Chris Messina is no stranger to being in front of the camera -- he plays the curmudgable Danny Castellano on FOX’s The Mindy Project and has starred in The Newsroom, Argo, and Julie & Julia -- but for the first time, he’s stepping behind the camera. And it’s been a long time coming.
“I had wanted to direct for a while,” Messina told ETonline. “And I was kind of talking about it for a while. I was scared to do it, and I couldn’t ever find the right project.” Then came Alex of Venice.
The movie stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Smashed, The Spectacular Now) as the titular Alex, a workaholic environmental attorney who must learn to balance work life and familial duties to her ailing father and introverted son after her husband (played by Messina) unexpectedly leaves.
Here’s the exclusive debut of the movie’s poster:
“It’s a slice of life film,” Messina says. “I am a huge fan of the movies of the ‘70s. Hal Ashby films and Robert Altman films -- and obviously this doesn’t come close to those, but it was inspired by them...If you’re looking for Iron Man, you’re not going to find it here. If [my character] left her and she started killing people, that would be different, obviously. I think it’s a big story, in terms of a moment in this woman’s life, but it’s small.”
Messina has worked a number of incredible directors and drew from those past experiences to influence his own directing process. “When I did Vicky Cristina Barcelona, I remember Woody Allen said to Rebecca Hall, 'Do it once happy, do it once indifferent, and do it once sad, because I don’t know where I’ll want you when I’m cutting the scene,'” he recalled. “That had a big effect on me. Some of these master filmmakers do it so much and they’re so talented that a lot of them will know, but certainly for me and the way I like to work, it’s almost impossible to know exactly what you’re going to need.”
He continued, “That was the mantra really, you can try whatever you want to try and we’ll do it as many times as we can your way. And let’s f*ck around with it my way too and let’s see what we can find.”
Being on bigger budget film sets also helped him realize the limitations he had working on a smaller indie. “We didn’t have the money for playback. When I did Argo, [Ben] Affleck would shoot and almost after every take we would go back to the monitors and he would watch and show me or the other actors and say, ‘Let’s try it again’ or ‘Let’s do this or let’s do that.’” he recalls. “We didn’t have that [on this film]. If anything, someone could record it on an iPhone.”
Alex of Venice was doubly ambitious for Messina, as he also acts in the movie, albeit in a supporting role. “I was lucky because I had a friend of mine, Matthew Del Negro (Scandal), who is a great actor and an old friend from New York who was there almost every day of the shoot,” Messina explains. “If you were there while I was acting, you would think he was directing. And he would direct me. So I would set up the shot and discuss the fundamentals of the scene with everybody, and then once it was set, then I would walk away as a director and get to come back as the character.”
Playing a lead in his own film would be more difficult, Messina admits, though he told us he's up for the challenge. “I would love to try that on," he said. "I think I’ll do it, and I don’t know how enjoyable it will be, but I think I’ll do it.”
Thankfully, it seems, this time he had an incredible cast to lean on, including Winstead and Don Johnson, as Alex’s father who is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s. For the 30-year-old Winstead, Messina says, “Women that age, unfortunately, there aren’t enough roles for them. We had a lot of really great people wanting to do it, but Mary came in and she’s just an extraordinary actress.”
Her turn in Alex of Venice is just as extraordinary, playing one of those flawed, complex female protagonists that cinema desperately needs more of. “I recognize myself in movies when nobody is bad or good, we’re just human,” Chris reasoned. “You can look at me, myself, Chris, and you could say ‘Oh, he seemed OK in this interview’ and then I hang up this phone and start yelling at someone in my car. We’re just human we make mistakes and we’re complicated, and that’s what I saw in [Alex].”
There’s also a brief cameo by The Mindy Project’s enigmatic receptionist Beverly a.k.a. Beth Grant. “I’ve always loved Beth, before The Mindy Project. She’s one of our great actors and she’s done so much work," Messina told us. "Because of the show, we’ve become friends, so I was just looking for a chance to work with her. She graced us with doing that part. Hopefully I can direct her again and just open her up, because she can do anything.”
Once again, it begs the question: If a movie gets made and Beth Grant isn’t in it, did a movie really ever get made at all? (She’s in literally everything. Look at her IMDb page!)
Next, Messina will reteam with the writer of Alex of Venice to direct a project starring Sam Rockwell. One thing he won’t be doing anytime soon, though, is taking on directing duties at The Mindy Project.
“I don’t think I’d be good at that,” he confessed. “That is a really difficult style and format that I barely can handle as an actor, so I don’t know if I’d be very good. It would be fun to do, but they would end up being upset with what I’d do.”
Alex of Venice hits theaters April 17.
In other movie news, check out Don Johnson's daughter, Dakota Johnson’s, reaction while discussing Charlie Hunnam leaving Fifty Shades of Grey: