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Gotham Nominee Christopher Abbott Breaks Out in ‘James White’

Gotham Nominee Christopher Abbott Breaks Out in 'James White'

There’s a scene in Josh Mond’s relentless mother-son drama “James White” (The Film Arcade, November 13) when the title character (Christopher Abbott) takes his dying mother (Cynthia Nixon), a cancer patient who can barely walk, to the bathroom.

As he holds her against the wall—she doesn’t want to return to her bed—he paints a heartbreaking fantasy portrait of what they will both do when she gets better. The two actors dig into the long take, as they do throughout the movie. We’ve seen Abbott perhaps in “Girls” or “A Most Violent Year,” but nothing prepares us for this performance. There’s been awards talk but the tiny New York indie shot in 23 days on a hand-held Alexa is unlikely to be seen widely enough to enter the crowded Oscar race. Indie distributor The Film Arcade could add Independent Spirit nominations to its Gotham noms (which include Best Actor and Breakthrough Director).

And Abbot is on his way to meatier parts down the line. 

The debut feature of Borderline partner and NYU grad Josh Mond debuted at Sundance’s Next Section, where it won the audience award and rave reviews.  Abbot made friends with producer Mond on Borderline’s “Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene”). Two years ago New Yorker Mond wrote the “James White” script, inspired by his own experience nursing his dying mother. 
Mond shot the film in long takes—the opening sequence at a New York nightclub lasted 11 minutes—over 18 days in New York with another five in Mexico. 

At the start of the movie we’re plunked into the thick of things as James White acts up at a wake being held at his mother’s apartment. He’s mourning the death of his father, who had remarried. “He’s already battling with his own demons,” Abbott told me after a Sneak Previews screening. “We’re dropped in on him amidst his own struggle,  in a moment in time, at his life where it is at that point. He’s constantly moving, physically, until the very end.”

Eventually we learn that he’s at loose ends with no job as he helps his mother deal with cancer treatments. We follow him to a Mexican beach resort where he tries to clean up his act and finds a young girlfriend (Makenzi Leigh). Shooting the movie “felt like a strange little race to the end when you get to celebrate it,” he said. “You have a certain mindset going in, that helps you prepare for it, it’s going to be a mouse wheel kind of feel, maybe something in your brain gets you prepared for that.”

As he girded himself for the toughest scene at the end of the movie, “in a way I dread it,” he said. “And then my actor ego kicks in and I look forward to it.” 

Cynthia Nixon helped him: “she was a great acting partner, very present. She listens, gives things back, all you can ask for.”

The end of the movie offers no easy answers, which feels right to Abbott: “I feel like it shouldn’t be tied up in a bow? In the bad version of this film you see him on plane to Paris with notebook in hand and go off to be a great writer. It’s not about him being a writer, it’s about a mother and son.”

Next up is Jackie Earle Haley’s “Criminal Activities,” with Paramount’s “Fun House” coming next year. 

READ MORE: ‘James White,’ Starring Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon, Heads for Awards Season

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