Chris Messina: Hollywood's Busiest Man and His Existential Questions
A star of network TV ("The Mindy Project") and Oscar-nominated films ("Argo"), the New York native reflects on the crises faced by even the biggest stars.
In this world of abundant entertainment, genre-tailored and delivered across fractured lines, Chris Messina's is the face you have undoubtedly seen in the past 12 months, 2012's version of "that guy."
Like the studio Oscar contenders? He was a co-star in Ben Affleck's Argo. Watch any indie romance films? Try Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg's Celeste and Jesse Forever, Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan's Ruby Sparks or Jenna Fischer's Giant Mechanical Man. He has a star role in a network comedy -- he's Mindy Kaling's cocky, divorcee co-doctor on The Mindy Project -- and is on cable, too, with a recurring role in HBO's The Newsroom. He also just finished the run of DirecTV's Damages.
At 37, Messina has broken out to become one of the busiest working actors in the industry, and 2013 will see him add a new credit to his name: writer and executive producer.
Messina co-stars in the new indie dramedy Fairhaven as a guy who escaped his small-town childhood in Massachusetts but is drawn back -- reluctantly -- to attend his estranged father's funeral. There, he meets up with two old friends, played by Tom O'Brien (also the film's primary writer-director) and Mad Men's Rich Sommer. Secrets of their pasts (including one involving Sarah Paulson) and subsequent mixed-fortune adulthoods spill out, making for a mix of catharsis and nostalgia that redefine relationships.
The Hollywood Reporter: The movie starts with a Tom Brady TV interview, in which he questions whether, even with all his success: "Is this it? There's got to be something more than this." Do you ever feel like that?
Chris Messina: Yes and no. I wonder if when I get to where I think in my head that I need to be, or where I dream to be, I wonder if I feel like I had arrived and I got there or that I would more be thinking about what Brady said, like, "Well, now I’m here; is this it?” But at this point in my life, I feel very grateful for where I am. I won’t lie to you; there’s a lot more to do, I have a lot more to say and a lot more places I want to go, but I’m very fortunate I ended up here at this moment in time.
THR: Do you think it’s a misconception that actors have it all and don’t have the existential crises that everyone else does?
Messina: Yeah, I think everybody has the crises of questioning themselves at some point or other in their lives. Is this where I should live? The job I should have? The girl I should be dating? Is this the friend I should have? I think as an actor, you’re constantly putting yourself out there, and a lot of times failing -- and failing in front of a bunch of people -- and sometimes you have a good moment and something clicks. So it’s constantly a roller-coaster ride, and I think even the greatest, biggest movie stars, as human beings, are constantly going, "Maybe I’m not all that, maybe I need to fix this or that." So I think no matter who you are or how successful you are, you’re going to be questioning as long as you’re from the planet Earth.
THR: In Fairhaven, your character goes home but isn’t that excited about it. What’s that like for you?
Messina: I love to go home. I grew up in Long Island, and at first I went to Manhattan and Brooklyn and Queens and then I moved out west. So when I go home, it’s that feeling that I think most people have when you drive down a certain block and remember making out with a girl in a car on that block, and you drive past your best friend’s house, but they’ve torn it down. Those kinds of things. There’s a lot of ghosts there, and it’s sometimes really nice to visit them, and maybe sometimes painful, but ultimately it’s who you are and where you came from.
THR: You’ve been doing a lot of indie movies this year. Was this one in particular difficult to get off the ground?
Messina: This one was, yeah. This one was like seven years. But we were working very slow. Which is ultimately the way that I like to work and am best suited. But yeah, I like the smaller movies because, ultimately, there’s less voices about what the movie is or should be or has to be. You have a team of people that you surround yourself with, and you make the movie. When you’re doing The Mindy Project, network television, there’s more voices, there’s more money, there’s more advertising, more stakes. Totally understandable, but you’re pleasing a shitload of people -- most times, people you never meet. Notes are coming from places from people you don’t know. I like them all, and you learn a lot from all of it, but the smaller films, you definitely can express a lot more without someone with scissors, ready to cut it.
THR: Was it difficult to find funding for Fairhaven?
Messina: It was, yeah. You know, we’re not stars, and we were lucky to get people like Rich Sommer and Sarah Paulson -- they’re great actors -- to come on board and help us. Ultimately, making movies, if you don’t have a big star, it’s hard to do. Or if it’s not a star director. But while the movie being written, as we were going through the process, we were always designing it to be small. We always knew we would struggle for financing, so instead of spending years and years and years of struggling of financing, we kept it as small as possible, so we needed the least amount [of money].
THR: It’s a character-driven movie, so I imagine you filmed many more scenes than what ended up in the final cut. How do you decide what gets into the movie?
Messina: Tom was in the editing room with his editor, and they really cracked open the movie there in New York. I was in Los Angeles, and they’d send over cuts. We kind of worked on the editing, the same way we worked on the writing. Tom would go off and write, I’d come back and give notes, that’s how we did the editing. I think as you’re editing, you have to be able to kill things you loved. And sometimes things that don’t make it in, they’re really fun scenes or stuff that meant a lot to you or you thought were really funny or really moving, but ultimately if they don’t move the story along or serve the story, you have to say goodbye to it. Some of those things were hard to say, and some of them are jarring; you look at them and say, "That has to go." I know we loved it when we shot it, and we thought it was great, but it’s not.
THR: It’s like with writing, trying to find a spot for things you like.
Messina: You know exactly what it is. When you wrote it, it was great. Like, I have to put this paragraph somewhere. ...
THR: You were in six movies and three TV shows this year. Do you ever rest?
Messina: I have the flu right now, so I have to rest. I’m being forced to rest, but I haven’t done much resting, and I’m not complaining because it certainly hasn’t always been like this. There’s been a lot of times that I thought I’d never work again; I was really bummed out. So I haven’t been resting as much, but at the moment I’m grateful for it.
THR: The Mindy Project is one of the buzziest new shows. When you’re doing that, do you have the feeling that you’re doing something that will be talked about?
Messina: No, no. I’m always wondering if are people watching it, people seeing it, liking it. I’m not as aware of it. I know I enjoy it, and I learned a lot from it, and it’s been a great experience. We have an incredible writing team, led by Mindy, and I’ve learned a lot from them about comedy. Maybe I’m bullshitting, because as the season’s gone on, I think more people have come up to me on the street and whatnot and say they’re really enjoying the show. You get into a bubble in these things sometimes, certainly on a TV show, day in and day out.
THR: Funny that Mark Duplass is doing the show; you’re both so ubiquitous.
Messina: I love that he’s on there, and whenever we have a scene to do, it’s a ball. I love him. There have been a couple of articles that people have written about the two of us and comparing our year and whatnot, and I always feel really lucky to be in an article next to him, a list next to him. I think he’s super-talented and a great actor and filmmaker.
THR: You, Duplass and Jessica Chastain -- I think the three of you have comprised 75 percent of what I’ve watched this year.
Messina: We might need one to do one together, all of us. That would be awesome. I would love to be in one of Mark’s movies that he acts in and directs, and Chastain as the lead of the movie.
Fairhaven is in limited theatrical release and also is available On Demand, on Amazon and iTunes.