Chris Messina is ‘the jet fuel that makes Ruby Sparks work,’ according to directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris whose new movie opens in theaters on July 25th. When Calvin (Paul Dano), a struggling writer, discovers his powerful imagination has conjured up a real life character named Ruby (Zoe Kazan), the only person he can really trust with the implausible truth is his brother, Harry (Messina), who at first is convinced Calvin is having some kind of spectacular breakdown and then begins to relish the sublime possibilities. Messina brings an ineffable Everyman quality to the role that gives the story’s fantastical elements a foundation in ordinary reality and grounds the film for audiences.
Messina, who is perhaps best known for his role in another distinctive twist on the romantic comedy, Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, sat down with me for an exclusive interview to talk Ruby Sparks. He told me how the unusual script and the opportunity to work with Kazan and Dano drew him to the project, how his two sons and his older brother helped inspire his character, how he had fun bonding with Dano over golf, and what it was like working with two directors. Messina, who is one of the busiest actors in Hollywood and can currently be seen on Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, also discussed his upcoming films Celeste and Jesse Forever and Argo directed by Ben Affleck, his new Fox comedy The Mindy Project, and what fans can expect on Season 5 of Damages.
Question: Can you talk about what drew you to the story and what was your reaction when you first read Zoe Kazan’s script?
CHRIS MESSINA: Initially, what drew me before I read it was that it would be Paul and Zoe in it and that I wanted to work with them. I very much enjoy them both as actors. And then, reading the script, I felt like I had never read anything like it. It was so original and moving, and it had a darkness and a humor to it that I really responded to. I didn’t think it would work out because I don’t look like Paul and that was a concern, but we got around it.
What was it about the character of Harry that resonated with you? Did you draw inspiration from people you’ve known or situations you’ve experienced in your own life?
MESSINA: Yes, having an older brother and how he took care of me and still does – he looks after me and wants to protect me — and then, having two sons and watching my oldest son look after his younger brother, those two aspects were what inspired me to bring that to Harry. I wanted there to be love for Calvin. That was the most important thing. I didn’t want it to be just a comic relief character, or you know, ‘go make her do this sexual thing.’ I didn’t want it to just be that. I think a lot of that stuff is incredibly funny, but I wanted to make sure that Harry loved his brother.
Paul and you have great chemistry together and your relationship is so believable. What was it like working with Paul and how did you build that wonderful rapport?
MESSINA: He’s an incredibly dedicated actor. He loves what he does. He takes it extremely seriously. When people are like that, whenever you’re working with actors and they’re that into it, it’s contagious. You want to be good for him, you want to be good for Zoe, you want to be good for the directors. You want to be good because everybody is working on the highest level. We played a lot of golf together. That was fun to bond over the golf. We would sometimes run lines while we were golfing and often just talk about life. We had this incredible rehearsal process that was very unusual for films. We spent time writing in journals and reading those entries to each other. We played darts. Paul and I improvised. Jon and Val played us music that inspired them. We’d sit there and listen to the music and we’d eat food together. By the end of something like that, you’re closer. No matter what, you’re just closer and you start feeling more comfortable to make an ass out of yourself in front of each other. I think a big part of acting is playing, and the only thing to do is just play. It’s really cowboys and Indians, you know.
Jonathan and Valerie described you as the ‘jet fuel that makes the film work,’ how was the directing process with them and what was it like working with two directors?
MESSINA: It could’ve been a disaster, because two different voices coming at you, you don’t know who to listen to. I don’t know what they do or how they do it, but they seem like one voice. They were so much on the same page that it felt like it was one voice. Like Paul and Zoe, they all have a similar work ethic. Jon and Val would do something that I’ve never seen before where they’d actually go to the location and they would play out the scene, and they’d shoot the scene sometimes on their camera or a little video camera and kind of for camera purposes and also for characters’ intentions. And so, they knew the characters and the script almost like no other directors that I’ve ever worked with. When people are that dedicated and that specific, you end up trusting them. They know what they’re talking about. They’re not just pulling it out of their hat on the day. They’ve done their work. I loved working with them. They’re a lot of fun, and besides that, they’re great people. They’re nice folks.
Did they give you a lot of opportunity to explore your character or did they stick pretty close to the script?
MESSINA: They did. I improvised a lot, but a lot of the improvisation that I did wasn’t useable or good. The script was so good. A lot of times I like to improvise. It’s like getting your body revved up. So, a lot of times before a scene, I’ll improvise into a scene, or after a scene, I’ll continue improvising if they’re going to keep the cameras rolling in case maybe something happens. They use some of that in the movie, but all the good stuff that I say is written. Anything that you probably liked was written.
There’s a moment in the movie when you realize your brother’s fantasy character has come to life and you tell him on behalf of men everywhere he’s got to take advantage of the situation. Do you think that would ever work in real life?
MESSINA: I don’t think so. No. I’ve spent so much of my youth trying to change people or change girls and then having it done to me and people wanting me to change. I think it would maybe be good for a short amount of time, and then almost like the movie, it would turn disastrous.
You have a number of projects coming up. Can you tell me a little bit about them and the characters that you play starting with Paul in Celeste and Jesse Forever?
MESSINA: Yes, I did that with Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg. I play a new guy in her life who’s very different from anyone she’s ever had or gone for, but something that maybe she needs to get out of her situation and grow. That was my second film with Rashida. We did another movie called Monogamy together, a very small movie that no one saw, and I like working with her very much.
You also recently completed Argo, a drama thriller set during the Iranian Revolution?
MESSINA: Ben Affleck directed that. It’s an amazing movie. I am a CIA agent. I do most of my stuff with Bryan Cranston and a little bit with Ben. It’s a true story about a CIA team that went in disguised as a film crew to get these hostages out. The way Ben handles the hostages and Hollywood and the CIA, how he weaves in and out, is really masterful. I think you’ll enjoy the film.
And then, Scarlet Poppy?
MESSINA: Scarlet Poppy is something that they keep working on. It’s not fully blown yet.
Your new comedy on Fox, The Mindy Project, looks like a lot of fun. What can you tell me about it and your character, Danny Castellano?
MESSINA: It takes place in…we’re all gynecologists. It’s really, really funny. Mindy Kaling wrote it. We shot the pilot. We’re about to start shooting episodes 2 and 3. We start next week. I’m very nervous. It’s very nerve-wracking. I’ve never done a network TV show before so I’m scared, but excited. Mindy is a great, great writer and she’s very, very funny. She wrote the character for me and she’s been a great collaborator.
You’re in The Newsroom, The Mindy Project, and you’ve got a fifth season of Damages. Are there any other shows you’d enjoy having a guest-starring role or arc on?
MESSINA: I love Boardwalk Empire. I really love that world. I love that style. I love all the actors on it. I think Michael Shannon is fantastic. Michael Stuhlbarg and Michael Pitt, all the Michaels, they all do a great job. Buscemi (Steve Buscemi). That is a world which I would love to dive into. Of course, I also think Breaking Bad is fantastic. I tend to like darker stuff, which is crazy that I’m on a Fox comedy, but believe it or not, it has an edge to it. The Mindy Project is like two steps away from being on HBO.
Do you think it pushes the boundaries of network television?
MESSINA: It does. I’m hoping that’s what we continue to do. We did it in the pilot and I hope we can continue to do that.
What do you think audiences will enjoy about the show?
MESSINA: I think they’ll enjoy how honest Mindy is. She has a certain likeability and relatability. When I read her scripts, I recognize myself and so many of my friends in them. I think they [viewers] might see themselves in her scripts.
What can fans expect for Season 5 of Damages?
MESSINA: Well, it’s really heating up between Ellen and Patty. It’s a real showdown between the both of them which is exciting. When I would read comments about Season 4, ultimately I thought diehard fans wanted Ellen and Patty to have it out once and for all and to get down to it. I think they’ll get that in Season 5 and they’ll be happy about that.
What’s the experience been like for you working on that series and playing a character like Chris Sanchez?
MESSINA: It’s probably one of the best roles I’ve ever gotten to play. The experience on that show is so crazy because the scripts come so late. They’re always so good, the scripts, but they come… Literally, if you get to set and it’s 8 in the morning, you’re going to start shooting at 9:30 or 10. Your script is coming in at 8:30 in the morning and you’re reading it and going “Oh my God, I’m going to kill this person today in this scene and then I’m going to …” And, I mean, they’re major scenes. It’s not like a two-page scene. They’re major scenes. So, they know that. They know that they’re putting you in that situation so they work with you and give you some takes to find it, but it’s run and gun. They’re great with editing. I feel like all the actors on their shows in every season come off looking really good. They hire great people like Marsha Gay Harden and William Hurt. I mean, these people are incredible. But, the way they edit, certainly my performance, they made me look much better than I was on the day.
What do you think of today’s Emmy nominations announcement?
MESSINA: I didn’t read all of it. I glanced at it quick. It’s the Golden Age of television. I would prefer to watch some stuff on television than go to the movies these days and I was never that guy. The fact that I’m even doing a Fox comedy … I was always the person who was like, “Nah, television. It’s awful.” And then, in the last few years, with Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, even Parenthood and a lot of the Modern Family, there’s a lot of great things on network cable. I couldn’t even name who was nominated. I’m sure a lot of those people really deserved it.
Glenn Close received her fourth nomination for playing Patty Hewes on Damages.
MESSINA: Oh, Glenn Close was nominated. She’s incredible. Unfortunately, on Damages, I had one scene with her in two seasons. I got to spend time watching her and we crossed paths a lot and we sat next to each other in the make-up chairs. She was an incredible woman to me. She’s as good as it gets.
Ruby Sparks opens in theaters on July 25th.