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Chris Messina On Starring In What Seems Like Everything

Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Everywhere you look these days, there’s Chris Messina — yelling at Jeff Daniels on The Newsroom, for instance, or having sex with Rose Byrne on Damages. And then on the big screen this month, Messina will try to seduce Rashida Jones through yoga in Celeste and Jesse Forever, and watch with amazement as Paul Dano doesn’t have to do one damn thing to seduce Zoe Kazan in Ruby Sparks — because she’s a creature of his own invention, come to life, controlled by the words he types on the page. As the audience surrogate, Messina gets to say the things we think but do not say in those situations — and we thank him for it. The actor chatted with Vulture about getting beaten (at golf) by Dano, getting scared by Aaron Sorkin and Mindy Kaling, and getting some of Jessica Chastain’s magic.

You help ground this movie and make it more realistic, but you also get a lot of the best lines.
Zoe wrote so much great stuff for me to do. It was one of those scripts that when you read it, you feel like you need to be involved. And one of the things we wanted to do with Harry was show the love he had for his brother — he’s almost like a father figure to him. And yeah, he gets a lot of funny lines, but it’s all about getting the audience to relate to him and to find that love. The car scene, when Harry goes from, “This is crazy” to “Oh my God, this is a miracle,” was so much fun to shoot, but it was nerve-wracking.

Because from my point of view, it had to work. Not that the movie revolves around me or my character, but I felt like I was representing the audience, or mankind, right there: “Oh my God! What are you going to do? This is such a great opportunity. Don’t fuck it up!” It had to be like seeing a ghost, or witnessing a miracle, and it had to be as real as it could be. I felt a slight pressure to find the right tone.

Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton haven’t made a film since Little Miss Sunshine. Did they seem tentative to get back in the game?
You know, they do this thing that I had never done before on a film — which was a rehearsal but not the typical one where they just tape down the floor and go over the blocking. This was like something you do in theater, and more. We would write in journals and read them to each other. We would play darts and listen to music and eat together, so we felt like a family. We became a theater troupe. And we learned about each other in this really specific way that you wouldn’t ordinarily on a film, because sometimes you just have to shake hands and start pretending to be brothers. Paul and I took golf lessons together! I mean, that just goes such a long way towards helping us seem like brothers.

How’s your golf game?
I was terrible. [Laughs] But in my defense, it was my first time. We ended up cutting our big golf scene anyway, because I was so bad. Paul was like Tiger Woods, and I was missing the ball. I was worse after all that practice! So we reshot it as a jogging scene. It’s much harder to be bad at jogging.

Since Calvin’s character has the power to change Ruby, who or what would you do if you had that ability?
You know, I’ve spent so much time in my life already trying to change people, so I think I’m at the point where I’m done with that. [Laughs] It’s never really worked out for them, or for me.  

Well, your Newsroom character Reese would not agree with you, as far as the issue of control is concerned.
He would want to change how they’re running that newsroom, that’s for sure. He’s doing everything in his power to change them from telling the truth. I love being a part of that show, although I was scared on it every day because the language was so hard and the bar was set so high by Jeff Daniels and that cast. I wanted to rise to the occasion. It was a job where if you don’t say, “Uh,” when it says to, the script supervisor will say, “You skipped that line.” But it was fun to play Reese. I’ve played a lot of nice guys, so it was fun to play the bad guy, especially a bad guy who doesn’t think he’s the bad guy. He’s just concerned about the numbers.

It looks like you’ll have more to do on The Mindy Project, especially since she wrote the role for you. How did that happen?
I was so lucky to have her write that! I’m super scared to do a network comedy because I’ve never done one before, so when she first asked, I told her no a bunch of times. But she kept coming back to me. At first, this guy was named Clayton Brooks, and he was much more uptight, and when I said no, she gave him a different name — Danny Castellano — and a different upbringing and a different personality, and it became impossible to say no. Danny is now more of a ballbuster. He’s jaded. He’s got a chip on his shoulder, but he’s fun, like Bruce Willis in Moonlighting or Hans Solo in Star Wars.

Will we be rooting for you and Mindy to get together?
I think there will be some Sam and Diane going on, some flirting through the yelling. [Laughs] I think some of the audience will root for that, and some of the audience will want us to kill each other. We just had a table read of the first two episodes, and it is super funny. This is a whole other world for me, because I don’t consider myself funny! I mean, if the character has comedic things to do, I can do that. I can find the comedy in a drama. But in The Mindy Project, they are all so funny, so it’s scary for me, just like Sorkin was.

Maybe Sorkin is scary for you because you don’t get any of the rom-com action on The Newsroom. Who should Reese be with?
Maybe Jane Fonda? I was thinking he had an Oedipal thing going on. [Laughs] I mean, she walks in a room and you’re in awe. And then she starts to act. I walked away from those episodes with her thinking, I’m a lazy actor

But you’re not. You and Mark Duplass are the hardest working guys in show business.
You know, Mark actually sent me a chart saying that, which was very nice of him. It definitely has not always been like this, because there have been a lot of times where I had one foot out the door and could not handle it. But this past year or two has been incredible. Part of me is so excited that I’ve been this busy, but part of me feels like I need to work even harder — I could prep for some roles for years and still not feel like I did enough. I did a play with Jessica Chastain, The Cherry Orchard, and we played lovers, so maybe some of her magic rubbed off on me? She’s having this experience on a grand scale, and she’s fucking incredible. I’m just happy to have some work.

Chris Messina On Starring In Almost Everything