Chris Messina is In Everything Because He Remembers When He Was In Nothing

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Larry Busacca, Getty Images

You probably know Chris Messina best from 'The Mindy Project.' Or maybe it's 'The Newsroom.' Or maybe it's one or more of the following: 'Argo,' 'Julia & Julia,' 'Greenberg,' 'Devil,' 'Away We Go,' 'Like Crazy,' 'Ruby Sparks,' 'Celeste and Jesse Forever' -- which is just a sampling of some of the projects that Messina has been involved with in the last few years. (In 2012, I co-authored a piece declaring Messina and Mark Duplass the two busiest actors in Hollywood, a piece I've since found out that Messina has actually read.)

Now, Messina, after starring in everything, has turned his attention to directing. 'Alex of Venice' -- which premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival -- stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the title character, coping with the sudden departure of her husband (played by Messina), while also managing her struggling actor father (Don Johnson) who has started to display some erratic behavior.

As an actor, Messina often displays a confidence in his roles that does not come across at all when you meet him in person, as I did this past weekend at Tribeca's New York City headquarters. He's as pleasant as they come, but he's also so unassuming that it's sometimes hard to remember that this is the same guy who's been in almost every movie (excuse the slight exaggeration) over the last five years. Though, as Messina explains, it wasn't that long ago when he wasn't getting any work at all.

But, first, Chris Messina really wants a banana.

That was a very specific request.

I love bananas. We've met before.

We have. We met at the Ace Hotel for an interview.

That's right! It's a great hotel.

I also once co-authored a piece about you and Mark Duplass being the hardest working guys in Hollywood.

Oh, you wrote that? I love Mark. What a talented guy. And we got to work together a little bit on 'The Mindy Project.' No, I loved that you did that. I was really touched by it.

Do you ever think about all that you've been in?

You know, I've had a lucky career. There's been so many times where I've sat in my apartment or backyard -- or wherever I was -- and wondering if I'd ever work again.

How long ago was this?

Before I did 'Six Feet Under,' which was maybe like eight years ago now, I had a rough go where I was like, "Am I doing the right thing?"

Did you consider quitting?

Yeah.

Really?

But, there's nothing else I was any good at. I didn't know what I would do. I thought about teaching acting -- I love working with actors. I love actors. I think I'm actually more of a fan of acting than anything else and I really love playing around with actors.

Every time I hear about a class like that I think of Tim Daly's character on 'The Sopranos.'

[Laughs] Yeah, exactly.

It seems dangerous.

It is dangerous. Or maybe a little less dangerous. So, yeah, I'm lucky. There's a lot of overlap, which is crazy. After I directed this film, I had two weeks off and I started the second season of 'The Mindy Project,' so I did my entire post-production in my trailer.

Do you do so much because you think back to when you weren't getting work?

Partly. Partly it's about "Will this go away?" and "When will it go away?"

You have to realize it's not going away at this point, right?

At this point, I feel like I will be a working actor for a long time.

If I were an actor, your career sounds appealing: You're respected, you're in a lot of projects, and I feel you can walk down the street and live a normal life.

Yeah, that's nice. And I get to work with such great people.

Do you get recognized?

You know, 'The Mindy Project' has changed the recognition a bit, but it's a totally normal life. It's not like I'm Brad Pitt in any way.

That's my headline, "Chris Messina: I'm Not Brad Pitt."

Yeah, "Chris Messina: I'm Not Brad Pitt," who I think is a great actor. I love Brad Pitt. But, it's just enough recognition when you feel seen a bit and heard a bit.

Would you want more?

I'm happy. This is great. I would like to have the things that might come along with more recognition -- where I could make a film for longer than 21 days or be bankable enough that certain filmmakers could put me in a nice size role in their film and not have to worry about financing because of me. I didn't do this to be famous. I really loved acting.

Who inspired you?

You know, being a short, ethnic guy from New York, I loved -- we're sitting in De Niro's offices...

Yeah, there's a 'Meet the Fockers' poster in the hallway.

There's got to be a 'Taxi Driver' here somewhere. Probably maybe in his office. But De Niro and Pacino and Dustin Hoffman; I was a big fan of the '70s films of Duvall and Hackman. John Cazale. I love John Cazale.

I'm surprised this is the first time you've directed.

I think every actor should take a turn at directing. At least I learned, in terms of actors, in the past I've tried to come with a performance -- and by no means does this mean "don't do your work"; you do your homework, you prepare -- but if you really trust the directors, you can give them an option. And having those options is such a gift. And then the director puts together your performance. There really is no "performance," there are just moments and the director makes that performance.

Don Johnson is in this movie. And you're telling him what to do.

Yeah. It's nerve-wracking.

I can imagine him saying, "Who are you telling me?"

"Why are you telling me? I have much more experience than you." He wasn't like that at all. He was hard to get to do the film -- I had to kind of beg him to do the film.

He's almost playing a version of himself: An older actor who used to be on a popular television show.

Look, I saw him in 'Django' and 'Eastbound' and I thought he was amazing. I wanted to have an iconic actor play the role that we all know from a TV show. And I also wanted a guy that we know as a beautiful man to have this illness -- because you can be beautiful, be in great shape, and this is struck upon you ... I'm sure he was reluctant at first about who I was and what I was doing, but soon we got on the same page and he was very free and very open and a leader amongst us. The first day, we have that scene where I'm yelling at him -- my good friend Matt Del Negro was directing me off-camera and directed that scene -- but it's Don's first day and he's going, "Who the fuck is this guy directing me?" And he was cool about it, but, "What's going on here? What kind of rinky-dink operation is this?"

How does one beg Don Johnson to be in a movie?

I went to his house -- and I don't know if he had any interest -- and he took me to his son's basketball game. I pretended I was interested and kept going, "So, the movie, man?" And then for many weeks I just kept calling and I wrote him a letter. I mean, he's slow to commit -- rightly so. He has a family, you know. He can say, "I don't know if Chris Messina is going to be any good. I can go make money over there, or go spend time with my family." You take a leap of faith. Like, if I ask you to be in my movie, you'd go...

Well, I'd say yes. I've never been in a movie, so I'd be very excited.

That would be fun -- in my next one.

Ha. Okay.

But, you'd search the Internet and go, "What does this guy have to show? Nothing." So, I'm glad they took a risk.

Mike Ryan is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

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