Justin Baldoni Reveals Why 'Jane the Virgin' Directing Debut Is a Career Highlight (Exclusive)

Courtesy of Justin Baldoni

The 34-year-old actor talks to ET about stepping behind the camera for Friday's big episode.

Justin Baldoni makes his Jane the Virgin directing debut on tonight's poignant episode, which charts Xiomara's health diagnosis and how the family navigates through it. 

Though it'll mark his first time stepping behind the camera on The CW dramedy, Baldoni is no stranger to directing. Before Jane the Virgin came his way more than four years ago, the 34-year-old filmmaker was in the middle of transitioning from actor to full-time director, keeping busy behind the scenes with documentaries, music videos and commercials.

"That was really my passion," Baldoni says of his mindset then. "It took me the first year [of Jane] to get out of my head as a director and to just act." 

It was the end of Jane's freshman season that Baldoni expressed interest to showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman that he would like to direct a future episode. They decided season four would be the perfect time for him to do so. Life and babies, though, played a small part in the long wait; Baldoni revealed he was originally slated to direct the season's third episode, but production aligned too closely to his wife's due date for their second child. Still, it was kismet that the episode he was given marks a pivotal point in the Jane the Virgin story. "It was such an honor to be able to do this one," Baldoni says.

ET spoke with Baldoni ahead of his Jane the Virgin directorial debut about his experience, about what he learned from Gina Rodriguez's directing stint and if he's itching to step back behind the camera in a potential season five.

ET: You've already established a short-hand with the cast because you've been working together for so long. Was that a gift?

Justin Baldoni: Yeah, but I also think that was something that gave me a little anxiety. I respect my castmates so much and I never want to let them down. It's one thing acting opposite somebody, it's another thing when that person then shifts into the director and is asking you to make certain choices as an actor. I just wanted to be super respectful of them and also, I wanted them proud and to make them feel safe and comfortable. I was asking them to give a lot in this particular episode, especially Andrea [Navedo]. I was actually nervous about that, to be really honest, but that nervousness comes from an adoration and a respect for these people who I love, who I call family, who are just so brilliant. I wanted them to feel like they were in good hands and I hope at the end of the day, that they did.

Gina Rodriguez made her directorial debut on an episode that aired in February. What did you learn from her time leading the show behind the camera?

I'm really happy that I went second. Even though Gina has never technically directed an episode of television before, she was so good and such a brilliant director that I actually learned a lot from watching Gina. We can all learn from each other if we're open to it, but she really handled herself in an amazing way. This is a girl who was in almost every scene -- I wasn't in every scene in my episode -- and getting a chance to watch how confident and strong she was and comfortable she was directing herself, it helped me. I definitely think that watching her direct herself eased a few of my fears about directing myself.

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How did you handle directing yourself because that can be a strange experience?

Interestingly enough, I was really comfortable directing myself because, I think if I'm really honest about it, it was because I wanted to get it over with as fast as possible. (Laughs.) It's like, "We're going to shoot me, do it really quick and we'll get on to the next person and we'll spend a lot of time with them!" I have a tendency to pay the least amount of attention to myself and unfortunately, that's something I need to work on as a human being and in my relationships and also, probably an actor who directs himself. If there's one big experience I learned, it would have been to spend a little more time on myself. That comes from a lot of places that I'm sure therapy will uncover over God knows how many years. There were times when I'd use [my scenes] to catch up if I was behind, which is again, not the way to do it, but that was my sacrifice. If I could do it all over again, I wouldn't do that.

When did you know you were hitting the right notes, since Jane the Virgin is such a unique show tonally?

It's tricky, but the writing is so good. As a director, the script is the road map and the script informed where we were at what time. That was one of the nice things -- knowing that when we're in the drama and when we're in the diagnosis story, it's being approached and shot in a way that we're giving that particular storyline the energy and time and the visual cues it deserves. And when we're in the comedy, the part of the storyline that helps us feel better about everything and helps us laugh a little bit and relieve some of that pressure and some of the pain we're experiencing for Xo and the family, then we're able to go there freely and play. The beauty of comedy and drama is they're the same, they're just extremes of each other.

What's Justin the director like versus Justin the actor?

That's an interesting question. That's probably more of a question for my co-stars than me. I would say -- taking an objective view -- Justin the actor is much more quiet and there to serve the story and support his co-stars. Justin the director is really in control of the set, so I'm doing everything I can to make sure that the set has the energy and the feeling of safety that I want it to have so the best work can happen. They're two very different personalities, but at the same time, it's coming from the same place which is service and love. As a director, I want everybody on the set to feel good and to feel happy and to feel loved and welcomed. I believe that's the most conducive environment for art to be creative.

Gina alluded to the fact that season five could be the end of Jane the Virgin. If that's the case, would you like to return to direct another episode on the show?

Yeah, I'd love to direct one or two episodes next year if there's time and if there's room, and if they'll have me back. But at the same time, I'm also happy with my existing job. I'm about to go shoot my first film [a big-screen romantic drama, Five Feet Apart, starring Riverdale's Cole Sprouse], so I know I'll be creatively fulfilled regardless.

Jane the Virgin airs Fridays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on The CW.