You get so used to running into actors, directors, producers and casting directors in L.A. That takes a little getting used to.
Chris Messina entered the cultural conversation in 2005 with the final season of HBO’s Six Feet Under and drew further notice in 2007 when Variety listed him as one of “Ten Actors to Watch.” He has come a long way since. Messina began his career on the stage, having appeared on Broadway with Al Pacino and Marisa Tomei in Oscar Wilde’s Salome. He also starred opposite Frances McDormand under the direction of Stephen Daldry in New York Theatre Workshop’s production of Caryl Churchill’s Far Away. In film, his recent credits include Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia, Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg and Sam Mendes’ Away We Go. You might also recognize him from the TV show Damages in which he filled the shoes of a former U.S. soldier struggling with post traumatic stress disorder.
Messina is having another great year and we’re only a month into 2012. In Matt Ross’ first feature film 28, which premiered in the Next category at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Messina plays a corporate accountant who finds himself in bed with a novelist (Marin Ireland) while traveling for work in a city far from home. Although she’s married and he happens to be seeing someone, their intense attraction turns a one-night stand into an unexpected relationship and a respite from the obligations of daily life. Through a series of shared moments—some profound, some silly, some intensely intimate—we see a portrait of an evolving relationship that could become the most significant one of their lives. The film adeptly illustrates how seemingly inconsequential moments and actions can often mean more than we suspect.
Anthem sat down with Messina at the Festival CO-OP for a conversation.
Are you a New Yorker?
Chris Messina: I’m from there, but I’m living in Los Angeles right now. I lived in Cobble Hill for a while in New York, but I’ve been in L.A. for the last 6 years or so.
I’m assuming you moved to facilitate your acting career. It’s more convenient for you.
CM: It is. When I first moved to L.A., I slept on some friends’ couches and tried to get a job. I auditioned for a bunch of stuff, but didn’t get it. On my way back to New York, actually at the airport, I got a call and they offered me Six Feet Under. So I ended up staying and did the last season of that. But that was an accumulation of having done a lot of plays in New York, a breakup I was going through with an ex, and having wanted to be in movies and on television. I also needed some time away from New York. I started getting more and more film offers because I was in L.A., so I stayed.
From a working actor’s perspective, how different is the film culture in New York compared to Los Angeles?
CM: That’s a good question. In New York, it’s a lot easier to see some of the movies that I love right away. L.A., for some reason, gets smaller arthouse movies slower than New York. The release dates are different.
Why do you think that is?
CM: I really don’t know. There are a few theaters in L.A. that support arthouse movies. Some of them have closed down like the Sunset 5, but that might become a Sundance theater, which would be really cool.
There’s a Laemmle in Santa Monica.
CM: Yeah, there’s a Laemmle there. There’s the Aero Theatre, which plays old movies. It’s a really nice theater. The Arclight is always cool, but they play the big, hip movies. There are just too many places with stadium seating. Transformers, you know? [laughs] I like going to the IFC Center in New York. I like the Sunshine. The Angelika is cool if you want to hear the trains pass while you’re watching a movie. [laughs]
There’s obviously a gigantic love for film in both L.A. and NY. LA is, as you know, a world in which you can’t walk down the street without seeing a gigantic poster of whatever they’re selling. Around awards season, you can’t help but see the lines, the carpets, the photographers and the parties. It’s harder to get away from that stuff like that in L.A. simply because that’s the business of the industry. I was in NY more as a theater actor. There are a lot of little pockets of artists that are getting together and reading plays, screenplays and creating. I know it happens in L.A. too, but you’re so spread out there that you don’t know what anyone’s doing except when you pass them in your car. You get so used to running into actors, directors, producers and casting directors in L.A. That takes a little getting used to. If you hang out at the right places, you don’t see it as much. If you want to see it, you easily can.
Ryan Hooks: Koreatown.
CM: Yeah! Go to Koreatown and stay away from the Golden Globe news.
But there must be so many benefits too, especially for an actor, being consumed by the industry 24/7 as taxing as that might be.
You’re right. There’s a part of that that’s really cool. You’re encapsulated by what you love. You can be at a bookstore and run into a director you admire. I remember going to this Italian restaurant in Santa Monica and Steven Spielberg was sitting at the other table. We were literally back-to-back. You think about all the things that you might have said to him, but didn’t. It’s exciting to be in it. It’s also completely frustrating at times like you said and you have to get out. My family still lives in New York so I have a lot of excuses to leave when I need to. I’m on the TV show Damages so I go back and forth constantly. And when New York is bothering me enough, I go back to my girlfriend and two kids in L.A. I’m lucky because I have a nice balance of both.
Did you study acting formally?
CM: I had a great theater teacher in high school and we did a lot of improv. He would bring in guys from the football team because it was cool to be an actor in my high school. We’d do these improvs about sex, drugs and rock and roll. It was a super progressive high school. I went to Marymount Manhattan College for one semester and dropped out. I went back home to Long Island and wanted to be Jack Kerouac for a while after that. We bought a Volkswagen van. [laughs] We were going to go cross country, but by the time the money was saved up, I realized I wanted to become an actor. I went back to Manhattan at that point and got a studio apartment with two other guys down in South Street Seaport. It felt like a lab experiment. We put up these walls that divided us, but you could hear everything that everybody was doing. I took acting classes all over the city and just made my own program. I found different teachers with different styles. I went to see every play that I could and just tried to learn as much as I can. It was an amazing time. At the time, all these kids from Julliard, NYU and Tale were beating me out of roles. They were so well-trained and talented. I tracked down some of their teachers to work with them privately.
I caught Monogamy at the Tribeca Film Festival and that’s the first time I saw your work. You and Rashida Jones are great in that one.
CM: Oh wow. Thank you.
You two reunited for Celeste & Jesse Forever, which is also at Sundance this year. How did this collaborative partnership come about?
CM: My girlfriend and Rashida went to school together and grew up together. When Monogamy was happening, they were considering different girls and the director, Dana Shapiro, had mentioned Rashida. He asked me what I thought about her and I of course loved her. I have this relationship with her where she comes over and plays with my children. So I didn’t know how the relationship we already have would inform the movie. It could be good or it could be bad. But the more I thought about it, I thought it could be really interesting. This is a couple that are friends, but sexually, they have stopped. They’re never intimate and very cut off from one another, so I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about making out with her or roll around with her. Although she’s a beautiful and intelligent woman, being my girlfriend’s friend, I just thought it could complicate things. [laughs] Rashida really loved the script. I think it was at a time in her life where she was doing too many comedies and she wanted to do some real acting. Not that comedies don’t involve real acting, but just exploring deeper stuff. I thought she was phenomenal in it and that’s how we began our creative relationship. My girlfriend, Jennifer Todd, produced Celeste & Jesse Forever and they wrote a part for me to do. Rashida and I did readings of that screenplay at my house and it’s our second movie together. Have you seen that one yet?
Unfortunately not. I had some schedule conflicts yesterday.
CM: You should check it out. Rashida’s so good in it. She’s a great actress. Nobody saw Monogamy, but they’ll see this one. I think she’s superb in both of them.
She has amazing range. You watch her in something like Monogamy and then Parks & Recreation, and it all works.
CM: She’s so funny and real. She’s so truthful sometimes that it’s funny.
What can you tell us about 28 Hotel Rooms? Did they just recently change the title to 28?
Yeah, they did. It’s directed by my good friend Matt Ross. 28 was really born out of wanting to work a specific way. On Monogamy and some of the other films that I’ve done where I was allowed to improvise, I really enjoyed the process. Woody Allen let me improvise on Vicky Cristina Barcelona. His only direction to me was to do it again, but in your own words. I fell in love with that way of working because it made me feel like I wasn’t shooting a movie and I could begin to get lost in it. A lot of the time, directors don’t want you to improvise at all, and even if they do, they usually go back to the script on the day of the shoot because of time constraints and the fear that the improv might not be going in the direction they had previously thought. I wanted to be a part of a movie that lets you improvise with no end in sight. If they were filming us talking to each other right now, no matter what we did here, it would be in the movie. If I decided to throw my apple at you and storm off, we might try other takes where I didn’t do that, but there wouldn’t be a wrong in that. Maybe there would be another part of that scene where you get really mad at me and leave. So that was interesting to me. It was a great experience. Did you see it yet?
I’m seeing it tomorrow.
CM: I’d be curious for you to see it. If you liked Monogamy, I think you’ll like this. This is a very different movie, but it’s almost as if the relationship part of Monogamy is the entire movie. There’s no twisted, crazy plot. It’s just really intimately following this couple. It’s not for everyone, but I love it.
Matt is an actor-turned-director, right?
Yeah, but I think he’ll always do both.
Do you think that’s why he was so open to the idea of going all the way with the improv with the actors?
100%. Actor/directors are awesome because they know the pain of being an actor. [laughs] They know the language better, mostly, than any other director. He’s such a good actor and understands it so well. He was able to groove with what we were doing. We talked about all the greats like Mike Leigh and John Cassavetes. We tried to emulate their methods and also came up with a version that worked for us. We wanted to create an environment that would support this type of work, which is really hard to do. You need a good producer on board and we had a great producer, Lynette Howell, who worked on Blue Valentine and Half Nelson. You need a crew that understands what you’re trying to pull off. Oh, that’s my girlfriend over there. She just walked in.
Jennifer Todd: How’s everything going?
CM: We already talked about how I made out with Rashida in Monogamy. [laughs]
JT: All I do is watch him make out in movies. It’s awesome.
CM: [laughs] She’s a great producer and girlfriend. And the mother of my children.
JT: Thank you.
CM: Do you want to say anything else?
JT: No, no. You guys keep going.
CM: She doesn’t like the spotlight on her at all and that’s why we work so well together. Anyways, to make this kind of movie, you need people to support that all around. I’ve tried to make that movie with people who have no idea what was going on and it’s a complete shit show. If you weren’t hip to what we’re doing, you’d think we were all crazy or just fucking around and not taking it seriously. It was quite the opposite. We were trying to dig for something deeper and find the truth. It’s a great way of working if you have the right people. You could edit so many different versions of 28, and Matt did. He kept editing and editing until he found, which I think, is the best version of the film.