I’m trying to be at least a little bit more particular when it comes to [choosing projects] because time spent is the most important thing, more than money—more than anything.
Jamie M. Dagg’s neo-noir Sweet Virginia opens with an out-of-towner cruising into a sleepy Alaskan town at night, which builds to a sharp burst of brutality: The newcomer strolls into an eatery after hours and shoots three men dead. Elwood (Christopher Abbott) is his name. He pitches up at a nearby motel run by Sam (Jon Bernthal), a former rodeo champion with a gentle bearing, who warms up to the mysterious transplant, finding common ground over their Virginia roots. Biding his time for unknown reasons until now, Elwood meets up with local woman Lila (Imogen Poots), who hired him to take out her cheating husband—only her husband—in the botched triple homicide. In a holding pattern awaiting the money that he’s owed, Lila finds herself in a panic, drowning in her late husband’s unforeseen, mountainous debt and unable to pay her psycho-for-hire. Before long, Lila weighs her own sociopathic options, while putting everyone around her in jeopardy, including her friend Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt), who’s also newly windowed.
Sweet Virginia is another powerful showcase for Abbott, playing a bruised character with a coiled intensity previously conveyed in Josh Mond’s James White (2015) and Wayne Roberts’ Katie Says Goodbye (2016). With Elwood, the enormously gifted actor brings his M.O. to a more outwardly sinister place, totally betraying an otherwise innocent face and his real-life, placid disposition.
Below is this editor’s follow-up with Abbott after our first feature story for a different publication years ago. This much we remember: When he arrived that day in Brooklyn, he comically pushed his floating head into the cracked door first. Quite the private person, his friend Brady Corbet had reassured him to do our photoshoot. Abbott is noticeably thoughtful and precise when he speaks.
Sweet Virginia is in select theaters on November 17.
[Editor’s Note: This is a companion piece to our Q&A with Abbott’s director Jamie M. Dagg.]
It’s always been my impression that you’ve got great taste, choose smart collaborators, and pursue interesting roles. This is maybe a funny thing to say because we can only hope that everyone’s selective about their projects, but you seem particularly so. Is that fair to say?
It’s fair in that I’ll accept what you said. [Laughs] I like to think that I am. But to be honest, I don’t always get it right. Obviously I don’t wanna say which things specifically, but I do try to pick things for the right reasons. Lately I’ve been trying to take a more “If this is something I need to do” approach, rather than “If it’s something I could do.” Often, there are things where I go, “I guess I could do this. I know how to. I could just jump in,” even if it would be great people to work with. Sometimes it’s a “Why not?” attitude, instead of a “Why?” But really, I’ve been trying to maybe not do that as much because I like making movies. I’m trying to be at least a little bit more particular when it comes to that because time spent is the most important thing, more than money—more than anything. And I’m lucky enough to not have overhead, you know? I don’t really have to support anyone other than myself so I’m lucky to have some freedom in that way for now.
Jaime [M. Dagg] told me that you were the first one to sign onto Sweet Virginia. There are obviously many things for you to consider before agreeing to a project, including the other actors in the ensemble, which is clearly the missing puzzle piece in this kind of situation.
How often are you afraid to say “Yes” to something because you might end up changing your mind too late, and how often a “No” because then someone else will undoubtedly take it?
The first half of that—yes. If I say “No” to something, it’s obvious that someone else will do the part so I can’t be jealous of that fact. And if I say “No,” there’s usually a good reason. I mean, the only times I have a little fear of missing out is when I was maybe gonna do something and the scheduling didn’t work out. But for the first half of that, yeah. It is maybe scary sometimes to be the first one to sign on and then see who comes in, but Jamie was nice enough to at least keep me in the loop with a lot of that stuff as he was doing it. As I said before, the time spent is usually the most important thing. It’s definitely about the project, but I also try to keep in mind and know that I’m going to spend five weeks or a few months in a place with this group of people. So that could be a few months of my life. I want to try to make sure that I’m with a nice group of people that I wanna be around and spend that time with. There are a lot of factors that go into it.
And the biggest commitment of all could be a TV show, right?
Yeah. Not that I have a huge thing against TV, but in general, it’s a personality thing for me. Hypothetically, if I’m offered [a TV show] or somebody wants me to do one, it needs to be really, really special, you know? I don’t particularly like the schedule of doing TV shows. Personally, once I do a project and it’s done, I just wanna be done with it. I don’t wanna go back to it.
I understand that the China Brothers script for Sweet Virginia was quite different in its original form. Elwood was once this suave cowboy character. Sam was first written to be a 70-year-old man. Jamie also left some 30 pages of the script on the chopping block during pre-production. Were you happy to see some of that stuff go? How different is the film?
It was quite different. The thing that I really liked about the script initially was that there was a slickness to it. It moved really well. There was some poeticism and all of that. But Jamie essentially wanted to change the setting and the time, which I agreed with doing. If it had been set in the 70s, set in Virginia, and you have a couple of guys called the China Brothers writing it… [Laughs] Let’s be realistic: They wrote a script that is very similar to what would be like an early Coen Brothers movie—not in a bad way—and I already know that [Sweet Virginia] got those comparisons. I think it was just smart to take it out of the 70s, set it in Alaska, and make the world a little bit different that’s thriller/noir. Thriller/noir/Southern Gothic is kind of what it originally was. The point is: The script was great when I first read it, but when you take it out of that time and setting, you get rid of some of the slickness that’s inherent in some of the writing because you have to. There was a coolness to a Southern drawl in the 70s. Once you change it to Alaska, you can’t really have that anymore. So you start getting rid of the slick, kind of cool character, which I was always on board with because I’ve seen it before and I wasn’t too interested in doing it in that way. Me and Jamie were kind of on the same page in how to approach it: in a more real and honest way.
Elwood has definite psychopathic tendencies. It was interesting to hear Jamie say that he thought of him as someone like the Columbine shooters who perhaps got into a lot of trouble in school. What was your take on him? Is it a part of your process to build an extensive backstory, or is it perhaps enough to be comfortable with the psychology that’s driving him?
I like to have enough backstory to fill in the blanks. I don’t necessarily write out a whole history. If there’s a question in the script—”Why does this guy do this?”—me and Jamie will talk about it and maybe come up with a little backstory to fill in that one plot point. I don’t need to know what this character did for the first 14 years of his life. I don’t need to go that deep with it, but just little things to hang onto. I was already interested in psychology and mental health so, incidentally, I wound up doing some research over the years without knowing it. I took a lot of things from Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, which is a book that I read years ago. I had remembered some segments of that book, which I used for this character because he had psychopathic tendencies and all of that. Sometimes in life you’re doing research and you don’t even know that you are.
If you shoot on location in a small town, like you did in British Columbia, away from huge film centers like L.A. or NY, is it that much easier for you to get lost in the experience?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, especially if the film is supposed to be set in a place like that. Then I definitely prefer to be in that kind of place. I think it’s better for the work because, when you’re off in a place like that as a cast and crew, making the movie kind of becomes the most important thing of the day. Whereas when everyone’s living at home, whether that’s in New York or Los Angeles or whatever, your personal lives are so nearby that maybe one’s priorities can get shifted around.
It looks like you recently shot in the Catskills for Sebastian Silva’s Tyrel, as you did on Martha Marcy May Marlene. You also have a film coming up called Piercing by Nicolas Pesce. You put a lot of emphasis on working with a certain brand of filmmaker. Do you think working with the Borderline guys early in your career sort of laid the foundation for that?
Absolutely. I can give myself some credit because I do like to choose good things, but also, to be honest, a lot of this stuff happened really, really naturally. Like with Sebastian Silva, I was friends with him before we made Tyrel. Antonio Campos is obviously part of Borderline and his wife, Sofia Subercaseaux, is Sebastian’s editor. So we’ve all known each other and hung out. Then I met Nicolas Pesce because he had started to do some preliminary editing stuff for James White kind of on the side before Matt Hannam took the reins. It all happened naturally. I’ve been lucky enough to make nice friends and, in turn, establish a nice little film community here in New York.
I checked out your DP/30 interview from a couple years ago. When you were asked about writing and directing features, you said something cool, which is that it feels really nice to just focus on acting as a craft and build and explore it fully. Do you still feel that way?
Yeah, I kinda still do. I feel like you can make the job feel as expansive as you want, you know? For me, there are still a lot of types of things that I want to tackle as an actor. I feel that I still have that nice little spark of naïveté from when I first started acting. So until that starts to, not burn away completely but—I just want to keep feeding that aspect. Down the road, if anything, maybe I’ll want to direct. I’m almost 100 percent sure that I don’t have the personality to sit down and write. I’m not one who can just sit still for hours, physically, literally. If we talk again in a couple of years, we’ll see if that’s changed. But for now, just directing maybe.
Was there a moment in time when you suddenly felt confident about your acting abilities, enough to know that it’s something worth pursuing for as long and as far as you can take it?
I think it was while I was going to school in New York at HB Studio. Not to be cheesy, but it was kind of magical in some ways. Again, the whole world of it was pretty new to me then. Acting was still new to me. I just remember feeling a huge sense of relief to be like, “Oh, now I kind of know what I’m gonna do with my life.” Up until I was about 20 or 21, I wasn’t sure at all.
Just going a little deeper into your process, when you’re working in a really intimate way with one actor, as you did with Jon [Bernthal] on Sweet Virginia and Cynthia Nixon on James White, what’s your approach? Do you like to sort of mindmeld and put everything on the table or do the work privately to maybe throw curveballs and find unexpected angles into it?
Not to give you an easy answer, but a blend of both of those things. Jon is of course one of those actors that you can just trust. He’s so damn good that you know he’s gonna show up and play tennis with you no matter what. The thing is, with me and Jon, even if you’re doing a very emotional or serious scene, there’s still a part of you that’s like, “But I’m having fun.” Jon has that kind of quality. I remember the first scene that we shot when I got there, and I got there a little bit after they already started shooting. It was the diner scene and it was quite a lengthy take that’s now edited to what it is in the film. It was perfect because we kind of just got to sit in the booth and start playing right away. After the first take, it was like, “That was fun.” [Laughs] And everyone kind of agreed. I didn’t want to stop doing it just because Jon kept doing different things, I kept doing different things, and it stayed alive. I always cherish those moments that I get to have with actors like Jon, and with Cynthia, too. I’ve had other experiences like that. Jon’s just one of those guys. I feel a strong kinship with him and now I’m very happy and glad to know him.
It would’ve been such a different experience for you, too, if Jamie had decided, “Yes, I do want to cast a 70-year-old actor to play opposite Christopher’s original cowboy character.”
I know. It kind of worked out. I think things always do in a way because, whenever you make the movie and you end up with the cast you end up with and all of that stuff, everyone says, “It worked out the way it should’ve.” But this one really felt like that. The fact that Jon was doing it made so many more things come to life for me—for my character. I had this whole thing where Elwood basically despised humans, except for Jon’s character. So that’s a strange romance almost. Between them, or at least from Elwood to Sam, for whatever reason, he likes the guy. You can put on whatever layers you want as to why, but for me, one of them could be because Elwood is also probably a narcissist. Sam kind of looks like him, so maybe even that’s the reason why he likes Sam. [Laughs] Jon doing it brought a lot of things to light for the film, and selfishly, to me, also.
There’s a lot going on in our news cycle right now about bullying, sexual abuse, and misconduct. Even Jon weighed in recently, saying that he was extremely bothered by Kevin Spacey’s behavior on the set of Baby Driver. From your experience, is the abuse rampant?
Yeah, I think it is. I don’t think any of these people are lying. It’s such a sensitive topic and one has to be extremely brave to even come out and say anything. I don’t think there’s anything at all self-serving in coming out and speaking out against it. I think it’s extremely important to talk about. It’s about time that all of this stuff is coming to light because it does seem like quite a number of years have gone by where some people were just getting away with it. It’s not right at all, straight up. What I can say is that I do know people can definitely use their positions of power to intimidate others, whether that’s through the prism of sexuality or just in a general sense for the sake of being manipulative. I’ve seen that. It’s of course a real thing. It’s not right and there should be a common respect. The good thing about all of this now is that, if anyone in the future was going to be so inclined to do something similar, I think now they’ll start to at least have second thoughts about it.