On Girls, Christopher Abbott plays Charlie, Marnie’s irritatingly nice, rather Sad Sack-y boyfriend. He’s so hapless that he recently got dumped by Marnie, mid-coitus, after four years together. Talk about timing! (It’s hard to blame her; the stuff coming out of his mouth during their final romp almost made us gag.) The two had been growing apart for a while, and tensions had been mounting between them, especially since Charlie learned about Marnie’s true feelings for him while he and his smarmy buddy Ray were snooping through Hannah’s diary. We sat down with Abbott to discuss what he thinks of Charlie, the cringe-worthy stuff he’s forced to say during sex, and the fact that he’s barely aware of any controversy surrounding the show (really).
Everybody seems to have this impression that a lot of the actors, especially the women, are very similar to the characters they play. Would you say you’re similar to Charlie?
Not in the sense of how he decides to carry out situations but at least in the sensitivity and how he feels towards Marnie: His love for her comes from a pure place, so I relate to that. I’m not as big of a talker as Charlie. I keep my mouth shut. Or at least I would if I were him.
In which situations would you keep your mouth shut?
When me and Marnie just start to kind of get back together, and they’re having sex and he asks her to “make sure you treat me with respect” or something. And you want to be like, “Dude, just be in the moment!” But he’s just trying to be good, and I get that.
Why did he stay with Marnie even though she treated him like shit?
They’ve been together for a while and they started at a pretty young age, and when you start a relationship that young and it goes on for years, you’re scared to lose that comfort. You’re like, “Well, this feels good.” And all of a sudden, four or five years have passed like that, really fast, and you’re closed off from other people because you have such comfort with that person. It’s like that mentality: If it’s not broke then don’t fix it. Even though maybe you don’t know it’s broke, and it actually is. Being blind to that and having that mentality is why he stays with Marnie.
The things he says during sex are just so awful.
You can’t judge your character — you just have to try and believe in what you’re saying. As an outsider, I think I would cringe, too, but in the moment, you just have to believe it. And you have to trust that you’re representing other people or aspects of other people as honestly as possible. The initial instinct people get about Charlie is that he can be way too passive, way too chill. You want him to stand up for himself. But when we were filming it, the important thing we’d always talk about — me and Lena and Allison — is why is he doing this, where does it come from, instead of just doing something cringe-worthy for the sake of it. It comes from a place of having a lot of love for this person and not really being able to handle it. And the real humor from those scenes comes from being dead serious about it. So that’s how I went about it when we shot it. It wasn’t difficult at the time but after the fact … I agree.
So, it’s hard for you to watch as well.
It goes along with when any of the characters on the show do stuff and you’re like, “Oh no!” That’s the point though: There’s no better reaction than when someone actually feels something.
Some people think all the show’s male characters are drips.
No, no not at all. People think they can pin characters on a television show like they can pin people in real life. I think all the characters Lena writes are well-rounded, and the point of the TV show is you don’t want normal mundane situations — and the point is to have some sort of drama. So for that to happen, the uglier sides of people need to come out, to create conflict. So in a twenty-minute TV show, [you] have to only see a snippet of an entire personality in order to get that drama.
Would you say the other actors are similar to their characters?
I’ve known Lena now for a while, and Jemima I know very well — we’ve all hung out outside the show and stuff. I don’t think they’re like their characters at all. It’s a tricky show because it feels so natural, so based in reality, and the situations are so specific that you think, Oh this must be a real-life thing. But it’s not.
What about Adam Driver? Is he anything like Adam?
No, he’s awesome. And he’s a good actor. The thing is, everyone on this show is a really good actor, and everyone’s really believing in these kind of characters.
How did you get cast in Girls?
Did you know anything about Lena or her work or anything?
I had seen Tiny Furniture, and I’m friends with Jody [Lee Lipes], who shot Tiny Furniture. He was a cinematographer for Martha Marcy May Marlene and also works on Girls. So there were a lot of mutual friends. But no, I didn’t know her. I didn’t know if the TV show was going to be like Tiny Furniture or not. We did the pilot in November of 2010 and the rest of the season in 2011. And it was sort of a while ago, and there was only the pilot to go off of. And Charlie wasn’t really in the pilot that much anyway.
The questions that keep coming up are the questions of privilege and race and how they’re depicted on the show. The general consensus is that they’re going to have be addressed next season. What are your thoughts?
I haven’t been too involved. I’ve heard about it via other people, but I haven’t read any articles or anything. Lena is writing these stories, and I don’t think it’s anything more than that. She’s telling a story about a group of people, just like a movie might tell a story about a single father and his two kids. Whether they’re privileged or not, it’s just the story of them.
So, why do you think the show has generated so much rage and discussion?
I don’t know much about that.
You’re being serious?
I’m being very serious.
Have you read a lot about the show?
I like to keep things very separate; I don’t like being tied in on that level.
Girls is one of the most polarizing shows that has aired in a while.
I think that’s good. I think that those are usually the best. Like if I hear about a movie or a play — that some people love it and some people hate it — well, now I want to go see it.
Why do you think that people would react so strongly? Did you have any idea that would happen when you were shooting it?
I don’t know. When I first auditioned, that wasn’t my gut reaction to it; it just seemed to be about a specific about a group of people. I think that everyone felt the same. When we’re shooting it, it was never … brought up. But I feel like that happens with a lot of shows though. People are always talking about stuff, about new shows that come out. I had no idea that this was going to get so much backlash or anything.
People have called the characters spoiled because they’re from wealthy backgrounds and their parents are supporting them.
Well, I mean, in the first episode, Lena has the conversation with her parents, but I don’t think that’s everyone’s story in the show.
Marnie’s parents are paying for half of her BlackBerry, for example.
Oh, that was the line.
Do you think people are upset by perceptions of privilege?
If they are, then they are, you know? I wouldn’t be upset by it. I mean it’s just showing. It’s not like it’s a misrepresentation. It’s not using the fact that these characters are borrowing money from their parents as a theme for the show, for the whole story. I think it’s strange that it’s created this controversy.
If you were asked to do something you really didn’t like on Girls, would you trust them and just do it, or would you voice your opinion?
Yeah, I mean, I would voice it. But the vibe that happens, especially last year — it’s always been an open discussion. And it’s never been aggressive.
Is there anything you’d be opposed to do? You’ve had sex scenes in Girls, but are there any type of sex scenes you’d oppose?
Well, I mean, it hasn’t happened yet. Everything so far has felt extremely justified. If it serves its purpose, then yes. Absolutely. But if they asked me to do something truly pornographic, would I do it? I mean, like, no. I would of course read the script first — and then if it says, like, there’s going to be, like, extreme close-up … well, that’s all I would need to know.