The appeal of directing, they say, is partly to flex their muscles behind the camera and partly to use their clout to get unconventional projects into production.
"I loved the screenplay and thought it wasn't going to get made," Clooney said of his "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind." It features Sam Rockwell as game-show host Chuck Barris, who claimed in his fanciful "autobiography" that he doubled as a CIA hit man.
"There was a feeling that if I came on board and directed it for (bottom-scale wages) and got some A-list actors to work for virtually nothing, then we thought they'd make the movie," Clooney said.
Washington's "Antwone Fisher" is based on the true story of a volatile sailor (Derek Luke) struggling to overcome a troubled past. Cage's "Sonny" stars James Franco as a newly discharged soldier reluctantly drawn back into his pre-Army life as a gigolo.
Also opening before year's end is "Love Liza," starring Philip Seymour Hoffman in the directing debut of Todd Louiso, most recently seen as John Cusack's meek record-store clerk in "High Fidelity."
Next year brings directing debuts by John Malkovich with "The Dancer Upstairs," Matt Dillon with "City of Ghosts," Steve Guttenberg with "P.S. Your Cat Is Dead" and Salma Hayek with the cable-TV movie "The Maldonado Miracle."
Even in the early days of film, performers such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton moved into directing to control their material better.
Some actors have directed with mundane results, including John Wayne ("The Alamo," "The Green Berets"), Jack Nicholson ("Goin' South," "The Two Jakes") and Sally Field ("Beautiful").
Yet many have succeeded brilliantly. Robert Redford ("Ordinary People"), Clint Eastwood ("Unforgiven"), Kevin Costner ("Dances With Wolves") and Mel Gibson ("Braveheart") won best-director Academy Awards. Others were nominated, including Warren Beatty for "Reds" and "Heaven Can Wait," Tim Robbins for "Dead Man Walking" and Kenneth Branagh for "Henry V."
"Actors tend to make the transition to directing fairly well, probably because they can communicate well with other actors," said Cage, who had hoped to star in "Sonny" in the 1980s but was unable to get the picture made. He sought out the script again years later when he decided to direct.
"I did feel the one thing I could count on was that I would be able to have respect for the actors and give them an environment where they would feel free to try different things."
"Sonny" was shot on a small, $5 million budget, while "Antwone Fisher" cost a modest $13 million, making them fairly slim gambles for investors.
With a $29 million budget, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" is riskier. But a big-name cast, including Clooney, Julia Roberts and Drew Barrymore, should help its box-office prospects, Clooney said.
Cage said he would have preferred staying completely behind the camera, but he agreed to a small role in "Sonny" to boost its commercial appeal.
Washington has a substantial part in "Antwone Fisher" as the Navy psychiatrist in San Diego who helps the title character work through the trauma of his hard-luck childhood in Cleveland.
"The one thing I made sure of was to not be in the picture the first three or four weeks," Washington said. "So we shot everything in Cleveland first, and I wasn't in any of that, so I could get some kind of rhythm and sense of what it is I have to do."
The crew finished in Cleveland on a Friday, flew to San Diego over the weekend and started shooting there on Monday, "six days straight, and it was all scenes in the psychiatrist's office. By the end of that week, I was ready to give up," Washington joked.
"I went, `I want my mommy, I want to go home. I don't want to direct.' It's hard to be focused on the big picture as director, then suddenly have to step into a scene."
Cage, Clooney and Washington all say they're interested in directing again if the right projects come along. Through their production companies, Cage and Clooney also have nurtured other filmmakers' projects - Cage with "Shadow of the Vampire," Clooney and producing partner Steven Soderbergh with "Insomnia" and "Far From Heaven."
They view it as playing godfather to difficult projects that might not get made if not for their Hollywood clout.
"You look at it as protecting those films and filmmakers," Clooney said. "If you get to a place where you can use your power for good, why not do that? They take it away from you anyway eventually - whatever power you have is going to go away. But why not be able to say, `You know, there was about nine years there where we really pushed the envelope and got some interesting stuff made'?"
By David Germain