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.