Emmys: Chris Messina of 'The Mindy Project' Finds the Funny in Being a Jerk

Chris Messina
Joe Pugliese

The Mindy Project (Fox)

“We have many laughing fits. In one scene, I had a quick exchange with [guest star] Seth Rogen that I could not get through. Everybody was ready to kill me.”

Manhole accidents, Speedos and nude pictorials: the actor tells THR about Dr. Danny Castellano's transition from curmudgeon to hapless comedic relief.

At some point between the pilot and the freshman finale of The Mindy Project, Chris Messina's Dr. Danny Castellano lost a bit of his gruff edge -- so much so, the season wrapped with his character and Mindy Kaling's sharing a rather unexpected moment of romantic tension.

The transition from pseudo-douche to lovable leading man was not one the actor expected, but as Messina recently told The Hollywood Reporter, there’s nothing funny about a guy who’s cool all the time. Comparing his increasingly goofy character to Inspector Clouseau, the actor also discussed his take on the series' romantic tension, moonlighting on The Newsroom and the day his comedy demanded he pose for a nude pictorial.

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The Hollywood Reporter: Compared to your other TV projects, certainly your film work, being a regular on a network sitcom seemed to come out of left field. Were you looking for an opportunity like The Mindy Project?
Chris Messina: It just sort of happened. I wasn’t looking for It. I did have such a great time on Damages, and I was super intrigued about taking over a character for a long period of time. That was very interesting to me: watching the character grow, watching yourself grow, and how it changes and morphs. Because, you know, all of that stuff was fascinating to me. I used to die when certain movies came out. I would run to the theater. I wanted to see the new Robert DeNiro movie, or whatever it was. And then, the last few years, it’s hard to find those movies. I found myself watching and being inspired by a lot of television -- things like Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad and Rectify.

THR: But those are all dramas.
Messina: If, five years ago, you had said to me, "You’re going to be in a network comedy on Fox," I would have said, "No, I’m not." But since I’ve started the job, I’ve started to really appreciate what everybody's doing. I look at things like Parenthood and Modern Family, New Girl -- I watched a bunch of Taxi, Cheers and Arrested Development -- and these guys are all incredible. All of these actors are incredible, and the writing is incredible. Mindy reached out to me, and I was a fan of her writing from The Office, and so I checked it out and just loved what she was doing. I love the character. And I’m lucky because they’re super open at The Mindy Project. They want to hear my thoughts and ideas. Ultimately it’s their show, it’s Mindy’s show, so she’s going to do what she wants to do, but she’s definitely a collaborator.

THR: There was a noticeable shift in character dynamics over the course of the first season. Did that evolve naturally or were there discussions about where you wanted to see things go?
Messina: I think what I learned from the first season was that these writers are testing out characters and material. We have five days to shoot an episode, and you’re testing it out in front of three million people or so. They're getting feedback from the network, from the studio, from friends, from producers. They’re learning about it themselves as they’re watching it come together, what characters work best together, what characters don’t work well together. In terms of Danny, it was evident early on that there’s nothing funny about a guy who’s just cool all the time or distant all the time or somebody who thinks he’s better than everyone all the time. He hit a roadblock. I think what they discovered with Danny was, in a way, he became like an Inspector Clouseau. Inspector Clouseau thought he was an incredible detective and carried himself in that way, but he’s tripping and falling and that’s funny.

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THR: How did you react to Danny changing so much after the pilot?
Messina: I liked that he was cool and distant and being grumpy. That’s what drew me to playing the role. So when that stuff started to morph, when he did fall down a manhole or when he was going swimming with his Speedo on, initially I was saying this isn’t him. But I think it’s opened up and unlocked the character in a really cool way, which I’m interested in exploring in season two. He's still grumpy, thinks he’s better than people and has a broken heart that's mending and healing. I think Mindy’s character still gets on his nerves, but at the same time, he loves her. Ultimately, if you want to make people laugh, I think being cool isn’t the way to do it. They want to see him fall down the manhole.

THR: What do you think of the way they chose to tease the Mindy/Danny relationship in the finale?
Messina: As the season was going on, I certainly was getting responses from people I knew or just random people on the street. There's a handful of people who wanted us to be friends and a handful of people that want us to get married or whatever. All the while, they kept bonding and getting closer. Having the two characters not hate each other is just more fun to watch. I think, for some reason, Mindy Kaling and I have a nice rapport. So I think it will be interesting to see what they do with that for the second season. I don’t have a feeling either way of whether these characters should be together or not. I think there’s a version of this show where these two characters are married and bickering and fighting and also totally in love with each other. And there’s a show where they're best friends and constantly trying to get each other to straighten up, a When Harry Met Sally type of thing.

THR: The black-and-white portraits of you hanging in Danny’s apartment during the season finale are fantastic. Did you pose for those?
Messina: Oh yeah. Our director Michael Spiller, Jeremy Bronson, who wrote that episode with Mindy, and a photographer went into my bedroom on set, and I got naked and wrapped myself in a sheet. We laughed hysterically as they were like, "Pose here! Now pose over there!" The whole time I kept thinking, "Why the hell am I doing this?" And then there they were. The pictures weren’t as embarrassing to shoot as walking in a couple days later to a room full of actors and crew members to shoot the scene with them hanging all over the apartment. The more you embrace the nude pictures, the Speedos and the manholes, that's where you can make people laugh. You have to be willing to be silly or make fun of yourself. When it’s based in truth and reality, to me, it’s gold. Danny would never do that, but he has this thing with his ex-wife. He’s trying to open up to her, so it makes complete sense that he would put himself out there in this moment.

THR: You're in the Newsroom premiere. How much of the second season did you get to be a part of?
: I got to do about three or five episodes. Both The Newsroom and Mindy were very accommodating to the schedule, allowing me to be available as much as possible -- but there was only so much time. I had a great time going back and forth. They’re so different. It was kind of this great muscle, as an actor, to work on The Newsroom. The lines are like sheet music. And The Mindy Project is written really well too, it’s just on that job, you can improvise and paraphrase the lines sometimes, and sometimes they’ll throw out alt lines to you.

THR: They seem like complete opposites.
Messina: If you miss a line on The Newsroom, they tell you.