Having premiered this past Saturday at the Tribeca Film Festival, actor-director-producer Chris Messina’s “Alex of Venice” is already receiving a warm welcome from critics and the general public alike. The film is a nuanced family drama centering around the titular Alex (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an environmental lawyer whose stay-at-home husband George (Messina, in a small but distinctive performance) takes a leave of absence and in turn leaves her to pick up the pieces. Those pieces include their young son (Skylar Gaertner) in the bloom of his first crush, her former-TV star father (Don Johnson) grappling with aging beyond his mindset, the return of her flakey, newly rehabbed sister (co-screenwriter Katie Nehra), and a promisingly empowering work-related romance (a melt-worthy Derek Luke).
Messina is already a familiar face. His acting credits run the gamut from rom coms (“Made of Honor,” “Julie & Julia”) to indie fare (“Away We Go,” “Celeste & Jesse Are Forever”) to HBO (“Six Feet Under,” “The Newsroom”) to Oscar winners (“Argo,” “Vicky Christina Barcelona”). Most of the time, he plays the brother, the friend, the boyfriend, “the sideman.”
“For years, I was the guy at the airport who people would think they went to high school with, I’m the sideman, and I would say I was an actor,” Messina told Indiewire in a recent interview, “and they would start asking me to name my credits for them and a couple people would be listening at the airport and I would run my credits by this person and they’d be like, ‘Who were you in that?’ And, ‘Oh, I didn’t see that.'”
Since being cast as Dr. Danny Castellano on “The Mindy Project” (a role that earned him a spot on Alison Wilmore’s “8 Most Underappreciated Supporting Actors (and Characters!) on TV”), people still approach him, but most actually recognize him now and some even “feel like they know [him] or that they have ownership of that character.” Messina takes this in stride as “it only means that they’re invested in the show” and credited the show’s creator/lead actress/writer. “Mindy Kaling is fantastic,” he said.
It’s rather easy to confuse Messina with his character, Castellano. Onscreen, he’s the sort of TV character you root for, whether he’s wooing or unwooing Mindy Lahiri (Kaling), with his combination of charm, curmudgeon and classic good looks. Offscreen, Chris Messina is the sort of actor-turned-director you root for, also handsome and charming, but one who worked his way through theater, film and television and is on the cusp of receiving his full due.
Growing up on Long Island, Messina had posters of “Serpico” and “Dog Day Afternoon” hanging on his bedroom wall. Following Al Pacino’s footsteps, Messina turned to the New York theater scene and made his way from off-off-Broadway to off-Broadway to Broadway. “I got my ass kicked here as an actor for so long,” Messina recalled. “I got a lot of bit parts in plays, but I also struggled here a lot.” One of those bit parts was in the 2003 revival reading of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome,” in which he “died in the first 20 minutes,” with the production not only marking Messina’s Broadway debut but the first time he worked with Pacino. Now 11 years later, Messina has just wrapped up working with Pacino again on David Gordon Green’s “Manglehorn,” playing his son. “It’s nice to be back with him, doing something more meaty together,” Messina said.
Wanting to take a break from the fast pacing, cuts and dialogue of his current two television gigs (“The Mindy Project” and “The Newsroom”), Messina looked to direct a film with a slower pace. “I wanted to return where I feel more at home,” he explained. Producers Jamie Patricof and Crystal Powell (whose combined credits include “The Place Beyond The Pines,” “Blue Valentine” and “Half Nelson”) gave him a script that “was a big collage of all of these different characters in Venice.” Messina worked with them and the screenwriting team (Jessica Goldberg, Katie Nihra and Justin Chilton), narrowing the script down to one central family. From there, they rounded up a stellar cast and crew (including David Wingo, David Gordon Green’s frequent composer) and that’s how “Alex of Venice” came to be.
In regards to the film’s cast, Messina said he looked for actors who wanted to play these roles and didn’t want anyone doing him any favors. With only 21 days to shoot, “you just wanted everybody onboard and there’s no trailers,” he said. “You’re moving really quickly.” Lead Mary Elizabeth Winstead “came in and read and she was amazing. She also had a strong need to play the part.” Messina had to nearly beg Don Johnson to play the father, but once Johnson joined in, he was “so committed” to the role.
Prepping for filming, Messina looked to films like “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Kramer vs. Kramer,” with “All The Real Girls” being “a big influence,” and filmmakers like Hal Ashby and Robert Altman. “Those are the movies that made me want to be an actor,” he said, “and so I wanted the film to kind of have that kind of look and feel.” While mentioning these films, Messina couldn’t help but sidetrack modestly and say things like “I couldn’t do any of it” and that he thought most of the shots in “Alex of Venice” were stolen from movies he liked, but “weren’t executed properly.”
Messina combined this passion for a certain style of film (“trying to let the camera meditate on the characters, not a lot of cutting”) with his years of experience on film sets and his continuing interest in filmmaking techniques, referring to the website Cinephilia & Beyond as a great resource. He also heeded advice from directors including Ben Affleck (“very helpful, so smart”) and Sam Mendes. The latter told him that “every actor comes with a gift and that it’s the director’s job to let that gift out,” which Messina took to heart.
While shooting “Alex of Venice,” Messina saw his role onset more as a guiding hand. “When you have great actors, like in ‘Alex of Venice,’ I could let the camera go and it was always terrific to watch,” he said. Sometimes he would even let that camera “run and run and run” for as long as 27 minutes. “I think directors like to direct too much,” he added. “I feel like they have to do that. I think sometimes you have to just shut up.”
Looking back at his first time directing, Messina identified the best thing that he did was to stay out of the actors’ way while “the number one dumbest thing” was to juggle two jobs at once. That said, he definitely wants to direct again, if just to correct the “so many mistakes” he thinks he made during “Alex of Venice.”
Still, Messina added that he already has another directing project lined up (“A New York movie about a New York firefighter,” he said, penned by “Alex in Venice” co-screenwriter Jessica Goldberg). “I’m lucky,” he said, hinting that he hoped that luck would continue.