From 'James White' to 'John,' How Christopher Abbott Quietly Catches "Lightning In a Bottle" (Q&A)

Marius Hauge
Christopher Abbott

Amidst two buzzy projects — a hit Sundance drama and the latest Annie Baker-Sam Gold play — the 'Girls' alum speaks with THR about staying hungry in Hollywood: "If you're in it for the right reasons, I think it can be truly transcendent."

Christopher Abbott is a relatively quiet man. When interviewed in the café lobby of the Signature Theatre Center in New York City, he barely raises his voice once a pianist begins an evening set. He also often prefaces his answers with self-deprecating disclaimers, and brushes his thick mustache with his fingers while discussing his latest projects.

Yet in his recent roles, his silence speaks volumes. Whether playing a jaded hard-partier avoiding the reality of his sick mother's fate in Josh Mond’s feature film James White (in theaters this fall, after a hit Sundance debut), or a doubtful boyfriend sitting in existential contemplation in Annie Baker’s three-hour off-Broadway play John (through Sept. 6), Abbott repeatedly makes a loud, lasting impression.

The following is The Hollywood Reporter’s edited chat with Abbott about lessons from his ideal acting partner Cynthia Nixon (his co-star in James White), his strategy for playing the "strange game" of Hollywood, and the specific familiarity he chases in every character he inhabits.

You’ve been in a number of smaller indie films. What drew you to the selfish, self-destructive title character in the drama James White?

Josh has been a good friend of mine for years, I knew him before [he produced] Martha Marcy May Marlene. It was slowly cooking for a long time, so I got to read a few drafts. It's a personal story to him — being a dear friend of his, it was no question we'd do it together. It's a complicated character, but because of some of the autobiographical tendencies, I couldn't help but draw from him a little, and other born-and-bred New York kids that I met through him, or just being here now for ten years. I didn't grow up a city kid, but I felt like I knew the guy. I've met that guy a few times in my life. The movie's not an easy sell, by any means.

Abbott in 'James White'
Abbott in James White.

What did you learn from Cynthia Nixon, who plays your cancer-stricken mother?

Aside from James White, I admire her work ethic — she directs plays, she's in them, she does so much. She also has this way of listening when you're acting with her — that's all you want in an acting partner, someone who is there with you, truly present. It makes every other performance better — they'll do something that makes you do something real and heartfelt and natural, and it becomes so much more dynamic. That's a mantra I try to follow: don't worry about you, worry about what you're doing to the other person.

You’ve done a play a year for the last eight years. Why take on Elias in the supernatural, reflective drama John?

I initially really wanted to work with Annie and [director] Sam [Gold]. Then I did a reading of the play last year — there are so many things left unsaid. There's a lot not tied up in a way that I like.

I like how the play is quite ominous and deals with kinds of weird, ethereal, almost ghostly elements, but they don’t dive into them too hard, they're left more to the imagination. It’s such an open forum for people who come to see it; one's interpretation will be very different from the next. You can take everything quite literally, or go with the ghostly element in a heightened way.

How has your interpretation changed?

On the page, it's such a different play than when you're actually doing it. Annie writes in all those silences and moments, so when you're doing a reading, you have someone reading stage directions. It's not until you actually start doing it that you actually start figuring out what those moments are and what the silences mean, and you get to fill them with things. Upon first reading, I'm like, 'Okay, this is about a young couple somewhat on the rocks, and they go away for a weekend to rehabilitate their relationship.' Through now doing it, it's taken on so many more faces. There's just so much more going on.

Both projects have their share of silences: James White with its long, wordless takes, and all the walking, sitting and thinking in John.

In life, people don't get to have those kinds of highly emotionally charged moments as often as they do [in movies]. Of course they happen and they're real, but they'll sooner practice restraint on a day-to-day basis. You can draw a lot from documentaries, when someone's being interviewed and they're holding back emotion — I find that much more moving than somebody just letting it all out. Go down a YouTube hole of dogs greeting people coming home from war or something like that — seeing people restrain emotion — you're just so moved by it. It feels more real in that way. I enjoy trying to do that rather than the other.

In James White, he does have his outbursts, but then in a sense it's eventually earned because there's so much restraint, and the audience is waiting for him to boil over. And in John, he obviously has some anger issues and he's been taught to talk things out and deal with them a certain way, but no matter what, people have those breaking points. But I find it much more interesting to have just that one moment, rather than being an angst-y thing throughout.

I'm anxious just to have people see it. Because you don't always get to say you're truly proud of a project — it's hard. And even narcissistically, like my own performance — I'm often not satisfied, and a lot of actors are like that. I gotta say, it's nice to say after a while, 'Yeah, I'm pretty proud of this one.'

The movie and the play also both look at relationships, and potentially leaving them. I love the John line: "Have you ever been in something and just had no idea whether you should go or stay?"

If we're comparing, in James White, he's more emotionally stunted and doesn't quite know how to deal with it as well, and he'll act out more with slightly darker tendencies. I think a big character trait that Josh and I worked on is that he puts a lot of pressure on the people in his life. And whether it's his mother whom he's known his whole life or this girl he just met, it's like he puts on the same amount of expectations, with the mentality of, 'Well, I would do this for you, so you have to do it for me.' It comes out of love in that way.

In John, his situation with his girlfriend is much more thought-out and exercised. There are similarities, but they're dealt with slightly differently. One is more eloquent, in a way, and one is more guttural and emotional.

Abbott in 'John'
Abbott in John. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

How do you hope viewers feel after seeing your performances?

My favorite compliment [is when someone says], 'I know that guy, I grew up with that guy. You said this thing that I've never heard before, and it struck a cord.' When you see something or hear something that brings you back to something from childhood — those moments that are not movie moments so much, but just hit you and leave you with that feeling of, 'Did that really happen to me or did I dream it?' If it evokes that kind of feeling, that's what I want. It's to not mimic other movies and other performances, but to actually draw from something in real life. It’s like lightning in a bottle.

How do you pick your projects?

For film, it'd be great to do a Western. Onstage, the ultimate is Streetcar [Named Desire]. It's not always the character, but it's who I'd be working with and the experience. I truly often forget sometimes when I'm shooting a movie that people are gonna eventually see it. I think, this is a time to experiment, because maybe no one will ever see it.

I just don't ever want to feel settled, like, 'Now, I know what I'm doing.’ Not only to keep myself motivated, but even on a business level, to constantly try to shake it up helps longevity, because I want to keep doing this for as long as I can. From the outside, sometimes you see actors do a string a movies, and it's almost like they're doing the same thing over and over again, and the public gets tired of that. And I don’t blame [other actors for doing the same thing] — you gotta work. But it's such a strange game in general, because people can build up an actor out of a good performance, and it's a classic thing that they build you up to kind of tear you down. You can be so great in one movie, and you can do something else where the pieces just don't match together and you can be shit, just six months after you did the really great thing. It's scary. It's tricky to try and manage it, and I guess the answer is you really can't. You just keep working, working with people you like and on material you're drawn to, and if you're lucky enough that it becomes successful, then you hit two birds with one stone.

Since you’re not interested in writing or directing right now, what’s your favorite thing about acting?

Besides the collaboration — I can't think of anything much better than going to make a movie with your friends — I truly got into it because of my interest in human beings and behavior. A lot of actors are observers, and I'm not saying I have it, but the thing that makes someone special is being observant enough to know the details of how people behave. To get as close as possible to mimicking real-life situations is so psychologically therapeutic. It feeds you in a way, and makes you grow.

If you're in it for the right reasons, I think it can be truly transcendent. It's very easy for it not to be, and for it to be silly and mundane, especially when you go through the motions — I've done it, that's all part of it. But what makes it gratifying are those little blips that remind you why you like doing it.