In Sharp Objects, the only character less comfortable in the town of Wind Gap than Amy Adams’s hometown daughter in exile Camille Preaker is Richard Willis, the out-of-town detective investigating the murders of two young girls. Camille and Richard start off trading quips over drinks, and then move on to flirting over crime scenes. By episode five, they were in bed together, and this week, in the wake of a messy Calhoun Day, Richard started to investigate Camille’s own past, and dig through her medical records. “It moves along the way to something Richard doesn’t quite grasp or understand,” Chris Messina, who plays Richard, told Vulture. “Until, probably, it’s too late.”
Messina, who recently spent several years playing grumpy heartthrob Danny Castellano on The Mindy Project, seems to specialize in playing men who have a thing for anti-heroic women. He ended up on Sharp Objects after Adams, who played across for him on Julie & Julia, recommended him for the part, and he’s thrilled to learn from her talent, even if, he promises, there’s a lot more that he can do.
In “Cherry,” Richard continues digging into Camille’s past. What do you think makes him obsess over her?
Initially, it’s that he’s obviously not very welcome in the town, he’s an outsider, and she has made herself an outsider. It starts with a bit of loneliness and this woman has a real understanding of how this town works. There is a bit of a manipulation on both of their parts. He’s falling for her. He spends just as much time — or more — looking into who Camille is, what her story is, and the initial task at hand.
It’s definitely not the best kind of detective work.
To cuddle up to the lead reporter and start sharing information, that’s detective 101 of what not to do. I like that about this show: It blurs the lines for both Camille and Richard of what’s professional and what’s not, and what’s right and what’s wrong.
You worked with Amy Adams on Julie & Julia, and I’d read that she brought Sharp Objects to you. What’s it like to work with her again?
We had a great time on Julie & Julia. We became fast friends, our families became friends, and I did love that acting with her. I felt that she made me better and I learned a lot from her. She called me and said, “Have you read this book?” I knew of Gillian and was a fan of hers, but I hadn’t read the book, and I read it immediately. I felt like I knew the task, the job that was Richard, and I felt connected to the material.
Jean Marc-Vallée didn’t know who I was. I came in and we read and Amy was that incredible supportive friend. After every scene she’d turn to Jean-Marc Vallée with a big smile like, “Don’t you like him?” She was a friend trying to get another friend a job. I think, because the material is so dark and she has to carry that around for a long period of time, she really wanted people around her — and there are a few of us in this position — that she felt supported by and comfortable with.
I read that Amy brought a fart machine onto the set. Were their other things she did to lighten the mood?
I don’t know if you’ve spoken to Amy before, but she’s everything you want or think she’s going to be, and more. She’s an incredible actress and super dedicated and works her ass off, but she’s also really kind and funny, and likes to be silly and so do I. Especially that Calhoun Day scene — we were just baking in the sun for hours, we were drinking O’Douls, and we were bloated and gassy and we were just teasing one another.
At the end of Calhoun Day, we had that sex scene, so in the scene the next morning, she just made fun of me. My ass is just out there, pale as can be, and she was just making us all laugh. That’s what you need in those moments — somebody to just take the piss out of you and make fun of it.
The same thing with Patricia, I worked with her in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. There’s a shorthand that is just automatic, so you can cut through a lot of the bullshit and just get to the meat of the scene.
In the Calhoun Day episode, you have that scene with Patricia Clarkson where Adora gives Richard an architectural tour of the house, but it’s all about what’s not being said. What was it like to shoot that?
That was one of the great acting lessons I received in my entire career. She had like a five-page monologue, and I interject a few lines here or there. Jean-Marc Vallée doesn’t rehearse, there’s no marks on the floor. He told her, “When you bring Chris in, talk about the wallpaper a bit, and explain the house to him.” It’s just an improv. We were outside the door waiting to go in, Patty turned to me and she said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” and I said, “Well, let’s walk the tightrope.” They called action, and she looked at me with a big smile on her face and she said, “Let’s fail.”
Then, she was extraordinary. She made up this improv about the house and the wallpaper, and then she went into her five-page monologue. To have her take the pressure off herself, free herself up, and then watch her just fly through that monologue was something I’ll never forget.
I’ve read people talk about how Jean-Marc shoots with little rehearsal and blocking. Is it unsettling? Or do you find that freeing?
It was very unsettling in the beginning, and very frustrating, because I tend to like to go slow and amp up and do a lot of takes and try it a lot of ways. But once I gave over to it, it was extremely freeing, and I think he made all of us better. Certainly me. His specialty, I think, is to take the acting away from the actors. Often when you do a lot of takes, you get in your head and you start to repeat. You start acting. Searching for results you got on an earlier take. His way of working was like rehearsing on camera.
He loves what he does, and is extremely present in what’s happening, and the images around him. Like the fans — the fans weren’t in the script. There we were onset in Atlanta or up in Northern California, and it was hot as hell and there were these fans. He incorporated them into scenes. Just another sharp object that he noticed.
Speaking of the heat, Richard is stuck in all of this dark police-wear and sweating a ton. Was that at all enhanced?
Most of the time, unfortunately, it doesn’t need to be enhanced. I run hot. It was very warm. But on the occasion when I wasn’t sweating, there was someone squirting me down. I like that about this show, to be honest with you. Jean-Marc and Gillian and Marti Noxon, they promoted and invited your truth and the rawness of the insides of the outsides. It wasn’t a show where, if you started sweating like a real person, they wanted to get you a clean fresh shirt.
You’ve ended up in a niche, in projects like Sharp Objects, The Mindy Project, and Julie & Julia, where you play the romantic lead opposite a complicated woman, but you started out in New York theater playing a lot more rough-and-tumble characters, often drug addicts. What do you make of that trajectory?
I’ve thought about that recently because I’ve been asked that question, and I guess I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had strong, great women around me my whole life. My mother, my grandmother, my sister, now my wife. Maybe that bled into my work because, there’s been Nora and Mindy, Amy and Patty, Jane Fonda played my mother on The Newsroom. I’ve been surrounded by great women and I’ve learned a lot from all of them. Not only acting, but how to be a better, or try to be a better person.
I did play these really complicated characters in the theater, and when I got cast in Six Feet Under, as a Republican lawyer, my friends in New York were like, “What?” It was a blessing and a curse. It was cool that Alan Ball was doing something different. I wasn’t your stereotypical Republican lawyer. But if you do something halfway decent in Hollywood, it wants you to keep doing it. So, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Julie & Julia… I was a nice guy who, sometimes, the dick who maybe had a nice heart.
The nice guy who isn’t the necessarily best thing in the world.
Yeah, exactly. I think that’s the struggle we all go through — we continue to keep saying we’re actors and we can walk in a lot of different shoes and we’re trying to find the opportunity to do that. Ben Affleck gave me a great opportunity in Live by Night to play this gangster. Unfortunately, not that many people saw that film.
Is there another side of yourself that you’d like to get onscreen?
Anything complicated. Anything that’s not black or white. I feel like I’m just at the beginning, to be honest with you. I’ve gotten to work with great people, but I really do feel like I’m in ways just starting, continuing to try to convince people that I’m not just Ted from Six Feet Under.
It’s frustrating. You get angry. A lot of the independent films I’ve done were more along the lines of where I came from in New York theater. They were complicated characters. But there’s so much to see, you have to tie people down to see those films. Like 28 Hotel Rooms, and my film that I directed, Alex of Venice. If you stumble upon them on Netflix or iTunes, maybe you see me in a different light. It’s not just me. It’s everybody, and probably every profession. I mean, not in any comparison to this — because my talents don’t even touch this — but weren’t people pissed off when Dylan plugged in the electric guitar?
So you want to find a way for you to plug in your electric guitar, metaphorically?
Yeah, we all need to plug in our electric guitar. Then we can go acoustic again. But I want to plug in and get really loud.
On the acoustic-to-electric scale, where does Sharp Objects fall?
Well, the show is electric. I love the show. I love the actors. I love Jean Marc Vallée. I love the writing. I’m dancing around the electricity and trying to understand it, if that makes any sense. The amplifier is right in my ear, and so I feel it. It’s, like, pulsating through my body. The electricity is hitting me. It’s not coming from me, but it’s hitting me, and I like the feeling.