Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Former Mindy Project paramour-turned-Birds Of Prey baddie Chris Messina has seen his fair share of “affable boyfriend” roles. And while he has undoubtedly managed to claim more than a few hearts with his performances in Julie & Julia, Away We Go, and Celeste & Jesse Forever, the New York actor does not mind the occasional dark turn, à la Damages, The Sinner, or Live By Night. In fact, his background in stage work, where he got to play an array of figures ranging from cool to unhinged, sparked a deep interest in characters that harbor a penchant for causing some trouble. The A.V. Club chatted with the co-star of the post-World War II thriller The Secrets We Keep over the phone about crafting Victor Zsasz, eating hot dogs on Law & Order, and the joys of creating new families with stellar co-stars.
The Secrets We Keep (2020)—“Lewis”
The A.V. Club: There is a singular through line with all of your projects, where you always happen to land in the middle of these stellar ensembles. With Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman, and Amy Seimetz, The Secrets We Keep is no exception. What was it like getting to be part of such a stacked cast?
Chris Messina: That’s the reason I took the job. [With Rapace,] I knew that I would get to spar with a real master actress. When you get those opportunities, they always make you better. She’s incredible. Her work ethic is just fierce. She has a lot to tackle and in the movie, the stakes keep rising and it was quite intense for her, yet she did it with such focus and grace. When you’re playing tennis with somebody on that level, they just make your game better.
AVC: There’s a scene that occurs within the first 15 minutes of The Secrets We Keep where your character, Lewis, and Rapace’s Maja are flirting and laughing in bed. There’s this really easy back and forth between you both. In a lot of your work, you’re able to find this very intimate line of communication with your scene partners. What gets you to that point?
CM: I just think I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some really incredible people. One of the great things about acting is you kind of become family with this group of strangers. It’s great to learn about them and reveal yourself to them, and that’s certainly something Noomi and I did. Before we met, she would send me these playlists from the time period and we’d go back and forth. So when we jumped into rehearsals, we were already kind of grooving. I think with a lot of the people I’ve worked with, I’ve had that experience where you’re in battle together and you both take an oath to give it your all, to go as deep as you can, and with the most joy that you can. It’s always a joy to get to know them and sad to say goodbye.
Harley Quinn: Birds Of Prey (2020)— “Victor Zsasz”
AVC: That was such a strong departure from from the rest of your portfolio. What was it like wading into the comic book side of storytelling?
CM: That was really fun. When you do something halfway decent in Hollywood, it’s hard to find people that can expand their imagination of what you can be. So for a while, I was a nice guy because that’s how some people got to know me. Because I come from New York theater where I played a plethora of different characters and delinquents in all these new plays, I was really drawn to these characters at an early age—loners, anarchists, antiheroes, whatever you would call them. I was thrilled that someone gave me a shot at doing something else because as an actor, it’s fun to disappear into other people and try on other people’s shoes. I did so badly in school, so it’s my way of learning about the world, people, and history.
There was a world of comic books to dive into and I enjoy the different incarnations that the artists took with that character along the way, and then finding our version of him with the director, Cathy Yan. It was really a lot of fun playing off Ewan McGregor, who was just the kindest man and so smart and playful. He helped my character become a bigger part of the movie. Rather just being a henchman sidekick, we developed this strange, master-servant relationship with my character adoring him, wanting to be him, and maybe taking over one day. It was almost like a Talented Mr. Ripley Zsasz or something. I still have more anarchy in me that I’d like to present.
Live By Night (2016)—“Dion Bartolo”
CM: Ben Affleck gave me the opportunity in Live By Night to be a darker version of anything I’ve played. Unfortunately, nobody saw that film, but it was a really nice departure into a darker world. My wife [Jennifer Todd] produced that film. So we worked together on that movie, which we had only done one time before we were even together on Ira & Abby. It was a beautiful family experience and I love that time period and that genre. Most casting directors, producers, or directors would never seen me or maybe wanted me to audition for that role, so the movie is very special to me and again, I surrounded by a group of extraordinary actors—Chris Cooper, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, Elle Fanning, the list goes on.
The Mindy Project (2012-2017)—“Danny Castellano”
AVC: When it comes to Danny Castellano, there are classic scenes that are still heavily discussed, whether he’s dancing for Mindy or running toward her in a grand gesture.
CM: A lot of running. [Laughs.]
AVC: Is there a particular scene that you wish you had gotten to talk about more?
CM: I always loved when they would write Mindy and Danny one scene that would have some jokes, but was really heartfelt. I always loved doing those with [Mindy Kaling]. I think about that show a lot, about how much I took for granted. I would wake up, drive to work, and laugh the hardest I’ve ever laughed. It was just part of my day, and I took for granted what a gift that was, especially in the times we’re living in now. I always define that as a masterclass in comedy. I was very intimidated at first, but with writing and direction like that, they made a really memorable character in Danny Castellano.
All the scenes were fun. You’d go into the writers room and tell them, “This is the kind of person I am,” or “I sometimes like to juggle.” My mom was a dance teacher and I grew up wanting to be Baryshnikov. I danced and I was really into it. And then I’d open up the script a few weeks later and I’d be like, “ Oh shit. Why did I tell them that?” But in truth, it was nice because nobody’s asked about a love of mine as a kid. There I was with a choreographer on my day off or after work, working on a number and it was nerve wracking, but at the same time, I got to go back to my roots, which was my love of dance.
Sam Smith, “I Know I’m Not The Only One” (2014)—“Husband”
CM: That was so strange. I had never heard of Sam Smith at the time when they made that video. I was probably behind, as I often am. I could be misquoting this, but I think maybe Sam saw Vicky Cristina Barcelona and liked it, so they contacted me. They sent me the song and I played it for my wife, who really liked it and was like, “You gotta do this.” Sam was there for a couple of days and was lovely. When we were filming, they were starting to blow up, and then afterwards they became gigantic. But Sam was lovely and it was a beautiful song.
AVC: And you got to depart from the affable boyfriend again by playing a cheating jerk.
CM: Yeah, that’s one of the reasons why I did it. Not only was the song beautiful, but it was a chance to explore more darkness.
28 Hotel Rooms (2012)— “Man”
CM: Director Matt Ross is one of my dearest friends. We developed the movie together. I was just texting with him and [co-star] Marin Ireland, “Had I known how rare these experiences are, I would have savored every moment. And then Matt joked, “Well, maybe we should do 29 Hotel Rooms.” It was a lovely experience with a skeleton crew. I mean really, really independent. It was very much a family affair, just an incredible vibe all around.
When you do plays, you paint the sets, maybe you do sound or handle your own props. Everyone’s making it together. That’s the real fun of independent film and 28 Hotel Rooms was the epitome of that. It was a labor of love. Nobody would become rich off of it. It was just a way to express ourselves.
AVC: 28 Hotel Rooms is such a potent example of intimate storytelling. These characters, who don’t even have names, are really the only ones you see and there’s not a ton of background music. There’s really nothing to distract you from this central story of two romantically tortured people.
CM: We were in love with Scenes From A Marriage and we were trying to get as raw as possible, to the guts of what a relationship is. Blue Valentine with Michelle Williams does this really well. Harold Pinter’s Betrayal deals with that long-standing affair and timing, meeting somebody at the right time, the one that got away, all those kinds of things. This was also very important to us.
I think at the end of the day, you’re looking for your people. And when you find them, you feel seen and heard. In a more commercial film, when you’re not a big star, you only have so much say, or there’s money and time to consider. That’s totally understandable, because this is the way it is. But to have a piece of clay, which was the movie that Matt had no ego about, and say, “We have the time and space, let’s try something entirely different today,” it was kind of orgasmic, to be honest. It’s hard to find your people.
AVC: Do you feel like Man and Woman left their partners for each other in the end?
CM: I think at the time I thought that they didn’t, probably because I thought that was sadder. They should have been together, but they never will be because they didn’t have the bravery to face that they’re in the wrong relationships, you know? I dunno, what did you think?
AVC: I oscillate, but I think what I recently landed on was that if they really felt empowered enough to leave their partners, they probably would have done it 26 hotel rooms ago.
CM: [Laughs.] Exactly, we’re very similar there. And I felt like even if they did get together, they were in such turmoil and the relationship was so damaged that they wouldn’t make it.
Humboldt County (2008)— “Max”
Ira & Abby (2006)— “Ira Black”
Six Feet Under (2005)— “Ted Fairwell”
AVC: There was a stretch of time where you were working with Frances Conroy a lot. Did you have a favorite instance of your time together?
CM: She’s unbelievable. I haven’t seen her in person in quite some time, but she had an elegance, simplicity, and joy in the way that she worked. She was always very inviting. When I was in Six Feet Under, I was coming on at the end of the sixth season. These people—not just Frances, but Lauren Ambrose, Michael C. Hall, Peter Krause, Richard Jenkins, all of them—were all so welcoming. I haven’t thought about this, but to have her in Ira & Abby, which was right after Six Feet Under, and then Humboldt, it’s pretty extraordinary to get that kind of a flow with somebody. You start to feel just more comfortable around them. I also think that dynamic is nice as a troupe. They’re a family at that point. They probably get on each other’s nerves and love each other, like a family. They know, “Oh, Chris is doing bullshit again. I love him, but I gotta tell Chris to stop doing is bullshit.” I read something by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg where they would just say, “I think of you this way, you’re acting this way,” and they would go back and forth at each other to get to the truth, and only family can do that. I felt that way with Francis. I felt comfortable around her, like I stopped pretending.
AVC: Were you ever on the receiving end of one of those truth-telling moments in your career?
CM: When someone said “Stop doing your bullshit?” Every day somebody is telling me to stop doing my bullshit. Most of the time it’s me looking in the mirror saying, “Stop your bullshit, man.”
Law & Order (1995-2003)—“Don Cushman / Kevin Turner / Tommy Bell”
AVC: You’re part of this cool fraternity of people who have stopped by Law & Order multiple times.
CM: I think the first time I did Law & Order, I died. “Help” was my line, but I didn’t get it out. I died before I even said it. I did another episode where I was eating a hot dog at a hot dog stand. I remember telling my girlfriend at the time, “Yeah, it was a great day. I got the hot dog, cameras were rolling and nobody told me to eat the hot dog, but I ate a bunch of hot dogs!” I was very proud of myself. Law & Order is like a rite of passage for New York actors.
Rounders (1998)— “Higgins”
AVC: How did you land your first credited gig?
CM: That was just a random audition. It was really fun because I was enamored by Edward Norton and Matt Damon, who had just won the Oscar for Good Will Hunting. Edward Norton had just done Primal Fear, so they were young actors that you wanted to be. I remember having a couple more lines and the director giving me my lines away—either because I was fucking it up or because of the camera angle—and wondering what did I’d done wrong. Now, seeing how this business works, it’s very easy to see why he would have done that.
Before And After with Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson was really my first movie. I had a scene with Meryl Streep and she was lovely. It was one of the greatest days of my young career. And then I went to the movie with my girlfriend at the time, we watched it, and I never showed up. So you learn that that happens all the time and it’s nothing personal. When you’re a young actor, you take all that shit to heart. I carried that around for months. But when you work consistently, you start to learn that everybody’s been cut.