Safe to say, it’s been a great year for actor Chris Messina. Not only does he co-star on the Emmy Award nominated DAMAGES, co-stars in Mindy Kaling’s new TV show, and gets to speak the words of Aaron Sorkin on THE NEWSROOM, but he also is in two stellar independent romantic dramadies this Summer – CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER and RUBY SPARKS. Chances are, if you aren’t familiar with his name now, you will be by Summer’s end.
At the press day for the beguiling and poignant RUBY SPARKS, we (along with a few other reporters) talked with Messina about his current projects, relationship dynamics, and the rewards acting has brought him.
You make these films – CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER and RUBY SPARKS. There is something so relatable, and energetic and so real about you that everybody can tap into.
Aw, that’s really nice. Thank you.
And THE NEWSROOM. Amazing.
Thank you. That’s a great show. The critics have been kind of tough on that show but I love THE NEWSROOM. That’s a scary job, THE NEWSROOM, because Aaron Sorkin is so good, the words are so incredible and Jeff Daniels and the whole team raise the bar so high. That job, you come on it for 1 or 2 days and you don’t want to be the guy that screws it all up. They come up to you in that job if you skip an “uh”. [laughing]
What is about “Harry” that attracted you to RUBY SPARKS?
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. We went out to dinner and they were really flirtatious with each other. They were very sweet. And I then followed their careers and I saw them in all this stuff. I thought they were terrific. Years later I heard Zoe wrote a script and somebody said, “I think you’d like it. I think you’re right for it. You’ll be playing Paul’s brother.” And I said, “I don’t look anything like Paul.” Then I read it and I was blown away it. Then I wanted in. I auditioned twice and I heard that they were interested in me and I heard the problem was that they didn’t think I looked anything like Paul. So, somebody said, “you should dye your hair lighter and dye your eyebrows and you’ll look like Paul.” And I did. And I looked nothing like Paul. And I got the part. Those guys are incredible. What they do, and is very rare for me, is they rehearse but they don’t rehearse….normally in films, in my experience, you rehearse so on the day you can move quicker; that you can troubleshoot. You can ask a lot of questions and slow down the process. They don’t rehearse for that. They rehearse – and they had everybody do this, Annette [Bening] did it, Zoe [Kazan], Paul [Dano] – we would take off our shoes and we’d come into a room and we’d run around the room. They gave us journals and we’d write in the journals. They’d ask a bunch of questions. Then 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. And by the end of that, no matter what Paul and I look like, we were brothers. It was like putting together a theater troupe. 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. That’s really due to John [Dayton] and Val [Faris] and their process and how they work.
Are you the skeptic or the honest guy in the relationship or all your friendships or even romantic ones?
I go both ways. I don’t believe that there’s one person for you. I believe that there’s a lot of different versions of it. It depends when you catch me. It depends when you catch me. I believe in love and I want my family and friends and everyone to be happy and fine with what they’re looking for. I have a lot of friends – I think this pertains to the film – that are always, it feels like they’re searching for something they can’t find but they find something about a woman that they like, and then they find these three things that don’t like. So they go over here and they find this thing that they like and they find this one or two things that they don’t like in this quest to find the “perfect” thing. I think I was like that. I think the young Chris tried to change many girls along the way. I think I’m at a place in my life where the thing that might not be the most favorable about that person I’ve learned to love. I guess maybe in short, in long answers, I think maybe the best relationships are when two people bring out the best in one another.
VeryAware: Have you ever changed for a girl before in a relationship?
I think people have tried to change me [laughing] and I think a lot of times, for the better. I don’t think anyone was trying to harm me. They were probably trying to help me grow up. I think I’ve carried, tried to carry, some of those things. I don’t remember – I’m sure there were – but I don’t remember any particular time when anyone was trying to make me worse. I think they were trying to make me better. [laughing]
I find it really interesting that some of your best performances have been in films where the scripts were written by women. This one, CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER, JULIE & JULIA. Is there something about a female written script that is a factor or that has elements that really make it stand out and more suited to you?
I don’t know. That’s a really great question. I don’t know. I think they were all such great writers. Nora [Ephron], she was incredible. She understood relationships in a way that not a lot of people did. She got that humor. I don’t know. I don’t know what it is about…I’m working on the Mindy Kaling project now. There’s another great woman writer. She’s incredible. And she understands relationships and men. I can’t believe some of the stuff…I’ve been reading some of the scripts that are coming in and some of the stuff that she writes is just how me and my buddies talk. It’s so real, it’s so honest and so funny. So, I don’t know. I’ve been lucky to work with some great, great women, that’s for sure.
Were you happy with the film when you saw it for the first time?
This particular film I have only seen in an editing room and we have reshot some stuff since. I’ve been waiting. I’m gonna see it tonight. I’ve been waiting to see it. I was, I was very happy. Whenever I watch myself, I always can’t stand myself and go, “Oh God. Why did I do that, say that?” And “When are they gonna find out that I’m terrible and all that.” It’s always strange that when you act because, similar to RUBY SPARKS and creating a character, you always take something off the page and you interpret it and you collaborate and you hopefully make it your own. I didn’t do very well in school, so one of the best things for me, and some of the most fun I have about acting, is preparing and going into these shoes and learning about these different things. So you do all that and you go away and then you show up and usually editing, maybe similar to RUBY SPARKS, editing and how they’ve taken what you’ve done and put it up there, is something extremely jarring. Even if it’s really good, you go, “Why did they choose that? Why did they make that choice? Why did they make me like this or like that?” So, it’s always an adjustment. I was lucky – it was a terrible movie – but I did a movie with Sydney Pollack. He didn’t direct it. He acted in it. And 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 for this wedding sequence and he said something that has always really stuck with me. He said “With theatre actors, you’re weaning yourself off the director and you’re creating your performance. With movie actors what you have to do is, you’re rehearsing in front of the camera every take. You’re just rehearsing it and rehearsing it and rehearsing it, and then the director makes the performance.” That’s something that has stuck with me forever.
You’ve found a really great balance between television and film throughout the course of your career. At this stage of the game do you have a preference as to which you prefer and how the hall are you juggling all this stuff right now?
CM: [laughing] It hasn’t always been like this, fer sure. Like most actors, some incredible ups and downs and 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’s show. I like taking somebody for awhile ‘cause you only have a certain amount of time with them for a film, and then you go away and usually you couldn’t solve it, you didn’t find it and you have all these questions and then you go away. But I do love about movies…I like to go slow. I’m very slow. I like to go slow. If I could rehearse for 2 years, I’d still get on set and say, “I don’t think we’re ready.” [laughing] And in tv there’s no time for any of that. They go at the speed of light. I like them both in different ways but films, films are really incredible, man. 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 guys will probably never bump up against and that’s a shame because there’s so many talented people out there, so I’m lucky to have work. It’s not my ideal situation to be running like that because I was always in fear. . .I felt like DAMAGES, THE NEWSROOM and the Mindy pilot all suffered because I couldn’t give a 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 and think like, “Oh, it should have been more of this and more of that, but you were busy running over here and trying to do everything.” So I don’t think I would want to do that kind of running around again.
Do you ever have a fear that you’ll forget what character you’re supposed to be in?
Yeah, yeah. Less of a fear that I’ll jump into another character, but more of a fear that you’re not pulling from your life anymore, you’re pulling from your last day on the set. If that makes any sense. I wasn’t living my life. I was living all these set lives. I was in DAMAGES and then I literally get on a plane, get off a plane, go to sleep, wake up, go to THE NEWSROOM. And then go to the Mindy show. It was like “Where the fuck am I?” [laughing] And I would be like, “If I could just get through this week. If I could just get through this week.” It was like a test. It was a test. So whenever anybody says to me that they like me on THE NEWSROOM or “good job”, really, it touches my heart because “I’m like, whew, I made it through.” Cause I was for sure going – like we’d sit in rooms like this – and be like, “What was going on with you in THE NEWSROOM?” [laughing] Very lucky right now. Very lucky.
It’s a testament to you because I would have totally loved it if you busted out a speech from a totally different character at a really important moment.
Sorkin would have my head.
That would be a great blooper on a Sorkin project.
Yeah! Go into the soldier from DAMAGES.
At this stage of the game, what is the greatest gift that acting has given you?
I think what I was saying before about learning. I did so bad in school. I screwed around so much. I dropped out of college. I did one semester at Marymount Manhattan College. I had a scholarship. Ultimately learning about Sorkin stuff. Just going back to some of those things, those current events that happened. And researching again and think, “Whoa! That’s how it happened or that’s how it was recorded.” Or just understanding, or trying to understand the inside of a newsroom, or what it means to be a president of something like that. Not to mention getting to work with some of these….I’ve been so lucky to get to work with someone like Jane Fonda or Jeff Daniels or John Goodman. Or be in a film with Meryl Streep or Stanley Tucci. Even to have the access to talk to someone like Sydney Pollack 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.
Are all those people now thanking you for their Oscars, Emmy nominations and whatnot for having you as their supporting player?
[chuckling] No, not yet. Maybe one day. My phone is turned off right now.