One of Chris Messina’s great gifts as an actor is that audiences are never quite certain whether they’re supposed to like him. When he plays nice, you still keep a suspicious eye on him in case he ultimately decides to pull the rug out from under the heroine. When he’s a total heel, like on The Newsroom, you kick yourself for wanting to see more of him. To paraphrase Swingers, he’s often the guy from the R-rated movie you’re not so sure about yet.
In Fairhaven, a festival favorite that is now available on iTunes and video on-demand (and in select theaters), Messina gets to showcase both sides of that coin. He plays Dave, a messed-up guy who returns home for the first time in 10 years to attend his father’s funeral, reuniting with high school friends whose lives have unspooled in different, unanticipated directions. Messina and director Tom O’Brien — who also stars as Dave’s ex-jock pal, Jon — came up with the story around the time that Messina was still on Six Feet Under, and the duo, who first met as members of the All Seasons Theatre Group in New York, slowly pieced it together and debuted it at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. “You have a shorthand with friends,” says Messina. “He knew what I could do and he saw in me something different than most of Hollywood had seen up to that point.”
Watch a clip of Messina’s Dave reuniting with a former flame, played by Sarah Paulson, and then read his thoughts on The Mindy Project, the challenge of TV, and his childhood ambition to be the next Baryshnikov.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: There’s something universal about “coming home” and the high-school reunion movie has almost become its own genre, with films like Beautiful Girls and Garden State.
CHRIS MESSINA: I guess everyone feels that thing, you know? You drive down a certain block and you remember making out with a girl in your first car. Turn down a street and you see that they tore down your favorite pizza parlor. We were watching All the Real Girls a lot then. It was very poetic and it was those buddies — who changed and who didn’t. That was a big inspiration for us.
What was your own high school experience like?
I felt like I had an identity crisis every week. I would just recreate or invent myself each week. Maybe that’s why I became an actor. I was a dancer when I was a kid, so right off the bat I was beating to my own drum, dancing in tights and doing pliés and pirouettes. My mom was a dance teacher and I wanted to become Baryshnikov. Throughout junior high, I constantly got beat up because of it. By the time I got out of high school, I was kind of burned out over it, but we had this great theater department. I fell in love with [acting.]
To say you had a busy 2012 would be an understatement, what with six movies and three TV shows, Damages, The Mindy Project and The Newsroom.
There have been many days, just like a lot of actors, where you just don’t know if you’ll ever work again. I’ve never experienced anything like this — the first season of a television show. It’s intense. Ideally, it would be nice to have a script for a long period of time and slowly, slowly, slowly digest it and then go make it. But it’s hard to turn down the opportunities, so you jump in and pray that you have enough time to [someday] crack that something.
So it sounds like you’d prefer films or plays to television?
I think I’m more built to work that way, to be honest with you. On The Mindy Project, every week we’re doing a new episode, so most days you have to surrender when you’re driving off the lot. You only have so much time to work on it. That’s what it was, that’s what it turned out to be. And it’s taken me 14 or 15 episodes to get to that point.
Mindy Kaling has joked about the responsibilities and privileges of running her own show. Was there a learning curve for her or did she arrive ready to be the boss?
If there was a learning curve, I didn’t see it. She really came in as if she’d done it a million times. I mean, she was very open and humble, but she was confident in a way that made us relax. She knows what she wants and she knows what she’s doing. I’ve learned a lot just watching the amount of work that she has to do. I can walk away at the end of the day and say, “I don’t know where my character is going,” or maybe I just need to check out from this world. She has to keep going, and think about casting and episodes and storyline. She doesn’t ever get to leave it, but you never see that stress from her. It’s really beautiful to watch.