Chris Messina refuses to say he’s the hardest working man in Hollywood.
And that’s fair — there are countless actors out there struggling to be seen, putting in thankless hours in an effort to break through. Messina was once one of them. Now that he’s found mainstream success, starring on The Mindy Project and premiering his directorial debut Alex of Venice at the Tribeca Film Festival, he is grateful for all his opportunities, as stressful as they sometimes are.
“There comes a time when you have to refill the well, so it’ll be nice when things slow down a bit and I can take a breath,” he admits. Sitting on the patio at Santa Monica’s Palihouse, Messina looks almost peaceful, a stark contrast to the litany of obligations he’s rattling off. “I finished last season of The Mindy Project, and then started prepping [Alex of Venice] at the end of that season. And then I went into a few Newsroom episodes, and then went off and shot the film, and then had two weeks off, and then went back to The Mindy Project, where I began editing the film. And then I did that throughout the entire season. The Mindy Project just ended and only last night did I finish working on the sound for the film.”
While he’s not one to complain, he’ll at least concede that, for a time, he was working too hard.
“It was a bit stupid on my part to take on that much, and I think everything suffers when you do that much,” Messina says. “I think your work suffers, your relationships suffer. Some of the decisions I was making were with only a couple hours of sleep, so I hope to direct another movie again, but I would never do that with anything else. I would like to clear the deck.”
Alex of Venice — in which Messina also stars — is his film directorial debut. He was offered the project by producers Jamie Patricof and Lynette Howell, who previously collaborated on Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines, among others.
But it was Alex of Venice’s screenplay that made Messina commit to directing.
“The script spoke to me,” he says. “I recognized myself and my family and my friends and all the people I know and love in each and every one of these characters, so I wanted to give it a shot.”
Messina had directed theatrical productions before, and he’d also coached friends he put on tape for films. But Alex of Venice was a unique challenge — while he was excited to take it on, he was plagued by the standard insecurities.
“When you’re doing it, you’re going, What the fuck am I doing? Am I screwing this up?” he says. “But the train has already taken off and you’re committed and you’ve cast it, and you’re a couple days into the film, and you’re hoping that you don’t mess it up because the script was so great.”
Messina’s career as a whole reflects an actor (now director) always looking for a way to push himself further, often at the expense of his sanity and sleep schedule. His rise from barely working actor to indie everyman speaks to his smart career choices — and yes, his occasional need to bite off more than he can chew.
“It is exhausting,” Messina says. “And I have two children.”
Messina’s appearance as the victim in a 1995 episode of Law & Order was actually his second on-screen role, but the first — thanks to editing decisions in post-production — has never been seen.
My first on-screen role was cut. It was a movie called Before and After with Meryl Streep. It was Barbet Schroeder who directed it, and I had, I don’t know, five lines. And it was a scene with Meryl Streep, and I was cut out of the film. I went to the movie. Nobody told me. And I brought a girlfriend at the time, and said, “I’m in this movie with Meryl Streep.” We were in an acting class together, so she was so impressed. And then there was no sign of me in the film. But that was my first role on film, which was an incredible first role to get. And Meryl was completely nice to me. She answered all my ridiculous questions about The Deer Hunter and Robert De Niro and where she studied. I asked her Dustin Hoffman Kramer vs. Kramer questions.
I kind of felt that I had made it, and that it was gonna be an incredible career from there. I was starting in this studio film with Meryl Streep. I was so young and naïve. And then that was not what happened to me. It was very slow. My career has been very slow. And I like that. And then not being in the film, I felt embarrassed and awful like I had done something wrong. I didn’t understand at that point. I mean, in my film that I just made, there are so many scenes and characters and things that are just not there because they just don’t fit, you know. Especially when you have somebody that comes in for one day and does one scene, it’s likely to go if the movie doesn’t need it. But at the time, I didn’t know that. So I was pretty plagued with, I had done something wrong. I was bad. But then I quickly learned that that’s the nature of the game.
And then Law & Order was soon after, where I came out of the bar, and I fall to the ground. I think it was the start of the episode when somebody dies. Something bad happens. I don’t think I said anything. I think there was a line, like, “Ahhh,” or, “Help,” and then I fall to the ground.
It took 10 years of minor parts, few and far between, before Messina got his first recurring role as Ted Fairwell, the Republican boyfriend of free spirit Claire (Lauren Ambrose), on Six Feet Under. By that point, he had almost given up.
I was in a really bad place. I had come to Los Angeles — up until that whole time from Before and After and Law & Order to Six Feet Under, I had done little bit parts, a couple lines here and there in films, and a scene or two in a television show, but nothing that I could prove myself in. They weren’t meaty enough. I had moved to Los Angeles and tried. In fact, I didn’t move. I was on a friend’s couch, and I was auditioning, giving L.A. my first shot, and it was very unsuccessful. A lot of close calls, but with a lot of nos. [One] morning, [my agent] said, “You have an audition. It’s this recurring role on Six Feet Under, Claire’s boyfriend.” And I said, “No, I’m going to the airport. I’m not meant for film or television. I’m gonna go back and do plays.” And at the time, the agent said, “OK, whatever you want to do.” And for some reason on the way to the airport, I called them and said, “Where is the address? I’ll just go.” And I went, and got back in the car and headed back to the airport. They called before I got to the airport and said, “Turn around. They want you to read with Lauren Ambrose.”
So a couple days later I read with her. I was pretty bummed those days. I was like, It’s not gonna happen. I was pretty negative. I remember I was sitting on a curb waiting to go into a shitty audition for something else as I was biding my time to find out a couple days later. I was waiting to go into this terrible, terrible [audition] and they called and said, “You got the part.” I was ecstatic, and then super nervous that I had to go join this great television show with these great actors.
And it changed things for me. Alan Ball, I have a soft spot in my heart for him. He really helped me out a lot. And it was amazing for me because I had done all this theater that no one saw. Every now and then you’d be on the subway and someone would say, “Hey, were you in that play off-off-off-Broadway?” And then I remember the finale aired and I walked out of my apartment in Los Angeles, and the UPS guy was like, “Hey, Ted! I love that show.” That was my first experience with television and how many people it can get to. And that was exciting because I had never experienced anything like that.
As it turned out, Six Feet Under helped Messina nab his next major role as Doug in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. During the casting process, director Woody Allen was shown clips from the HBO series that helped convince him to meet with Messina.
That was one of those experiences where you were — not only did you get a Woody Allen film but you got to go to Barcelona with Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz. That was one of those corny things where people go, “Pinch me. Am I really here with them?” Similar to Six Feet Under, I was, the first couple of days, wondering when I was gonna be fired. You always think that somebody made a mistake, that they’re gonna find out soon that you’re a terrible actor and you’re not right for this part, and you should go home. There’s no way that you should be in a movie with Javier Bardem. I was lucky that that wasn’t the case. And I got to stick around. It was amazing.
I learned early on with Woody, if he wasn’t spending a lot of time talking to you and giving you a ton of notes that that was a good thing. If he was having to go, “It’s like this” or explain or having to go over and over and over it with you, that was when you were in trouble. And so we didn’t talk that much. We talked a bit about movies. I would ask him questions about Hannah and Her Sisters, and we talked about Michael Caine, and we talked about the Yankees, I remember. But we didn’t talk a lot about the scenes. His big thing is, he casts it the way he sees fit, and he guides you a little right and left, but he lets you go. And it was an amazing experience. It was the first time I had felt that feeling that I’ve been striving forever since, that I wasn’t in a movie. It was so freeing. I didn’t feel anybody was holding me down. I didn’t feel like there was a right or a wrong way to do it. I felt like he wanted us to go do what he hired us to do. And that was an exceptional feeling. And to be among the actors in this film, to be on that list, is definitely something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. It was pretty great.
In the indie dramedy Away We Go, Messina played Tom, one of many friends visited by expecting couple Verona (Maya Rudolph) and Burt (John Krasinski). It was a small part, but it gave Messina the chance to work with director Sam Mendes.
Sam Mendes had a gigantic effect on me, and impact on the way I see movies, and the way I think a director’s experience can be with actors. Really, I’d quote him constantly and think about him constantly when I was making my movie. He’s great with actors. He said to me that every actor comes with a gift, and his job was to let the gift out and not get in the way of the gift, similar to what Woody [Allen] did.
A lot of times on jobs you get a part and then they try to, they’re moving you here and there, and they don’t seem happy with what you’re doing, and they’re trying to get you to be more like this. It seems like there’s an answer, and you’re not getting it right. But you don’t know what the answer is. Often you go, Why did they hire me? If they want that other thing, why did they hire me? I’m not fitting into what they want. That’s not what I know how to do. And so I learned from Sam that you have to let the actor have freedom and have wings, and with that freedom and wings comes confidence. And then, if you’re lucky, something magical happens. Something good happens. A moment clicks in. You do something so unexpected because you were given the freedom.
That same year, Messina played opposite Amy Adams as Eric Powell in Julie & Julia, a film that reunited him with writer-director Nora Ephron — he’d had a bit part in You’ve Got Mail — and Meryl Streep, with whom he’d shared his first on-screen scene, sadly abandoned on the cutting room floor.
I loved working with Amy [Adams]. We became friends. She’s a great actor, and it was a great time for her when we made that movie. It’s been a great time for her ever since. I felt like I learned a lot from her. And Nora [Ephron] — right around the Before and After time, I had done a couple lines in You’ve Got Mail, so it was nice to come around from a couple lines to a bigger part.
That was amazing, my experience on that film, because they were kind enough to include me in all the press stuff so I went to France with Meryl [Streep] and Stanley [Tucci], and we showed that film to Mrs. Obama at the White House. We had some great perks to being in that film. Nora was really great to me. She was really very kind to me. She’s one of the few people who gave me a job in the room. She gave me You’ve Got Mail in the room. She said, after my audition — which never happens — “You’ll be in the movie, either playing this part or something else.” And then when I came back in to audition for Julie & Julia, it was great to see her again. She was super kind and smart and sharp.
We ate a lot of great food. I gained a lot of weight making that. You see a little bit in the movie, but then after, I had been eating so good, you just continue to want to eat.
In Greenberg, Messina played Phillip, brother of the titular Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller). It was, of course, a smaller film than Julie & Julia — not to mention a much smaller part.
Unfortunately I worked for two or three days, but I loved working with [Noah Baumbach]. I have been lucky. I’ve been lucky. I would love to work with Noah or Sam [Mendes] or Woody [Allen] again, and be there every day with them. I would even love to just shadow those guys and just watch their process, because three days, although great, with Noah wasn’t enough. But he runs a great set. It was very quiet and concentrated, and he’s super respectful. And I loved Greenberg. I loved the film. I love all his films.
Messina wanted to be Serpico when he was growing up, and while that particular dream never came true, he did get to play a cop in Devil, a horror film based on a story by M. Night Shyamalan. While the film received mixed reviews, Messina stands behind it.
I like thrillers a lot, and I felt like it had a Hitchcock kind of setup that was interesting. And I was interested in playing a cop. I’ve always wanted to play a cop, and the character’s really cool. I like the Dowdle brothers. I liked their film that they made before that, Quarantine. Those were our directors. And having M. Night involved was exciting. All those different ingredients made for something that sounded really interesting.
I like it. I think there’s a cool throwback element to it that I like. Some people really like that film, and I liked it. I wouldn’t mind doing more of that stuff. I like thrillers. Maybe not so much horror films as much as thrillers, but I like psychological, tense — like Rosemary’s Baby is scary as all hell, but there’s not a lot of slashing and blood and gore.
Messina joined the cast of Damages in its fourth season, taking on the recurring role of Chris Sanchez, an employee of a private security firm who returned from Afghanistan suffering from PTSD.
That was an amazing experience. Those guys are great to work with. They really love actors and understand them, and I loved working with them. When I was in the theater, I played a lot of delinquents, and then Alan Ball, he really helped my career, but from that point on, the niche for me was the guy that you thought was a dick and you kind of warmed up and liked him. And most of the time he’d be in a suit, or he’d have money. And although I’m grateful for that stuff, it was nice to go back to Damages because it felt like a return to what I started off doing.
After all these kinds of boyfriends and nice guys, I really went full throttle with it. Because [with] post-traumatic stress disorder, you don’t sleep, I stayed up for days. I think the most I was able to do it was three days where I didn’t go to sleep, and I would film that way. And on some of the scenes I would be exhausted, and then right before action I would drink — and I don’t drink caffeine — I would drink these Red Bulls, and so I would be shaking from the Red Bull and the lack of sleep. I don’t know if it really worked, but it felt inside like something was wrong, and it was fun to do. That’s just really an example of, I was so excited to act. I was so excited to have a character where there’s meat on the bones. There’s so much to dig into there.
In Celeste & Jesse Forever, Messina returned to playing the potential love interest the audience slowly warms up to. He was eager to work with Rashida Jones again — the two had starred in Monogamy — and he loved the script, but it was a role he knew all too well.
You start to feel — you understand why people want you to play certain roles. And I like to work. Every time you go out there you learn something new, which is awesome. I love that director, Lee Krieger. You learn. Rashida taught me something, Will [McCormack] taught me something, Lee Krieger taught me something. You debate going, I don’t want to play this role again, but usually it’s a great bunch of people, and you get to learn from them. So it depends.
But yeah, there’s definitely a hunger still in me. You know the feeling as an actor because you’re scared shit. If you’re not scared shit, you can do it in your sleep or you feel like you’ve done this a bunch of times, it’s not as fun. But when you feel like, I don’t know if I can do this. That’s how I felt on Damages: I don’t know if I can do this. I don’t have enough time to prepare this. I’m really scared about this. It means a lot to me to get this right for soldiers out there. Then that’s a fun feeling, because you’re on a tightrope and there’s no net underneath you, and that’s really fun as an actor. So that’s the search, the quest.
The same year, Messina starred in the understated indie drama 28 Hotel Rooms as the unnamed Man. The role required a different set of skills from Messina — and full-frontal nudity.
Matt Ross is one of my great friends, and he was our director. We worked on the movie together for a while. I have complete trust in him, that he was gonna edit me and leave stuff in the film that needed to be there, and remove stuff that was either wrong for the film or just super embarrassing or whatever. They are two people in 28 hotel rooms having an affair, so we knew that there had to be — not only sex scenes, but just scenes where they were living in their hotel room. Sometimes you’re walking around naked.
We didn’t want to just ask that of Marin [Ireland], the actress. We thought they both should be. It didn’t scare me. Every now and then, I’ll see — somebody will have a screenshot from the movie, and I’m like, God, my penis looks so small. Why did I do that? But on the day, it was fine.
In addition to his executive producer credit on 28 Hotel Rooms in 2012, Messina served as executive producer on Fairhaven, a film he starred in with a script based on a story he co-wrote with screenwriter Tom O’Brien.
It’s so nice to start from the ground up with something. You get to learn so much, as an actor, you get to learn so much about the characters because you’re developing them. A lot of times as an actor — I’m shooting a Joe Swanberg movie now, and tonight’s my first night, and I’ll go tonight to the set and I’ll go, Oh, this is the house. OK, these are the people I’m gonna be with. And then before you know it, someone will call action. But when it starts from the ground up, you get to be a part of picking the house and picking the people that you’re gonna be with. It’s just insightful into the world and into the characters.
It’s also nice to have a voice. A lot of times you make these movies and they show you the final cut of the film, and you would have had some ideas. They might not be right but you’d like to express them, but it’s too late. It’s picture locked. It’s sent to the film festival and that’s it. But when you’re involved from the ground up, you get to go into the editing room and say, “You know, I may be wrong, I probably am, but did you guys try this?” And that’s fun. That’s fun to have a voice in that, especially when you do it with friends. Tom O’Brien is a great old friend of mine — we have another movie that we’re starting up now — and [28 Hotel Rooms writer-director] Matt Ross is a great friend of mine. When you do it with your pals, there’s probably nothing better.
Messina’s most high-profile role that year was as Malinov in Argo. It wasn’t a huge part, but the film received plenty of critical attention, eventually winning the Academy Award for Best Picture. And Messina was able to observe Ben Affleck, who both directed and starred in the film.
Ben is a great director. I’ve tried to steal from him. I think great actors, they make good directors. He understands acting, and he has a patience with actors. It was great. It was great to be in the world of that film in the ’70s, and the wardrobe and the mustache. It was fun to do that. Again, a departure from just being a nice guy or a boyfriend. It was just fun to be in the world. Again, I wish I could have been with Ben throughout all 80 days or 90 days. I was there for a week or two. It was really fun to watch him direct and act, and how he managed it. I definitely knew I wanted to do it, so I was watching him. It was like film school for me.
Maybe the theme of this article is, I would love to go back with Ben. I’d love to go back with Woody [Allen] and Noah [Baumbach] and Sam [Mendes] and spend more time, but even the little bits and pieces you get inform you about how you want your work to be. So it was awesome.
And then to go on the ride with Argo. We won the SAG Award and Best Picture. You just felt lucky to be involved with it. I’m just lucky I got this part.
Although he’s a series regular on a sitcom, Messina continues to recur as Reese Lansing on The Newsroom. As with any role crafted by Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin, playing Reese requires tremendous commitment to learn Sorkin’s complex, distinctive dialogue.
It’s kind of like Shakespeare. You have to follow — if you follow the words and the rhythms and the song of it, you’ll be OK. It’s difficult. It’s stressful. That job is stressful. The set is great. The cast is great. Sorkin’s awesome. But you cannot show up on that set and be looking at your sides in the makeup trailer. That’s not gonna work on that show. It’s almost like doing a play on camera, and if you skip an “a” or a “the,” you’ll see the script supervisor coming for you. It has to be word perfect.
I need at least five days, at the minimum, to work on it and prepare it and rehearse it. I’ll have guys, buddies of mine, come over to the house. I’ll buy them lunch or whatever, and we’ll run the lines. We’ll work on the character. We’ll work on the scenes. I have to know it inside out. And a lot of the dialogue, because I’m the president of the company, I don’t understand what I’m saying. So it’s very hard to memorize when I have no idea what this terminology is for the news division. You have to stop and really put it into your own words and get it, and then you go back and go, OK, now I can memorize this.
I had an awful experience at The Newsroom. [The Mindy Project] wrapped, I was prepping [Alex of Venice] to direct, and I went and did a couple Newsroom episodes, and then they asked me to be in the finale last season. And I said, “OK, I can do it, write me super light.” They said, “OK, we’ll write you light,” and two days before, three days before, there was a new speech. And I was thinking of calling them and being like, “I can’t do it. I’m casting. My head is crazy. I’m looking for locations.” But I decided to go, and it was in the bull pen — I had a scene in the bull pen in front of probably the entire cast, and I lost my shit. I couldn’t get it. I don’t know how many takes. Many takes. I couldn’t get the lines. It was like the actor’s nightmare. Because I was unprepared. And Jane Fonda just kept looking at me and going, “I fucking love you. I fucking love you.” And Sam Waterston said — because I was sweating, I turned white — and Sam Waterston said, “This is what the work looks like.”
In many ways, Danny Castellano on The Mindy Project is the typical Chris Messina character: rough around the edges but sweet underneath it all. Over the course of the show’s two seasons, however, Messina has been able to watch Danny grow — as Messina himself has stepped out of his comfort zone.
The Mindy Project felt very scary to do, which again, is a good sign. There was something good about doing it. It was never a world — if you told me, “You’re going to be entering your third season of a Fox comedy,” I’d be like, “That’s never gonna happen.” And not because I thought I was better than it, just because I didn’t grow up wanting that, and I don’t feel like I have that skill. I’m really happy that Mindy [Kaling] saw something in me that she felt was right for this part and right for the show. And I’ve learned a lot about comedy from all those guys. It’s a very, very funny bunch of people.
I struggle with it, because what I like to do and the style in which I like to work is quiet, a lot of silences and a lot of pauses. It’s 20 minutes of television so it’s like, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go, and that’s where the comedy comes out, some of the quick pace of it. So I struggle sometimes with maybe the form of it, but I’ve learned to really, really respect it and admire when people can do it well.
There are so many actors that you’ll sit down with — and there are so many actors that you probably will never meet — that are so talented and they can’t get an agent, they can’t get a job, they can’t get a callback. They can’t get a callback for a fucking pilot. They can’t get in the room. I know a lot of these people, and they blow me away, and they blow so many other actors away. And we may not know who they are ever. I’m lucky to have a job. For two seasons, now entering into a third, between The Mindy Project and The Newsroom, to have these very, very two different characters, these very, very two different sets, I’m super lucky to have work.
So we started out by saying, “Yeah, it’s exhausting. I don’t sleep much, and I’m going from one thing to the next,” but in the big scheme of things, the fact that I can go and know that tonight I’m gonna go shoot this Joe Swanberg movie, and know that next week I’m going back on The Newsroom, and in July I have a job on The Mindy Project — it’s a nice feeling because that might go away, easily. And it definitely hasn’t been here forever. There were many days where I didn’t know what the hell I was gonna do.