I think Matt [Ross] and Chris [Messina] had a real allergy against making this super charming and quirky indie female character.
Matt Ross is the writer and director of 28 Hotel Rooms, which injects vitality into the tried and true secret tryst genre. A former actor known primarily for his roles in American Psycho and The Last Days of Disco, Ross has created an intimate portrait of an affair that spans many years—through the couple’s occasional decline into disrepair, career disappointments, personal triumphs and marriages. Chris Messina (Damages) and Marin Ireland (Homeland) play the unnamed pair at the center of this, at times, devastating look into the hidden lives of others. To their shared surprise, they’re able to find a tangible and heartfelt connection, but when tactical fighting words are exchanged and things begin to fall apart, their bond doesn’t come free of malicious damage from brambles and thorns.
28 Hotel Rooms benefits from its deceptively simple conceit in which the camera focuses on a series of hotel room numbers to signify the couple’s progression of stolen nights together. Easing the displeasing effects of watching two unfaithful lovers falling in love, the film is anchored by strong, charismatic performances from its two leads. Today’s culture, muddled as it is with the various and persistent strains of positive-thinking philosophy, allows little room for detestable actions such as betrayal and dishonesty, which are all too often frowned upon. Although those who express it are frequently met with rejection, social isolation and even contempt themselves, as it transpires, what are we to do when it’s a fact of life? This is a truthful film with authentically-rendered characters.
28 Hotel Rooms is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. It’s also available on all VOC and cable platforms.
Are you from New York originally?
I actually grew up in Southern California between L.A. and Santa Barbara, so not really L.A. proper. California is so spread out, you know what I mean? Sometimes people ask me why I didn’t stay in L.A., but I was never in L.A. I was like an hour away from there.
Where did you study?
I went to college in Hartford, Connecticut for a conservatory theater program. I was attending an art-based boarding school in Idyllwild, California before that. I had never been to Hartford prior to enrolling in the school. I was only a couple hours away from New York City, so I would take the buses and shuttles over and just fell in love with this place. How could I not? I was constantly checking out plays and knew I wanted to live here. I had some friends who were living in the city by that time too, so it was an exciting place. I felt more at home in New York than the times I’ve visited L.A. It’s always a struggle though; agents are always trying to get you to move out there.
What has changed in the industry that makes it more bicoastal nowadays?
I think it’s partially because of the cable networks. Pilot season isn’t as hard anymore because there used to be a very specific period of time when that happens. It’s more fluid now. There are a lot of TV shows that are casting out of New York these days. The movie business seems different now as well.
You’ve done a massive amount of theater work. Do you prefer it over film and TV?
Not at all! When I do plays, I wish I was doing a movie and vice versa. They’re very complimentary to me. At the same time, they’re so different. There are similarities there, but the experiences of doing them are exact opposites. There’s something I love about doing a play and going through a story in its entirety every time, uninterrupted. It’s extraordinary.
It must be thrilling to get immediate feedback from an audience.
Exactly! You do it for two or three hours and you kind of leave it alone. There’s also something amazing about doing TV where you spend four hours shooting two pages and then you’re done with it forever.
Since Matt [Ross] is an actor as well, he understands that language. What kind of collaborative environment did he create for you and Chris [Messina]?
Totally. Matt went to Julliard and had been acting for a long time. I met Chris when we were in a play together in New York ten years ago. It was a play with only three actors: Chris, Frances McDormand and myself. That was the last time we worked together before doing 28 Hotel Rooms. He moved out to L.A. so we hadn’t been in touch that much when he called me with this offer. I was doing a play at the time and Matt came to check it out. Most importantly, the actress who would play this role had to be open to improvising with Chris. It just felt like Chris and I went way back. Once I was brought on, we had two weeks of rehearsals. During the shoot, we worked with what was on the page, but for almost every scene, we sort of riffed on it too. A lot of the scenes that made it into the movie happened spontaneously and that’s how they always wanted to work. We got some of the best stuff impulsively. We got the scene with the fireworks because it just so happened to be the Fourth of July, for instance.
That was shot beautifully.
It’s incredible, right? There’s another scene where we’re up on the roof and Chris is jumping around naked. He screams down to some people on the street, “How’s it going down there? Is your life turning out just the way you thought it would!”
That’s one of my favorite lines in the movie because it’s such a sincere and heartbreaking question to ask anyone.
It always breaks my heart. When he says that, it cuts more deeply than a lot of the other stuff he says because it’s so sincere. We had wrapped for the day and decided to go up to the roof because the balcony was so beautiful. We had spent so much time working together at a certain point that Matt would just tell us to go to the window and fight. [Laughs] That’s all he would say. It helped that we rehearsed for such a long time because we got to know these characters so well. We worked so comfortably with each other on this movie. It’s hard for me to imagine what it would’ve been like if two actors were cast who hadn’t had some kind of a history together already, especially when you’re shooting scenes where you have to roll around with no clothes on. That’s scary to imagine.
I think a lot of actors would be absolutely terrified to take something like this. If a director told some actor to go to a corner and fight with no other direction, they would be like “What the fuck?”
[Laughs] Normally, I would be too! When you’re given a project that’s so much about the improvisation, there’s so much added pressure to be funny or deliver something really special. I think because there was that comfort level between us going into it, not to mention Matt being an actor himself, he understood how it might be challenging for us with the improvisation. He would tell us not to worry about it and just go with it. Chris is incredible with this stuff too. He’s like a fountain of imagination. He never seemed daunted by anything and always excited to do it.
It’s funny to me that you guys spent so much time in hotel rooms because that’s what an actor’s life is.
The funny thing is that I was also shooting the miniseries Mildred Pierce at the time, so there was a lot of flying back and forth between New York and L.A. We shot most of 28 Hotel Rooms in L.A. and did some pickup shots in New York. I didn’t have a place to stay in L.A., so I asked the producers of 28 Hotel Rooms, “We’re going to have that room for the rest of the night, right? After we’re done shooting, can I just stay in there?” They basically thought, “Why not?” We would book two or three rooms per hotel, so whichever one wrapped first, I would just say “Bye!” and crash for the night. [Laughs] It was kind of amazing.
What was Matt looking for with the different hotels? Did it always come down to the aesthetics?
He was basically trying to find enough places that could pass for a lot of different places because we were mostly in L.A. shooting this. He also wanted to have enough variation to show where each of them are in their respective careers. We shot in a couple crummier ones and the more boutique-y ones. There were a few that looked like a giant corporate hotel like a Marriott. There’s one where you can see the backdrop of an airport out the window, which made it look like we were in Chicago because you see so much sky and it feels cold. There’s one where it looks like we’re in Florida because there are boats outside on the marina. He wanted enough variation where you don’t really know where we are at any given time and you can tell how much the characters are spending on rooms at various points in their careers.
What was your approach to making your character likeable and charismatic against the odds set against you? They’re both unfaithful.
For me at least, it wasn’t about making her likable at all. I think Matt and Chris had a real allergy against making this super charming and quirky indie female character. Matt really wanted my character to be a working professional who’s maybe emotionally unavailable to her partner. She’s the one with a lot of hidden secrets. She doesn’t really want to talk about things at all. Matt was trying to find the flipside to the cute and fun girl you see in a lot of indie movies. I thought, “If people don’t like her that much, I don’t really mind as long as it doesn’t make them want to stop watching the movie.” It was actually kind of nice that he decided to go in a different direction.
No one’s perfect. It’s a character that you play who seems real. Sometimes messed up characters are the most interesting to explore, aren’t they?
I really get behind that. And we also need people out there who will judge them and say, “Why should I care? They’re doing something wrong.” I also like that the movie doesn’t have a definite closure. We were worried for a little while because they ended up editing it in so many different ways and the scenes could come in so many different orders. The final version that I saw, especially with all of the improvised stuff, was a different movie compared to the original idea we started with. We could’ve easily wrapped it up with a happier ending just by shuffling the scenes around.
Are you good about watching yourself onscreen?
I usually can’t watch myself at all, but I had to watch this because of all the nudity. They were like, “You have to watch it because you have to sign off on the nudity. You have to!” I watched it with no sound on this tiny little screen. [Laughs] I didn’t even remember doing some of the stuff that I saw. The DP, Doug [Emmett], had worked with Chris previously on a movie called Monogamy co-starring Rashida Jones.
I’m a big fan of that movie. It feels like such a New York movie to me.
It’s so good. I remember seeing Monogamy and thinking, “Of course, Chris is good, but whoever shot this movie is a genius!” Doug is incredible. There are shots in 28 Hotel Rooms that are so beautiful. I’m not exactly sure how he managed to do it.
There’s a lot of waiting around for actors on set. Do you sort have to go away and then come back or do you like to stick around for the behind-the-scenes process?
Especially on a smaller set, you can’t really find a quiet place to go to. You don’t have an extra room or something where you can hang out by yourself. For me, weirdly, sometimes the quietest place to be is standing in for yourself while they’re working around you. Nobody’s talking to you and there’s this bubble that you can create for yourself. It’s this eye of the storm spot. If you find it, no one will ever bother you. I also like to know what’s going on and hear the discussions. Also, if you leave that area where they’re setting up to shoot, you can run into complete chaos elsewhere.
Do you keep a mental checklist of the kinds of characters you’d like to explore in the future?
Gosh, I’m always envious of actors who have a strong sense of wanting to do this kind of thing or that kind of thing. It’s funny to think about the word “career” because you’re just stringing things together all the time like beads on a necklace. For me, it has always been about finding really good writing. Since I started out in theaer, I think I really respond to text. You often don’t have the luxury to think ahead because you’re taking whatever comes your way. To think that you could have a bigger idea can be a bit strange. But then you see someone like Matt and Chris who decided they wanted to do a movie like this, and made it happen, is inspiring to me. I’ve been lucky because a lot of the roles that I’ve played have been very different and that’s something I most want to do. I want to explore the biggest range of characters.
I love that every actor has such a different answer to this question. Some people want to do a period piece really badly or they want to work with someone like Wes Anderson. Sometimes they have their heart set on doing very specific things.
There are definitely people who excite me, but I think I’m still in that moment where I’m asking, “What’s going to come my way next?” I’m doing a play at Yale in New Haven right now, this Marie Antoinette play. I’ve literally been working on this play, on-and-off, for five years. That’s something I wanted to accomplish for a long time. With the TV and film world, it’s more like, “I wish some cool stuff comes around.” Thinking of it as a career is a little intense, but it’s nice too.
Was there a definitive moment where you realized you wanted to act?
I started doing community theater when I was 12 or 13 years old. My mom found this summer camp and they asked me to come for a year. I went to that boarding school suddenly for acting. I don’t even remember making a decision to become an actress; it just happened and I kept doing it. It wasn’t like I was in L.A. trying to become a child actress. I was just always doing theater. It just kept happening and I asked myself, “What else would I do?” I know this is a disappointing story… Sometimes you hear people say stuff like, “And then I saw this production and it changed my life!” [Laughs] Not for me.