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“It’s hard for me to define, honestly,” says Christopher Abbott when asked what he gains from acting. He takes a moment to search for the answer, jostling around in his chair and letting out a few incoherent mumbles. Nothing comes. “I don’t know what acting does to me. I don’t look at it as therapy, but I can’t deny that I get to exercise things and work things out by expressing emotions that are in me in some way. But where they come from and why, I really don’t particularly know.”
Joining Abbott to discuss his revelatory turn in Josh Mond’s “James White,” it becomes clear the 29-year-old actor’s uncertainty extends to nearly every discussion topic. Ask him what drew him to a certain role, or how he explored material with the cast, or whether or not he prefers the stage or the screen and you’re bound to get some jumbled thoughts and an “I don’t know, man.” Even when he does find an answer, his mind seems to be racing with 1,000 different thoughts or getting caught up in other details or, in this case, by the beauty of a “Moonrise Kingdom” poster hanging on the office wall. In just seconds it becomes clear: Abbott is a man of feelings over facts, emotion over reason.
Considering he once told The New York Times he’d like to emulate the creative life of John Cassavetes, Abbott’s dependency on emotion is hardly surprising. You may not be able to squeeze a straight answer out of him, but you can tell how madly involved he is with his craft just by his sheer presence. Like a Cassavetes character standing before you, he’s constantly riding waves of intensity and he’s endlessly fascinating. Luckily, his career has followed suit.
His skills in front of the camera suggest a different story, for Abbott wasn’t always an actor at heart. As he tells it, he happened to walk by a room at Norwalk Community College offering theater classes and he decided to take one on a whim, unaware he had a talent for it. From there, Abbott realized he had a knack for the profession, crediting the opportunity to work through such great works as “The Seagull” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” as baiting him to the world of acting. Local training at New York’s HB Studio came next, followed by a few Off-Broadway plays that proved vital to his future.
“You don’t get a proper degree at HB Studios, you take classes at your own free will, but I studied with a lot of great teachers and started in the New York theater world,” he remembers. “I did a play called ‘Good Boys and True’ and I felt like I was part of a community — the New York theater community — and that creates a support system in a way. Just for your own ego to continue doing it, you need people to tell you that you’re doing the right thing, or at least that you’re decent at it. It’s hard to do that for yourself, so finding that community helped.”
“Doing plays is a nice place to fail, in a way,” he continues. “I think that’s why I’m glad I started there. It feels like there is more of a safety net because it’s not documented forever. It was nice to do plays and be bad and learn that being bad is okay sometimes. That’s where you learn from. When you move to film, you learn to be more subtle and how to negotiate your feelings in more discreet ways.”
Learning the tools of the film trade came courtesy of his movie debut in Sean Durkin’s 2011 psychological drama “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” He only had a small role as a member of Josh Hawkes’ sinister cult, but the film represented a giant leap forward in his career. Abbott had met Durkin a year prior to filming and they became fast friends as the director introduced him to the team at Borderline, the New York City-based production company founded by Durkin, Antonio Campos and Josh Mond. It was yet another community the actor found himself fortunate to be a part of, and one that would once again elevate his presence and confidence in the business.
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“I work with friends a lot. It’s not by choice, it’s just coincidence, but I work a lot with friends or on first films all the time,” he says. “I think it’s because of the Borderline guys. You get involved in the New York indie community and you meet people who are just these very hungry, very driven and creative talents trying to get things off the ground that you just really want to be a part of. It all happens naturally.”
Borderline’s three founders rotate positions on their films, so it turns out “James White” director Mond was a producer on Durkin’s breakout hit. The two clicked instantly on set, planting the seeds for their powerhouse collaboration. “After ‘Martha,’ we did this short experimental film that was sort of a precursor to this,” Abbott says. “It’s not ‘James White’ the short film, but that was the first time we got to work together as actor/director. We already had a rapport with each other just as friends, so doing the short was exciting to learn that we could sort of transfer that rapport to a functional working relationship and have this second hand language on set with each other.”
Such easy communication would prove vital on the set of “James White,” Mond’s semi-autobiographical drama about a misguided, hard-partying adult who must come to his senses after his mother faces a life-threatening battle with cancer. The drama, starring Abbott opposite Cynthia Nixon, took Sundance by storm earlier this year, winning the NEXT Audience Award and vast critical acclaim for its lead performers. Ever since then, Abbott has been something of a dark horse for the Best Actor Oscar, a point further solidified by his inclusion on countless prognosticator lists and his recent Gotham Award nomination. Inhabiting the role with a dangerous sense of spontaneity, Abbott reveals dark corners and vulnerable shades that adds to the film’s visceral nature.
Abbott had been present during the time in which Mond was facing his own mother’s battle with cancer, making the project all the more personal. He was able to see drafts of the script and work on the character in the year leading up to the film’s “marathon” production — they shot the New York scenes in just 18 days — and while it was clear the character would force him to experience some of the same emotional turmoil as the director, it was always clear “James White” was a movie and not, as Abbott called it, a “therapy session.”
“While this movie is not completely autobiographical, Josh did lose his mother. I tried to be there for him as much as I could, so in that sense I just wanted to do justice by him as a friend, not even as an actor,” he recalls. “It’s not a biopic, luckily, so there’s not necessarily pressure to stay exactly true to his experience and nothing else. During filming, it was very clear that, as emotional as the movie is and as emotionally involved as everyone is, we were making a movie. Josh had already gone through all of that and that’s why he was able to sort of mount this project. On set it was about creating a narrative and telling a story as honest as possible, and he was able to do that based on the experiences he went through.”
“I feel like there is a lot of direct personal connection with it, which is really nice,” he says on why he and audiences connect so vividly to the film. “A lot of times at Q&As people share their own experiences that they can relate to from watching the characters in this film. It’s been touching, really. People connect quite literally to loss — whether it’s from cancer like the story in the film or just something else. The idea of loss is a very universal thing. At some point everyone goes through that — in that way it’s one of the most universal feelings.”
Abbott could identify with the emotions on set, though he isn’t the type of actor who brings real world experience to his roles. “When I’m acting, I’m not thinking about something that made me sad 4 years ago or some shit,” he says with a hidden smile. “You just try your damn best to believe it is real. That’s how I like to do it. I act by just believing in the scene in front of me and the people I’m sharing that scene with. I have to be present, not thinking of the past or using past emotions to sort of fuel what I’m doing in that moment. It all develops in the scene at that precise moment.”
Having a director who was also a good friend helped too. “Given the time constraints we were on, having a friend at the head helped immensely,” he recalls. “There was a time when I did a scene and I knew that he’d be coming up to me to say something, and I could just tell him, ‘Go sit back down, I know what you need.’ There’s that deep understanding between us there, and in a way that saves times, keeps the project moving. Neither of us are shy about our opinions with each other. It moves things along at an honest rate.”
However quick the production, the results have paid off potently. Up until Sundance, Abbott was best known as “that guy from ‘Girls,'” the HBO hit where he starred as the on-and-off-again boyfriend of Allison Williams’ character. He left the show abruptly after two seasons, claiming he had no longer felt attached to the character. Although he would go on to do strong character work in indies such as “Hello I Must Be Going” and “A Most Violent Year,” his “Girls” contemporaries found themselves hitting it big, mining multi-million dollar book deals and securing roles in an NBC live musical and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” For Abbott, a tidal wave of fame didn’t come as quickly, though his role in “James White” finally changes all of that.
“It’s dangerous to think that something is happening to you,” he says of the past year and the months full of potential awards love to come. “It’s a little too dangerous. It’s not reality.” Someone better pinch him then, for this “former ‘Girls’ star” is at long last a leading man.
“James White” opens in select theaters this Friday.
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