Known for his roles in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Julie and Julia, and Six Feet Under, Chris Messina seems to be everywhere these days. He can be seen on Damages, The Newsroom, and will be cropping up in The Office's Mindy Kaling's comedy pilot this fall. On the big screen, Messina played similarly grounded roles in Like Crazy, Celeste and Jesse Forever, and in the just-released Ruby Sparks.
As the dubious big brother in Zoe Kazan's debut screenwriting feature, Messina once again brings a warmth and honesty to his supporting role and nearly steals the show. While promoting the film, Messina opened up about working on so many projects, what he's learned as an actor, and if he really is the cynic he so often portrays.
Q: What initially attracted you to Ruby Sparks, and to playing Harry?
Chris Messina: I think the writing first and foremost, and then the team of people. I met Zoe and Paul when they did a play together in New York and they were falling in love. We have a mutual friend and I went to see the play. And we went out dinner and they were really flirtatious with each other. They were very sweet. I then followed their careers. I saw them in all of this stuff and I thought that they were terrific. Years later I heard Zoe wrote a script and somebody said, “I think you’d like it and I think you’re right for it. You’ll be playing Paul’s brother.” I said, “I don’t look anything like Paul.”
Then I read it and I was blown away by it. So then I wanted in. I auditioned twice and I heard that they were interested in me and I heard that the problem was that they didn’t think I looked anything like Paul. Somebody said, “Well you should dye your hair lighter and dye your eyebrows and maybe you’ll look like Paul.” I did that and I looked nothing like Paul. And I got the part.
Those guys are incredible. What they do is very rare for me. They rehearse but they don’t rehearse. Normally in films, in my experience, you rehearse so that on the day you can move quicker. You can troubleshoot. You can ask a lot of questions and slow down the process. They don’t rehearse for that. Everybody did this, Annette Bening did it, Zoe, Paul. We would take off our shoes and come into a room. We would run around the room. They gave us journals and we’d write in the journals and they would ask us a bunch of questions. 20-30 minutes later we’d read our entries to each other. We played darts and we listened to music and we ate food together and we improvised. By the end of that no matter what Paul and I looked like, we were brothers. It was like putting together a theater troop.
I think their films have that. I think Little Miss Sunshine has it and I think Ruby Sparks has it, where we’re all in the same world really due to Jon and Val in their process and how they work.
Q: You take on the voice of the skeptic in Ruby Sparks. Is that a testament to how you feel, or are you more of a romantic?
CM: I go both ways. I don’t believe that there’s one person for you. I think there’s a lot of different versions of it. It depends when you catch me, you know. I believe in love. I want my family and friends to be happy and find what they’re looking for. I have a lot of friends - I think this pertains to the film, that it feels like they’re always searching for something that they can’t find. But they find something about a woman that they like, and then they find these three things that they don’t like. So they go somewhere else and they find this thing that they like and they find this one thing that they don’t like, in this quest to find the perfect thing…
And I think I was like that. And I think the young Chris tried to change many girls along the way. I think that I’m at a place in my life where the things that might not be the most favorable about that person, I’ve learned to love. I guess maybe the short answer is I think maybe the best relationships are when two people bring out the best in one another.
Q: I find it interesting that some of your best performances have been in films written by women… Ruby Sparks, Celeste and Jesse Forever, Julie and Julia. Is there something about script written by a woman that make a project more suited to you?
CM: I don’t know. That is a great question. I think that they were all such great writers. Nora, she was incredible. She understood relationships in a way that not a lot of people did. She got that humor. I don’t know what it is about it. I’m working on the Mindy Kaling project now, and there’s another great woman writer and she’s incredible. She understands relationships and men. I can’t believe some of the stuff. I’ve been reading the scripts that are coming in, and some of the stuff she writes it just like how me and my buddies and I talk. It’s so real, honest and so funny. I’ve been lucky to work with some great, great women. That’s for sure.
Q: What do you think of the finished film? How do you equate the acting process with seeing the final version?
CM: This particular film I have only seen in an editing room. We re-shot some stuff since. I’m going to see it tonight. I’ve been waiting to see it. I was very happy. Whenever I watch myself I always can’t stand myself. I think, oh God why did I do that.? Why did I say that? When are they going to find out that I’m terrible? It’s always strange though, when you act, because, similar to Ruby Sparks in creating a character, because you take something off the page and you interpret it and you collaborate and hopefully make it your own.
I didn’t do very well in school so ne of the best things for me and some of the most fun to have about acting is preparing and going into these different shoes and learning about these different things. You do all of that and then you go away and you show up. Usually editing, that may be similar to Ruby Sparks, editing and how they’ve taken what you’ve done and put it up there is sometime extremely jarring. Even if it’s really good. You go, “Why they chose that. Why did they make me like this?” It’s always an adjustment.
I was lucky, it was a terrible movie, but I did a movie with Sydney Pollock, he directed it and acted in it. I was bothering him the whole movie to ask about acting, and he was annoyed with me. Finally I trapped him on this rooftop. We had to be there and do this wedding sequence. He said something that really has always stuck with me. He said, “With theater actors you’re weaning yourself off of the director and you’re creating your performance. With movie actors, what you have to do, you’re rehearsing in front of the camera. Every take you’re just rehearsing it and rehearsing it and rehearsing it. Then the director makes your performance.” And that’s something that has stuck with me forever.
Q: You’ve found a great balance between television and film throughout the course of your career. Do have a preference? And how are you juggling all of these projects right now?
CM: It hasn’t always been like this, for sure. Like most actors I’ve had incredible ups and downs. I’ve had some really dry, dry moments where I thought I wouldn’t do it anymore. What I like about television is I like taking one character over a long period of time. I learned that on Damages and I brought that into The Newsroom and hopefully will enjoy that on Mindy [Kaling]’s show.
I like taking somebody for a while. You only have a certain amount of time with them for a film then you go away. Usually you couldn’t solve it. You didn’t find it. You have all of these questions and then you go away.
What I do love about movies – I like to go slow. I’m very slow. I like to go slow. If I could rehearse for two years I’d still get on set and say, “I don’t think we are ready.” But in TV there’s no time for any of that. They just go at the speed of light.
So I think I like them both in different ways. Films are really incredible.
Q: Will you continue on The Newsroom for the entire season?
CM: I go away now for a couple of episodes and then I come back. I was shooting Damages and The Newsroom at the same time. And then shot the pilot for the Mindy show. Look, there are so many great actors that you will probably never bump up against and that’s a shame because there’s so many talented people out there. I’m lucky to have work. It’s not my ideal situation to be running like that. I felt like Damages, The Newsroom and the Mindy pilot all suffered because I couldn’t give full attention. There’s something that was great about it because I had to be flexible and be on the fly and be open. But inevitably I watch all of those things I think, “Oh it should have been more of this and more of that but you was busy running over here trying to do everything.” I don’t think I would want to do that kind of running around.
Q: You must have learned a lot working at such a crazy pace. At this stage in your career, what is the greatest gift that acting has given you?
CM: I think what I was saying before about learning. I did so bad in school. I screwed around so much and I dropped out of college. I did one semester and Merrymount Manhattan College. I had a theater scholarship. I think ultimately learning about Sorkin’s stuff, just going back to some of those things, those current events that happened and researching again. That’s how it happened or that’s how it was reported. Or just trying to understand the inside of a newsroom, or what it means to be present in something like that. Not to mention getting to work with some of these people. I’ve been so lucky to work with someone like Jane Fonda, or Jeff Daniels, John Goodman or to be in a film with Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci. To even sit and have the access to talk to someone like Sydney Pollock and bother him enough to get that tidbit that I carry with me forever. Those are incredible. I grew up with those people on my walls. It’s nice.
Fox Searchlight's 'Ruby Sparks' will is currently on limited release.