high-profile talent, while also developing a deep respect for the hard work it takes to maintain a career as a performer. "I was allowed to go backstage everywhere, iconic venues, and to meet stars up close from Julio Iglesias to Count Basie to the Harlem Globetrotters," she remembers. "I continued that with my two boys – whenever I worked on a film, they'd come on the set with me, it was important I showed them the real value of that kind of work."


Danner was also among the lucky few to study with some of the great icons of the era of great acting gurus, moving to New York as a teen and getting into classes with Stella Adler, Uta Hagen, Herbert Bergdorf, William Esper, and many others. "I always took copious notes in class, devoured that knowledge, and was passionate about what made a good performance." Despite learning from some of the giants in her field, Danner's own approach as an acting teacher is far more eclectic: she helps her students develop a "Golden Box" of techniques drawn from multiple acting traditions and approaches. "I never believed in dogma, though I sat through years of Stella," she says. "The Golden Box is an amalgamation, a toolbox of not just technical tools about being on set, but also work-life tools that can help you off-screen as well." Her flexible approach often has her students (from A-list stars to recent arrivals) often returning to Danner's class for refresher courses between jobs. "It's like they enjoy the workout."

Such longstanding relationships with actors and other industry professionals paid off when Danner turned to directing in 2006, when she made the romantic comedy "How to Go Out on a Date in Queens" with Jason Alexander. In 2012, she cast Norman Reedus in the drama "Hello Herman," about the aftermath of a school shooting. She's also helmed the comedy "The Bandit Hound" and the short documentary "Sigueme." "Bad Impulse," just completed and scheduled for distribution in 2020, is a suspense thriller about a family that takes drastic measures to protect themselves after a traumatic event, starring Sonya Walger, Grant Bowler, and Paul Sorvino.

With the upcoming "The Runner," Danner was moved by a report she saw on the fate of a young high school student who agreed to go undercover for the police to expose a drug ring. "I wrote a three-page treatment, then sent it to Jason Chase Tyrell, who had written 'Bad Impulse,'" Danner says. "I'm very attracted to socially relevant stories, and see this as a way to tell a story about what happens with some of these kids who fall through the cracks."

Danner has also been prepping to direct actress Anne Archer in a one-woman show based on "A Ticket to the Circus," the memoir by Norris Church Mailer about her decades-long marriage to writer Norman Mailer. But she's also finding time to make sure that her two sons are fully supported: "I'm very hands-on as a mom," she says, admitting to offering her older son advice on filmmaking as he looks to develop a career in the field (and is happy to brag about her son's achievements so far getting his work seen at national high school film festivals.) "I look forward to nurturing him and helping him tell his stories," she enthuses.

"And as long as I can find stories to tell and that I'm excited about, I'll continue to do so. It's great to be in a place where I can be so passionate about theatre, and film, and teaching – to be creative on all fronts, and still looking forward to being there for my children."

Behind the scenes of Bad Impulse with Sonya Walger and Sandra Valde Hansen

 

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