chat room

Chris Messina on Screen Nudity and the Secret He Hasn’t Told Mindy Kaling Yet

Chris Messina. Photo: Getty Images

Chris Messina has had a very busy year — he’s popped up in movies like Argo, Ruby Sparks, and The Giant Mechanical Man while juggling TV arcs on The Newsroom and Damages — and he’ll finish out 2012 the way he began it: At the same time Messina is starring opposite Mindy Kaling on Fox’s The Mindy Project, he’s starring in the new indie 28 Hotel Rooms, where he and Marin Ireland play two people who continue their sexually charged relationship over a long span of time in various hotels, even though both have significant others at home. Messina rang us up the other day to discuss his onscreen love scenes, and he also revealed a secret connection to Kaling’s favorite film that she may not even know about.

You were naked in your first high-profile role on Six Feet Under, and you’re naked throughout 28 Hotel Rooms. Is it fair to say, then, that nudity is not a big deal for you?
Oh, you know, it’s never been a problem. I don’t know why; I don’t feel incredibly comfortable with my body or anything. I was naked a bunch in plays, and I remember there was a certain power onstage when you got naked. There’s a certain power in the idea of “This is what I look like, and you can look or turn away or do whatever you want with it.” I guess if the nudity was uncalled for, then it would be uncomfortable, but anytime I had to do it, it was right for the story or the character in that moment.

As a working actor, you must spend a lot of time in hotel rooms while shooting. What’s it like for you?
You always miss your family and your life, but at the same time, there’s something nice about being on location. You can kind of get lost in the world of whatever it is that you’re doing. If you’re playing your character and you’re running into all these people who know who you are and treat you in a way that doesn’t pertain at all to the character, it takes you out of it more, so when you’re alone in a city where people don’t know you, you can kind of pretend even more and get into the head space of where you need to be.

Here’s a practical question for you, Chris: When you’re watching a movie where your character is making out or fooling around a lot, do you critique your own technique?
When I’m watching myself make out, am I critiquing the way I make out?

Um, no. Because when I watch myself as an actor, I’m always thinking, Oh, I sound like that? I talk like that? Do I look like that? So I’m sure that when I was seeing myself naked or kissing or rolling around in bed, I was thinking the same thing. Like, God, why did I do it that way? Or a lot of times with me, it’s also Boy, I’m a terrible actor. Why did I do this? I’m so full of shit, that moment is so false. As an actor, it’s really educational to watch yourself. You learn a lot.

Both on her show and in real life, Mindy Kaling makes a case that Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail is basically the ultimate modern romantic comedy. But until I rewatched it this year, I didn’t realize that you’re actually in You’ve Got Mail! You’ve got a small role as the Fox Books employee that Meg Ryan eavesdrops on when she goes into the book superstore.
Yeah, we’ve never talked about that, Mindy and I! I don’t know if she knows that. She loves Nora, and rightly so. I think I had like four lines in You’ve Got Mail, and Nora Ephron was one of the only people who ever cast me on the spot, in the room, which doesn’t really happen that much. I auditioned for two small parts in that movie: the one I did, and one other. And she was like, “You’ll play one of these roles, you’ll definitely be in the movie.” And then, years later, I got to work with her again on Julie and Julia. That was a great experience.

Did she remember you at the time from You’ve Got Mail? Had you guys kept in touch?
No, we didn’t keep in touch. She was really nice to me when we did You’ve Got Mail, and I remember I ran into her on the street in New York and she said, “I was just looking at you in the editing room, and you did a nice job,” and she was very kind and made me feel really good as a young actor. And then I hadn’t seen her at all, and I got the script for Julie and Julia and I flew from L.A. to New York to meet with her, and that was the first time I had seen her in years. It was kind of great that that would come around full circle. Because I remember when I got You’ve Got Mail, at the time, I thought I had made it, you know? Like Oh, this is it, big time. And it was a great opportunity and fun to do but I think it was three or four lines, so I was a little delusional about it. There was a long road from You’ve Got Mail to Julie and Julia, you know?

But you must look back fondly on the fact that you got to appear in two Nora Ephron movies, including her last film.
Those are both special moments in my life. I felt like I owed her a lot, and she was always really good to me. I loved to talk to her about movies and her love of movies. We talked a lot about Mike Nichols, which is way dorky, and I would grill her a lot about Jack Nicholson and Meryl. Obviously, it was a major loss when Nora died. She’s one of those women that you feel is invincible, and she was sort of strong and had such passion and just this zest, you know? She was pretty incredible, and she taught me a lot about movies. I love her dearly.

Chris Messina on Nudity and His Mindy Secret