With roles in Nurse Jackie, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and A Most Violent Year already under his belt, not to mention his most famous part to date, as Marnie’s initially lovesick, then over-it boyfriend Charlie on Girls, Christopher Abbott appears to be as talented at picking interesting projects as he is at acting in them. His latest film is writer-director Josh Mond’s James White, an astute character study of a young man pushed to his limits, for better and for worse, by the death of his father and the rapid decline of his cancer-stricken mother. In his first starring role, Abbott runs a gauntlet of emotions as the title character, who lives, as his mother warns him, too much on the high or low end of the emotional scale and not enough in the middle. I met up with him this week to talk about the film, which he calls a “personal project” for both Mond and himself. Low-key but engaged, he talked about his work and his interest in what makes people tick with unpretentious sincerity.
Your character feels so vivid, partly because he’s an intense guy, but also because we see so many aspects of his personality and behavior. Obviously, a lot of that was in the script, but I’m interested in what you did to flesh him out.
Well, Josh is a good friend of mine, so I was lucky to be involved from early on. I first saw the script about a year before we started shooting it. The story and the crux of the character were there, but I got to work on this for a long time, creating who this guy was aside from what’s on the page, just me and Josh talking about it, coming up with ideas.
I know it was based largely on Josh’s experience, but are there are parts of other people you know in it too?
Oh, yeah. There’s undeniably parts of myself in it. There’s parts of Josh. There’s parts of some people that Josh grew up with. There’s parts of people that I just met and don’t know well. A big part of the character of James White is that he’s a born-and-bred New Yorker, which I’m not. An example [of how they portrayed that] is the scene where he’s meeting the girl in Mexico who says she’s from New York, too, and he does that little test, asking her, “What school did you go to?” I find that people I meet who were born in New York, they do that all the time.
You work a lot with close friends. Is that because of the process or the product? Is it just because it’s easier or more fun to work with friends, or does it help you do better work?
I didn’t set out to work just with friends. It just kind of happened that way. I’ve worked on a lot of peoples’ first features. The benefit is, one, being able to have a real rapport with your writer and director, which, with Josh, I had very much of. Whenever he had a hard time articulating something, I still understood it. Or when I would see him come up to me and see he was about to say something, I was like, “Sit back down, I got it.” Especially with the time constraints, it really helps the process a lot. There’s no dancing around. You get to the point, and you get it done. That’s a huge benefit, especially when you’re working on smaller films and don’t have certain luxuries. We rehearsed a little bit before a scene, blocked it, but there wasn’t weeks of rehearsal before filming. Sometimes, as an actor, you feel like you’re an actor for hire, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but then sometimes you feel very much a part of the process. I felt very much a part of a lot of my friends’ projects.
Based on first impressions, you seem pretty sane, not motivated by a ton of insecurity or ego.
I do this because I have a fascination with human behavior. That’s why I do it, truthfully. Yes, I have an ego, and my ego wants people to watch me. That’s undeniable. But the crux of why I got into this is just an interest in humans and why they do what they do.
Josh was a producer on Martha Marcy May Marlene. Is that how you met?
Josh Mond, Antonio Campos, and Sean Durkin have a company called Borderline Films. Usually the way it goes is, if one directs a movie, the other two produce it. I met them a year prior to Martha Marcy May Marlene for another movie through Susan Shopmaker, a casting director they use a lot, who I knew at the time. A year later, Sean asked me to do a reading of Martha Marcy May Marlene, and through that reading he offered a part to me. I became friends with them through that. That was also my first legit feature film.
Are you and Josh planning to do something else together?
I think we will. Josh is working on stuff of his own now and we haven’t talked about anything specific, but if it’s not the next one it’ll be something. For sure.
So much of what was written about your leaving Girls seemed to assume that you felt the need to break out of a big, established machine to do more “authentic” work. But I see the main characters in Girls as being at least as much of a mess as James White, portrayed in a similar way in that they do a lot of really unappealing things, but you see good in them, too, and you ultimately wish them well—most of them, anyhow.
What attracted you to Girls when you joined that cast?
I was there at the beginning. This was about five years ago, maybe six. I came onto it through a regular audition process. At the second audition I met Lena [Dunham] and she had me do a lot of improv, because the character wasn’t too extensive in the pilot. So she informed me a lot about what type of guy he was, and we got to play around with that and had a lot of fun. It was great. It was nice to be able to do a bit of comedy, and I wanted to work with Lena. Leaving the show was not as big of the deal as maybe some of the press [implied]. It was just something that kind of ran its course, and it was a very adult conversation between me and them. It wasn’t dramatic at all.
You got anything in the works right now?
I did a couple movies last year and I finished a play right before we started doing all this stuff for James White. I want to be available to go to all the festivals and take the ride with Josh. It’s a personal project for him, and it’s a personal project for me. I want to support him and it and everything about it—and just do all the fun things. Go to Chicago for a few days and hang out there and see movies. Go to San Francisco. We just got back from AFI in Los Angeles a couple days ago. Those are perks, you know? I want to go along for the ride.
So is this a fun way to make a living?
Absolutely. It has its downfalls, too, but I wouldn’t trade it—for now. Who knows what’s coming down the road, but for now I love it.
Do you think you learned anything about why people do what they do from working on this movie?
Yeah. I learn from every job, you know what I mean? Being an actor is in the realm of psychology. You’re you. It’s your body, your face. But you’re stepping into somebody else’s life and shoes. The characters make choices that you wouldn’t necessarily make. And you start to understand more and more walks of life, working to try to make the character as real as possible and justifying your character, believing that what he’s saying is right or understanding why he says it. I’m not saying that you become another person, but you play a different role. And people in life are always playing roles. Everyone’s putting on a bit of a show. Just getting dressed in the morning, you’re putting on a costume.