“Just being cast in Live By Night with that group of people was the win. The experience, the day-to-day, working through the material and wearing those costumes was the win. And being directed by Ben (Affleck), acting alongside him and all of those things became the treasure,” Messina tells The Hollywood Reporter. “After you mourn the reception of certain things, you always have, for the rest of your existence, the experience, which nobody can take away. If you don’t like The Secrets We Keep, it doesn’t take away what I learned from Noomi (Rapace) on that movie and the sparring matches inside of those ferocious and exhilarating scenes. If you do like The Secrets We Keep, it does make it nice, but the experience is sweeter than any of the bullshit that follows.”
Earlier this year, Messina played Victor Zsasz, who might be his most deranged character yet, in Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey. Since Messina has long been cast in the aforementioned nice guy roles, he welcomed the chance to create a little chaos, and he hopes that Birds of Prey will pave the way for more unhinged characters.
“I think I have more levels of off the wall than that. I’ve said this numerous times, but once you do something halfway decent in Hollywood, the imagination, unfortunately, for the masses runs thin,” Messina explains. “In a small way, I first became known in the public eye as being a nice guy, and that has stuck with me. So it’s taken a while to show people or convince people that I’m an actor and that I can do other things. But yeah, Victor Zsasz, which was a blast to play, was when they let me out of the cage, and it’s just a little bit of the anarchy that I have in me. And I’m hoping I can dive into more characters that possess that as well.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Messina also reflects on the shocking end to The Secrets We Keep, playing poker with Matt Damon and Edward Norton in Rounders and his about-face regarding Jean-Marc Vallée’s shooting style on Sharp Objects.
You always seem to translate well in period films like The Secrets We Keep. Have you ever thought about why that might be?
No, I haven’t, but I love doing them. I’d actually love to do more of them. It’s always great to study a time and a place, and since I did so poorly in school, it’s always a re-education for me. I’m not sure why you say that, but I like it.
It’s hard to describe, but combined with period wardrobe, you seem to have a classical look that fits in almost any era. Conversely, some actors stick out like a sore thumb in period pieces; they create more of a cosplay vibe for some reason.
Yeah, we had a great wardrobe team here; they were fantastic. They did a lot with a little and helped create a real authentic look. So I’m sure that has a great deal to do with it.
So what was the process of developing this character? Did you rely mostly on the text, or did you do a deep dive into doctors and family men of this era?
Yeah, the script did a lot of it for me. It was very specific, and it was a good kind of road map. And like I said before, it’s always fun to deep dive into the time, the music, the politics and what it would be like to be a doctor during that time. But the script really was a great piece of music that if you just followed it, it took you there.
I like that he helped anyone in need of his care. It didn’t matter if the person was good or bad; his obligation as a doctor was always present. Did that quality also define much of your characterization?
Yeah, I liked that about him, too, which makes his arc even more interesting. He’s a good-hearted man; he cares for people and wants to take them in. It was very important to me that he was a modern man in terms of the time period. He was a guy that supported his wife seeing a therapist. A lot of this happens before the movie begins, but he was open to hearing what was going on with her. He’d be as much of a rock to her as he could, and as you journey through the movie, that is constantly put to the test. The stakes keep rising as he tries to hold onto his morals. Obviously, the love of his wife, the love of his son and the responsibility to take care of people seeps into bringing this stranger home and how he negotiates that. So yeah, that was a great jumping off point.
Independent films have a higher degree of difficulty than most studio films with endless resources. So, when a film like this turns out well, does it feel a bit more rewarding than the big studio projects which are given every advantage to succeed?
Yeah, I guess so. Whenever you take on a job — no matter what the scale of it is — you always root for it; you believe in it. As a whole, as a troupe, as a department, everybody works their ass off, and you want them all to succeed. You want them all to be seen and have people experience seeing them. I have a great love of the obstacles of independent film, the community and how it tackles its mountains. There is a homemade quality to it that I really enjoy. I come from New York theater, so you put your props back. If you don’t put your props back, then they won’t be there. You also paint sets, you do the lights or you scrub the toilets. You workshop things, and you learn the respect for the craft. So independent film is along those lines where you have to pitch in in other ways, and I really enjoy that. The few bigger movies that I’ve done, you root for them just as much because they have their own struggles. It might not seem so, but on the day, they’re still fighting, clawing and digging for the answers, whether that’s the scene or the script as a whole.
In the beginning of the film, your character, Lewis, and Noomi’s character, Maja, are caught in bed by their son and Lewis quickly explains how they were wrestling. That moment made me realize that there’s never been the perfect excuse for when this happens in movies. It’s almost always “we were wrestling” or “we were playing a game.” This is really just a stray observation, but have you noticed this as well?
(Laughs.) Yeah, I guess there is no perfect excuse — unless you’re going to sit your kid down and be like, “So let me tell you how you got here, kid.” Yeah, I think that came out as an improvisation in the moment. Or I probably heard it in another movie and just copied it, but that’s what came out of my mouth. Those lighter moments are really important in the movie. There’s not a lot of them, but they’re important to start off the movie. They let you try to figure out who this family is so you’ll hopefully like them before they’re invaded.
[The following two questions contain major spoilers for The Secrets We Keep.]
Lewis makes a shocking choice at the end of the film. How much of his decision was motivated by what was done to his wife, versus him feeling shame over falling for deception?
That’s a great question. It’s probably all of the above, and I don’t know to what degree. I took the film because of Noomi. I knew I would learn from her — and I did. When you spar with somebody of that calibre, they can only make you better. But after that decision, it was the question of how you deal with a crime like this and the age-old discussion of an eye for an eye. So I think he was wrestling with, “You did this to my wife and I want you to pay for it.” And then, there’s “I was doubting her and nursing you.” Ultimately, in the time when we were shooting it, you get so far away from these things. With the amount of days in that basement, the heat in which we shot the film and the confusion and the hysterics, the stakes rise rapidly, and it almost becomes Shakespearean. I think it’s something that just happened. He never thought that was going to happen and that he would do it. So I think it just happened, and he was immediately in shock about it. And he also instantly regrets it. So, reading it over and over again, I always felt that this man is driven to this point by all of this. It’s a downward spiral of vertigo, almost. That doesn’t make it right, but in the moment, it was a knee-jerk reaction.
The movie revolved around Thomas’ (Joel Kinnaman) secret, but the last shot of the film clearly illustrates how Lewis and Maja will forever be tortured by this new secret they share.
Yeah, where does this couple go now? How do they move on and live with that lie and this terrible act? The healing process is only just escalated. How can they make it out of that? I can’t imagine that this character would be able to live with that without drinking himself into his grave.
So I loved Amy Seimetz‘s She Dies Tomorrow, and I thought you were great in it. Did you and Amy meet on Secrets, which led her to cast you in She Dies Tomorrow?
I was a huge fan of The Girlfriend Experience; I really loved that first season. So I had a meeting with her on the phone, and I think we were both away working at the time. But we just had a lovely conversation. She’s incredibly smart, and we found that we had similar taste; we liked a lot of the same things. We didn’t end up working together, but we talked about maybe doing something in the next season of The Girlfriend Experience. For whatever reason, it didn’t work out, and then, there we were in New Orleans shooting this film. So, on our days off or after work, we would get a bite to eat, and I just really think she’s amazing. And then, she called and said, “Hey, do you want to do this movie?” And I didn’t even need to read it. She told me the way in which she was going to make the film. When you talk about that independent film experience — even more so than The Secrets We Keep — it was a skeleton crew with a script that kept changing as you went. I think it was, like, “Bring your own clothes and we’ll look through your bag of stuff.” And I just love that way. It makes it so that we’re all making the movie. Everybody, the 12-15 people, whatever the number is, you’re all making it. So I was only there for a small amount of time with her, but she’s a phenomenal director. She very much directs to what’s happening, and because she’s also a great actress, she doesn’t impose on you what the scene should be or what she has in her head. She casts it the way she wants to cast it, and she kind of lets it twist and turn. I had a wonderful time working on that with her.
I also thought you were excellent in Ben Affleck’s Live by Night. As nice as a warm reception is in terms of reviews and box office, is the experience still the primary factor in your decision making? In other words, by working on your second Ben Affleck movie alongside Robert Richardson, Chris Cooper and Zoe Saldana, haven’t you already won? Is a positive reception just the icing on the cake?
It is. It’s a great question because it’s twofold. The honest answer is when you and the community making the film put your heart into it and you dream about it — and either nobody cares, nobody sees it or nobody likes it — it’s not uncommon. I can name you many of those experiences since my days of doing plays. It’s not a fun feeling, necessarily. Maybe some people are more evolved than I am, but I had to learn this over time. The healthiest and the best way to go about it is exactly what you said. Just being cast in Live By Night with that group of people was the win. The experience, the day-to-day, working through the material and wearing those costumes was the win. And being directed by Ben, acting alongside him and all of those things became the treasure. And you’re right, at the end of the day, had people gone berserk over that film, it would’ve felt great. But after you mourn the reception of certain things, you always have, for the rest of your existence, the experience, which nobody can take away. So maybe because I’m less evolved, it’s taken time to learn that. If you don’t like The Secrets We Keep, it doesn’t take away what I learned from Noomi on that movie and the sparring matches inside of those ferocious and exhilarating scenes. If you do like The Secrets We Keep, it does make it nice, but the experience is sweeter than any of the bullshit that follows.
So a lot of actors aren’t particularly proud of their first credits, but if we rely on IMDb, you’ve got a great one in Rounders. What’s the story behind your poker game appearance?
Yeah, I was living in New York and went on an audition. I don’t think the director [John Dahl] was there, but I think I got that off a tape, which is rare for me. I think it was a day, maybe two, of hanging out with Matt Damon and Edward Norton, and they were lovely. They were both super hot at the time. Damon was coming off of Good Will Hunting, and I think it was before he had won that Oscar. Norton had also just done Primal Fear. So they were lovely guys, and I remember thinking it was probably an intense time for them. They were super kind and I was enamored by them both. There’s a story there where I had like three lines and the director took one or two of them away. (Laughs.) I think he took them away in front of everybody, too. It was probably because they sounded better out of another guy’s mouth, or maybe I was screwing it up or it was all about where the camera was; I was so clueless at the time. I was also clueless about card playing and the group, including Ed and Matt, weren’t clueless. So it could’ve been a combination of everything, but I remember feeling like, “Oh my god, that director just took away two of my lines and gave them to somebody else. This is not a good sign.” But anyway, there I am in Rounders.
Sharp Objects was a masterful piece of storytelling. Did you immediately take to Jean-Marc Vallée’s free-floating style of shooting, or do you prefer the comfort of convention?
At first, I didn’t take to it and I was confused by it. And then, once I leaned into it and just made friends with it, I loved it. On the next few projects, I kind of missed that way of working. It’s very much like a piece of jazz. It’s very improvisational and unconventional in its coverage. Sometimes, without turning around on you, the camera would drift here or there with next to no lighting, and that really made the day move. Once you got into the arena, so to speak, you stayed there and began to work. So I missed it immensely on the next few projects, where we did traditional setups, rehearsals and lighting, which is still a wonderful way to work. But for Sharp Objects, I think it really lends itself to the material. Jean-Marc is a master filmmaker.
Is Birds of Prey’s Victor Zsasz about as off the wall as you can go, or do you think you’ve got another level or two in you?
(Laughs.) I think I have more levels of off the wall than that. I’ve said this numerous times, but once you do something halfway decent in Hollywood, the imagination, unfortunately, for the masses runs thin. In a small way, I first became known in the public eye as being a nice guy, and that has stuck with me. I mean, even in The Secrets We Keep, he’s a nice guy that is challenged until he does something extreme. So it’s taken a while to show people or convince people that I’m an actor and that I can do other things. But yeah, Victor Zsasz, which was a blast to play, was when they let me out of the cage, and it’s just a little bit of the anarchy that I have in me. And I’m hoping I can dive into more characters that possess that as well.
You and Mary Elizabeth Winstead also reunited on Birds of Prey. Of course, she was the lead actor in your directorial debut, Alex of Venice. When these types of reunions happen, are you often reminded of how small this business can be at times?
Yeah, it’s great. I really love the kind of theater troupe aspect of this thing. And getting to work with similar people over and over again allows you to go even further because you’re comfortable. I didn’t have much to do with Mary in Birds of Prey, but every time I’d see her on set, my blood pressure would drop. I would become more relaxed because we know each other. We were in the trenches together, we know each other and she’s such a kind, incredible actress. There’s a calming aspect to it, and the same thing with Affleck. Being with him on Argo in a small capacity, and then on Live By Night, you just get into a groove with people. So yeah, it is a small business, but I really enjoy the return kind of quality to some of this. When you look at the great masters like De Niro and Scorsese, they keep coming back to each other. They’re both incredible at what they do, but you start to develop a shorthand with people. I’d love to direct seven more movies with Mary. I’d love to see if we could just grunt at each other or smile or laugh, and still know what to do or try.
I want to close on an “anonymous” fan question for you: “Chris, do you still think cornbread is the best sweet food/cheat food?”
Oh yeah. I’d have to say yes. (Laughs.) I do love cornbread, and I’ll never give it up.
The anonymous fan is your The Mindy Project writer-director David Stassen.
Oh my god, I love that guy. That’s so funny. On The Mindy Project, I would always say, “God, this cornbread is really good,” in craft services. He’s the greatest and the funniest guy. Such a sweetheart. He wrote some of my great one-liners and funny bits in that show. He’s not only so funny, but just a classy man, as I’m sure you know. That’s so funny that you guys are buddies. (Laughs.) What a funny question. I was thinking, “Where is he getting this cornbread thing from?”
The Secrets We Keep is now available in select theaters and on demand/digital.