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Air’s Chris Messina on the Art of Phone Acting While Waving a Mini-Sword Around

Photo: Gary Miller/WireImage

This interview was originally published in April. We are recirculating it now that Air is available to stream on Prime Video.

We never did find out in Good Will Hunting whether Ben Affleck’s character liked apples, but it’s clear that the actor-director loves Chris Messina.

While Messina is maybe best known for his charming rom-com performance as Danny Castellano on The Mindy Project, he’s become one of Affleck’s go-to guys on the big screen. The duo first collaborated in 2012 on Affleck’s Best Picture–winning Argo, in which Messina had a supporting role as a CIA officer. Messina was then promoted for the filmmaker’s follow-up, 2016’s Live by Night, playing the criminal sidekick to Affleck’s notorious gangster. And now, with Air, which stars Affleck, his BFF Matt Damon, and Viola Davis, Affleck is back directing for the first time in seven years, and so you know he had to bring Messina along for the ride.

“Once he calls, I’m immediately in; I don’t need to read what he’s given me,” Messina says of his friend and boss. “When you’re directed by him, and you have William Goldenberg editing and cinematographer Bob Richardson shooting, and you’re talking to those actors, in those scenes, it’s such an incredible feeling, because you can just trust the filmmaking. You can come in, do your work, and know that you’re in great hands. So I hope he keeps calling me.”

Set in 1984, Air tells the true story of Sonny Vaccaro (Damon), a Nike marketing executive who is convinced that he has found the key to breathing life into the company’s floundering basketball division: a recently drafted 21-year-old by the name of Michael Jordan. As Jordan’s expletive-dropping agent, David Falk, Messina steals every scene he’s in, whether he’s screaming on the phone at Damon or waving around a sword.

There’s a famous story of Ben, a proud Red Sox fan, refusing to wear a Yankees hat in Gone Girl, and that the disagreement between him and David Fincher caused production to be delayed for days. I’m wondering if that happened here with you refusing to shave your head to play noted bald-man David Falk.
You know what, it actually was the opposite — I was really begging Ben to shave it. In the movie’s time period, Falk wasn’t completely Mr. Clean, but he was on his way. Once you shave it, you’re all in, so we were trying on some bald caps, and then they hired this very kind man who had similar hair to mine and began taking his hairline back to look at it. As they were doing that, they asked me to try my wardrobe and get in front of the camera, and my hair was tousled, and Ben came from behind the camera and said, “I think we’ve got to go with a Michael Douglas in Wall Street, slicked-back look. In my last movie, Live by Night, I made you look awful. You had fake teeth, a terrible mustache, and you gained weight. I don’t want to do it to you again — just slick the hair back.” Ben’s a really smart guy, and I just followed his direction.

So are you just now automatically locked in for any Ben-directed film? Is that a blood oath that you and he have made?
I know. I’m very lucky. I think every actor would say something similar to, when you don’t audition for a job and you just get it, you feel really good in the moment. You’re like, Wow, they like me enough to just give it to me. But then when you show up on set and they’ve never seen you do it, it’s very frightening and nerve-racking, because you’re thinking, Are they thinking, why did I just give this to Chris? I made the wrong choice; I should have seen him do it, because this is not what I want. So each time I come out for Ben, I spend the first week anxious about not disappointing him.

Not-bald David Falk, screaming. Photo: Ana Carballosa/Prime

Your performance in Air is unlike what we’ve come to expect from you, and I could say the same thing about Live by Night. So do you think that Ben sees something different in you that other filmmakers or producers maybe haven’t yet?
In Hollywood, when you do something halfway decent, they keep asking you to do it again. And in the beginning of my career, I was the nice guy. Like, I got to eat Amy Adams’s cooking in Julie & Julia and tell her how much I loved it — and all of those were great experiences. But, as an actor, you want to stretch and try on different shoes, so I’m thankful that Ben is this person in my life who sees something different. He sees more anger in me, more of a wiseass, more of a loudmouth, more of a vulgar side, which I do have. And so anytime anybody asks you to do something that you haven’t done before, that challenge and fear become really exciting.

I’ve long been fascinated by the art of phone acting, which actually feels weirdly harder than a big dramatic scene opposite other actors. Knowing that 90 percent of your job here is screaming into the phone, what was your approach coming in, and did it end up being easier or harder than you expected?
Phone acting sucks! It really sucks. Normally, you do it with somebody, often it’s a script supervisor, and they’re reading the lines off-camera. And they’re not actors, so it’s kind of monotone and you’re just getting through it. Sometimes you get to call the other actor, but the phone’s constantly cutting out or maybe they’re not available. But Ben had the great idea of shooting these phone calls at the same time, so Matt and I were down the hall from each other. We each had three cameras on us so we could overlap and improvise, and that made the difference in the experience as an actor. And watching it with an audience, I think you feel that those phone calls are more alive because we’re actually talking to each other.

Not to compare myself in the least bit to Robert Duvall, he’s one of the greats of all time, but I would watch some of his phone calls in Network. He’s got these incredible, raging phone calls, and so I would play that on a loop in my trailer.

One of my favorite moments of the film is when you’re on the phone and randomly pick up and wave around what appears to either be a small sword or a big knife.
[Laughs] It was like a mini-sword.

How did you guys even land on the idea that a mini-sword would just be sitting on David Falk’s desk?
Because this movie was shot not too far from my house, I was able to go in a lot and rehearse the scenes in my office, by myself, and get to know the office. I would ask for some things, and they just kept bringing stuff. I wasn’t quite sure what that sword was doing there, but I knew that it should be used at some point, and I’m glad they kept it in the final cut of the film.

Did Ben give you the chance to improv some of the language as well? You’re doing so much yelling that I’d imagine it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and follow your instincts.
The script was so good that you did want to follow it, and there were takes where we just completely followed it. But, you’re right, because you’re going nuts on somebody, there were takes where we just fucked around a bunch. And one of the great things about having an actor-director is that they understand the process of an actor and what the actor’s going through. So Ben’s always like, “Try something else, surprise me.” He’s not coming over and reprimanding you, or making you feel like you did something wrong, that you went away from the script. A director has a lot of different jobs, but I think every actor comes with a gift, and one of the jobs of a director is to let that gift out. And when you’re under Ben’s direction, that’s what happens: He’s inviting you to bring out whatever that gift may be.

When Falk first mentions the words Air Jordan, that’s history. How did you want to handle delivering that line? While you know its importance, you need it to feel casual.
Yeah, I screwed that up a bunch before we got it to where it is in the movie. There were a couple different versions of it. I think I was ruining it a lot of the time and hitting it too hard. And Ben was moving me toward the direction that you’re talking about — a throwaway. It almost looks like it just comes out of his mouth and he’s not even thinking about it because he is spewing all this other vitriol.

For most of the film, you’re just talking on the phone to Matt. But then what was it like to be thrown into the Nike boardroom for the climactic pitch meeting where Sonny finally gets his chance to win over Michael? Forget what this sequence means to the movie, you’re opposite Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker, and Viola Davis!
Oh my God, watching Matt do that speech was my first day of work, and he was so great. And I enjoyed watching Matt and Ben together, no ego, just brothers doing their thing, trying to make the scene the best it could be. And then you look down the table and you see Viola, Chris, Jason, and you’re like, These are some of my favorite actors, and I’m lucky enough to be here.

The funny story about that first scene is, I brought the Jordans in, it was a wide shot, and I’m in the side-background of it, and Chris Tucker was improvising. He was fantastic, so the scene was going on a bit longer than written. And I didn’t know what to do after a while, and so, in character, I looked at my watch, like, When is this fucking meeting going to start kind of thing. Jason was off-camera, and he looks at me and gives a thumbs-up, and then he mouths, “[Sarcastic Bateman voice] Nice, good watch-acting!” And then he starts giving me direction. He goes, “[Bateman voice] Why don’t you fix your tie?” So I fixed my tie. And he goes, “[Bateman voice] Hey, now slick back your hair.” And that was a great introduction to the playfulness, the camaraderie, and the family vibe that was on set. But I was laughing my ass off.

I’m sensing a little bromance between you and Bateman, especially since you’ve been cast in a series that he’s producing.
It’s crazy; he’s my boss now. I mean, he’s so annoying because he’s so good without trying. He’s never sweating; you never catch him acting — he’s just so at ease. Meanwhile, I’m in the corner with 19 acting books and an acting coach on speed dial. Obviously it’s his talent, but I think also growing up on sets does something to you. He just has such a sleight of hand. I really am in awe of what he does. And Bateman knows that we’re just playing; that’s all this is. What a great job; we get to come and just play in the playground, with our friends, and be childlike and loose and silly — and out of that sometimes comes cool shit.

We’ve talked about your relationship with Ben, but you technically worked first with Matt, thanks to your small role in 1998’s Rounders. Was it a bit surreal to be back together with him so many years later?
It really was. We were kids on Rounders, and I had nothing to do. I think I had about three lines around a poker table, and the director took one of those away, in front of everybody! I was really embarrassed and sad and pissed. But I believe Matt and Ben were either going to the Golden Globes a couple of days later, or they had just won the Golden Globe, but they were in the middle of the Good Will Hunting craze. Matt and I talked a little at the table. I was a big fan of his and Good Will Hunting, and my experience of him was this guy who had stepped into newfound fame, and the juggle of that seemed quite intense. He seemed to have a lot of obligations, and, even back then, at that age, I thought he seemed to be handling it so beautifully and so humbly, and with such kindness. And that hasn’t changed with Matt.

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