'Catch-22' Star Christopher Abbott on "Existentialist" Character, Book's Journey to Small Screen

ONE TIME USE ONLY-Christopher Abbott -Getty-H 2019
Corey Nickols/Contour by Getty Images

The 'Girls' breakout star assumes the mantle of hapless bombardier Yossarian in George Clooney and Grant Heslov's Hulu miniseries: "He's thrown into this situation that’s even more terrifying and harrowing than expected."

Many have tried — and mostly failed — to adapt Joseph Heller's 1961 novel Catch-22. Success for Hulu's six-part miniseries (executive produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov) hinged on finding just the right actor to play Yossarian, the World War II bombardier at the story's center. Christopher Abbott, best known for his role on HBO's Girls, brings to the part a layered performance of a man who slowly descends into madness as he tries to escape from the horrors of the war. Abbott, 33, spoke to THR about his existentialist character, the book's journey to the small screen and the story's ability to stand the test of time.

Yossarian can be pretty unlikable, but you find yourself rooting for him anyway. How did you handle him as a character?

Any actor's job is to justify their character and some of the things that they do. His plight isn't that he's just a coward and trying get out of missions. He's someone that is very aware of the inner workings of what's happening in this bureaucratic system. He's just someone who's watching and asking why. For me, that's easy to justify.

He makes some pretty unethical decisions along the way. How did you empathize with him?

I empathize with him because he obviously didn't [make those decisions] with the intention of possibly getting people killed. Yes, it was selfish and he was trying to get out of [danger] for himself. But he was going on these missions with friends of his, and so there's probably some part of him that feels he's saving their asses as well.

Series co-writer Luke Davies said that, even though they changed the chronology for the adaptation, he wanted to "retain the kaleidoscope of madness" from the novel. Did you feel that while filming?

I don't think that the book, as written, is translatable to screen. What Luke and David Michôd did was take the essence of what the book is and just make it digestible to watch onscreen. They did that by making it a little bit more linear time-wise. What they captured beautifully was the madness that it is and how erratically it jumps from tone to tone. One minute it's old-school comical, like a "Who's on First" situation, to all of a sudden being very harrowing and heartbreaking.

Yossarian thinks he's one of the only sane people on base until his experiences start to chip away at his sanity. How did you tackle that?

That is the journey of the character. He starts off as an existentialist in a way. Then he's thrown into this situation that he doesn't want to be in, but it's even more terrifying and harrowing than he expected. Given someone with that type of psyche, for all of his worst fears and nightmares to constantly come true on what seems like almost a daily basis, I think would drive someone to absolute insanity — and it does.

Did the story feel somewhat timely despite its World War II setting?

These are all themes that span the length of time. What it's really about, through this existentialist lens, is love, loss, death, life. The history of the book Catch-22 is that, though it's set during World War II, Heller wrote it about his experience during the Korean War, and the book came out during the Vietnam War. There will always be wars. It's relatable to before World War II, during and after, and I think it will be in the future.

We never find out if Yossarian goes home here. Do you have any hopes for your character's future?

I never think of things like that. I think when the story ends, the life of the character, in a way, ends. I know that Heller wrote a sequel called Closing Time that catches up with Yossarian later in life. So, if you're going off of that, then I guess technically he does survive. In the terms of [the series], especially the way it's shot at the end, it's hard to decipher whether that last image is reality or, since he's driven to hysteria, if it's all in his own head. It's open-ended. I like sticking with that feeling.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.