Here’s a hard fact: Chris Messina is routinely omitted from the roster of Hollywood Chrises, the white guys with the same first name who take turns popping up in blockbuster movies.
And that’s some bullshit, seeing as Chris Messina is the most talented and the most attractive of the Hollywood Chrises. (No offense to Rock, Noth, Cooper, Lee, Lloyd, O’Dowd, Tucker, Meloni or Walken, whose first name isn’t even Chris. Ditto the so-called real Hollywood Chrises: Pine, Evans, Hemsworth and Pratt.)
Ignoring journalistic ethics, I told Messina as much on the phone last week during a quick chat about “Sharp Objects,” the bewitching HBO limited series based on Gillian Flynn’s mystery novel of the same name. Messina was a good sport, but he evinced a hint of bittersweetness as he laughed off the situation. Of course, the Hollywood Chris phenomenon has more to do with superhero franchises and social media personalities than anything else ― two arenas that Messina hasn’t entered, perhaps for the better. Still, how does it feel to be left out of the “Saturday Night Live” monologues and best-of brackets and general internet obsessiveness devoted to your industry (Hollywood) and your name (Chris)?
“It’s OK,” Messina said.
By the way, are you watching “Sharp Objects”? You really should. Messina plays Richard Willis, a Kansas City detective commissioned to investigate the murders of two teen girls in the eerie Missouri hamlet Wind Gap, where a troubled journalist named Camille Preaker (the incomparable Amy Adams, his “Julie & Julia” co-star) has returned home to report on the case. I asked Messina about the series, his friendship with Adams and, of course, the Hollywood Chrises.
This is quite the unlikely “Julie & Julia” reunion.
Yeah, thank goodness. Amy and I became friends on that, and then I had always said to her, “I really want to do something else with you where I’m not just eating your food and telling you how delicious it is.” And I wasn’t quite sure it was ever going to happen, but she called and said, “Have you read this book?” I hadn’t. She said, “Take a read, I’m going to play this part.” If it wasn’t for her, I would have never been in the show.
With something like “Sharp Objects,” where the mystery unfolds in waves over eight episodes, is there any limitation to reading the book and knowing the outcome before your character does?
It’s true ― we had the source material, which was fantastic. And then the scripts were great, so yeah, you kind of have to go one scene at a time and, if you can, forget where it’s going or try to make-believe you don’t know where it’s going. The good news is I did read the scripts before we started, but they changed. So there was this feeling of change happening. There was a flow of new pages coming in here and there, so that kept me on my toes.
The end result was what it was in the book, but if I just kept my eye on one scene at a time or one episode at a time, I guess that was the trick.
Did anything significant change with regard to Richard?
No, but because it’s like an eight-hour movie, really, you get to flesh out these characters more. When I read the book, I was pretty clear that I wanted to be part of it. I loved the book. I found it heartbreaking and painful, and in terms of the mystery, I was intrigued to figure out who this was and what the hell was going on in this town. Richard was very clear on the page in terms of what the job was, and it only got more fleshed out in the scripts because it’s an eight-hour movie.
But visually, [director] Jean-Marc Vallée is so gifted. He’s a very improvisational filmmaker, and not so much with dialogue; it’s more images, like all those fans you see in the show. Those weren’t in the script — we were just hot as hell. They are these sharp objects, these fans. And that’s just one of many instinctive visual examples of what he grabbed on the day. It was really exciting to work that way. Sometimes it’s frustrating because you’re not in his head, and you don’t know why the hell he’s shooting these fans, and then you see the show and you see it edited together, and they’re beautiful and evocative of the place.
The visual style gives the show a hallucinatory feel that’s exciting. When you encountered Richard in the book and in the first few episodes, did you think of him as a trustworthy person?
That’s a good question. I really didn’t talk about this or share it because it wasn’t necessary, but I kind of thought that Richard was damaged in a way — not exactly the same way as Camille. He had his own baggage and heartbreak and desires, and a need to be seen and heard and to be a part of something. He’s a man who obviously is an outsider of this town but carries with him a past that haunts him, like we all do. But I was thinking he was the other side of the coin of Camille. As you see in the first four episodes, she needs help. She’s in pain. Maybe it’s not that drastic with Richard, but you only find out so much about the character, so it was important for him to come to the town with his own baggage.
Richard and Camille have an interesting conversation in the woods in Episode 4. She points to a spot where the football team would “have their way” with girls, and Richard says that sounds like rape. But Camille essentially says it isn’t, thereby inverting the positions we might expect a man and woman to have when discussing consent. What was your approach to that scene?
There was a lot of discussion about that and what we were saying. I remember flipping back and forth and trying to get a handle on what it is we’re saying. I love that Camille’s character is usually a man parading around town drinking. The scene you’re talking about, and the entire series, flips that. I love that about the book and the show.
It’s interesting, Camille’s take on it and Richard’s take on it. They’re quite different. I enjoyed that the writing was pushing that. Most of my scenes are with Amy, and I can just look across the camera and see a friend who you know is a fine actor, just fantastic, and has proved herself time and time again to do so many different parts. But to look at her playing something like this was really wonderful and inspiring.
And then the flip side is she was also one of the producers, so she would be in this pain — and most days were filled, in terms of the scene work, with darkness. And then we would call cut, and she would put on the producer hat. She would be taking care of us and getting an ice cream truck for us and looking at scripts and talking about scheduling. And then she’d go back into the part, into the character. It was really fascinating to watch that.
How micro were your conversations? Taking that scene in the woods, for example, are you two — as actors and as friends — breaking down what sort of tone you want to bring to it so it doesn’t sound like he’s lecturing her?
We talked more in the beginning, and then as you start to live in it; and it’s a few months down the line, you feel it more than you need to talk it, if that makes any sense. You start to know where these characters should be going and what Jean-Marc is looking for. And, really, acting with Amy is really like — I’m a bad tennis player, but I imagine if I was any good, it would be like playing Serena. You’re bound to play better. She makes everyone better around her.
That scene through the woods is a lot of pages of dialogue. But Jean-Marc Vallée doesn’t rehearse; he doesn’t light it. There are no marks on the ground. The director of photography throws his camera on his shoulder, and we kind of just went. A lot of that was shot really, really fast. He doesn’t do a lot of takes, which is great because I think if you look at all the stuff he gets, he gets raw performances. You don’t have time to start acting because you’re almost rehearsing on film, which is beautiful. The flip side is that I tend to be an actor that wants to keep exploring it and trying different avenues, and he’s like, “We’re done.” When you have a director like that, you just trust him.
That’s the theater kid in you, as someone who’s been onstage so much and able to tweak the same show night after night. Speaking of different mediums, TV has been very kind to you, with “Damages,” “The Mindy Project,” “The Newsroom” and now “Sharp Objects.” Your movie roles haven’t been as abundant, though. Are you getting the type of movie work you’d like to be doing?
I really feel like what happened with me — which happens to a lot of actors — is I came from the New York theater scene, and I played all these delinquents, all these really complicated characters. The reason why I became an actor in the first place was to dig into the dirt. I came to LA and got “Six Feet Under,” and I played a Republican lawyer. So, as you know, if you do anything halfway decently in Hollywood, they want you to repeat it. For a while, whether it was “Julie & Julia” or “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” I was trying to outrun the nice-guy suit, or the kind of guy you thought was a dick but has an OK heart. And I’m grateful for all the parts and all the opportunities that I’ve had. But I certainly feel — and probably most actors feel this way — like I haven’t been able to do a quarter of what I can and want to do.
A lot of the film stuff that I really have loved — “28 Hotel Rooms” or “Fairhaven” or I played a small part in my movie “Alex in Venice” — were so small you have to tie somebody up to watch them. They had very short runs in actual theaters, so you have to find it on iTunes or Netflix — and we’re oversaturated with great stuff to watch.
In terms of big movies, I really loved doing “Live by Night” with Ben Affleck. Someone finally gave me something different. I gained 40 pounds, and I was in the 1920s and 1930s as a gangster. That was a remarkable experience. Unfortunately, people didn’t go out to see that film. So I feel like this is the tip of the iceberg.
Are you familiar with the phenomenon known as the Hollywood Chrises?
Yes, I’ve heard of this. The Chris Pine, the Chris Evans, the Chris … Hemsworth? And … oh, and Chris Pratt.
How does it feel not to be included among the Hollywood Chrises?
[Laughs] Well. Yeah. It’s OK. Those guys are all great and talented guys. They deserve to be in their club. I’m my own Chris.
But the thing is — and I swear I’m not just saying this because you’re on the phone with me — you are the most talented and most attractive of the Chrises.
Oh, that’s very nice. Well, I don’t know how those things start, but I’m the Chris running behind all those guys being like, “Wait up! Wait up, guys! Can I play too?”
One reason they get lumped together is because they’ve all done superhero movies. They’re blockbuster stars, and that’s a terrain you haven’t tread yet. So, the obvious question is: Is that a terrain you would even want to tread?
I would never say never. They’re not movies I run to, to be honest. I really got started with character-driven films. It was the films of the ’70s. It was the Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman roles. My kids really dug “Black Panther,” and so did I. And all of them are cool — what they’ve done with them, how they stretch them out. I love Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker, and I’m of course looking forward to Joaquin [Phoenix] playing The Joker. I love everything he does. But I don’t run to see those films. I run to see the new Gus Van Sant movie, which was phenomenal. And again, Joaquin was incredible [in “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot”]. I love old movies. As much as I do watch TV, it’s crowded, so I’m always trying to catch up. But it’s never-ending, and a lot of times I just opt to put on “Chinatown.”
Which was a reference point for you in preparing for “Sharp Objects.”
Yeah, I used that one a lot. It’s just one of the greatest movies of all time, I think. I never get tired of watching it. But Jack Nicholson is one my favorites. I guess he’s one of all of our favorites. But in that particular film, he’s trying to solve the case, but he starts trying to solve her. So I thought early on with Jean-Marc Vallée, you know, “Sharp Objects” is kind of like “Chinatown.”
What is your favorite Amy Adams performance that isn’t “Sharp Objects” or “Julie & Julia”?
Oh, there’s so many. Can I have a tie?
Sure, pick as many as you want.
I think “The Master” and “Her.” They’re both so powerful and so different. She’s so vulnerable and unrecognizable in “Her.” It’s obviously Joaquin’s film, and I guess Scarlett Johansson on the device, but Amy comes with such artistry in that film. And on the flip side, “The Master” is so Shakespearean and powerful. She’s quiet and still, but she’s so fierce.
But it’s really hard to name because you could go on for a while with her. I would say those are my top two.