Born in Greenwich, Connecticut, Christopher Abbott is an actor known for his role on HBO’s Girls from 2012-2013 and the films Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), Hello I Must Be Going (2012), A Most Violent Year (2014) and this year’s James White. Abbott has also appeared in several theater productions and lives in New York City.
Written and directed by Josh Mond, James White won the Audience Award in Best of Next! when it premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The film follows a young and reckless New Yorker (Christopher Abbott) faced with grievous circumstances as his mother (Cynthia Nixon) fights cancer, and co-stars Scott Mescudi (aka rapper Kid Cudi) and Makenzie Leigh.
Josh Mond made his feature-length directorial debut at Sundance 2015 with James White. A founding member of the production company Borderline Films with fellow producer/directors Antonio Campos and Sean Durkin, Mond has produced such award-winning films as Afterschool (2008) and Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011).
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Directed by Sean Durkin, the film is a thriller of cult abuse and re-assimilation into the real world, starring Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes and Hugh Dancy. Martha Marcy May Marlene won the Prix Regards Jeune Award at Cannes and Directing Award at Sundance.
Emmy-winning actress Cynthia Nixon is best known for her role as Miranda on HBO’s Sex and the City from 1998-2004 and her extensive work on Broadway since 1980. Nixon is one of the creators of New York non-profit theater company Drama Dept. and stars opposite Christopher Abbott in James White.
As the title character of James White, Christopher Abbott often fills an entire frame. These lingering close-ups heighten the claustrophobia of a life beyond his control: the death of his father, recurring cancer in his mother (played by Cynthia Nixon), and no method of dealing with any of it. It’s an intimate film, where each action, reaction and tonal shift reflects James’ mounting existential crisis—an anti-hero turning circles in his own cage, lurching between ennui and anger.
Loosely autobiographical, James White is writer-director Josh Mond’s feature film debut. He and Abbott have been friends for years and previously worked together on Martha Marcy May Marlene, produced by Mond’s company, Borderline Films. Co-created with Sean Durkin and Antonio Campos, Borderline operates with a semi-socialistic ethos—Durkin, Campos and Mond trade off writing-directing and producing in support of each other’s artistic pursuits. Not surprisingly, Abbott names those in his closest circle as the people he most admires. I talked with Abbott about his and Mond’s friendship and collaboration, and how it prepared him for this role long before the making of James White.
Clare Shearer: How did you decide that acting was what you wanted to do?
Christopher Abbott: I took a class in the second year at community college, Norwalk, which is a town over from the town I grew up in. That’s where I first realized I know how to do this, that I have a knack for it, and it was what I wanted to do. I started going to HB Studio in New York shortly thereafter. It was based in theater training, so then I started doing plays and got my footing in theater.
CS: Reading reviews from your early theater productions, it’s always, “Christopher Abbott was a standout role,” but in parenthesis because nobody knew who you were yet.
CA: It was a nice, slow way of getting into the business. Doing theater, I felt there was a bit of a safety net. There was room to experiment and make mistakes. I prefer to do that in plays more than films because once the play’s over, it’s over. It’s not recorded. I do still have some film and TV skeletons, but at least I got to exercise some of those in theater first.
CS: You haven’t been acting for very long, but you’ve had a movie at Sundance almost every year since 2011.
CA: I’ve been lucky that way.
CS: Do you feel like each Sundance has indicated an evolution in your life and acting?
CA: I’m lucky that Sundance is such a nurturing festival for small American films. But a lot of that credit is due to the independent film community in New York. It’s big, but it feels relatively tight-knit. Eventually your group of friends becomes bigger and bigger, and they ask you to do their projects. Luckily the friends that I have are all really talented and get into Sundance.
CS: You’re close friends with Josh Mond, right?
CA: For years and years.
CS: Were you involved with James White from the beginning?
CA: Yeah, from pretty early on. I think he worked on a few drafts before he brought it to me, but then I was kind of attached. At least I got to learn and subconsciously work on it before filming.
“Doing theater, I felt there was a bit of
a safety net. There was room to
experiment and make mistakes. I do prefer
to do that in plays more than films
because once the play’s over, it’s over.”
— Christopher Abbott
CS: Did you connect with the character?
CA: Oh yeah, of course. It’s semi-autobiographical for Josh. It’s not Josh himself, but being such close friends with him I knew where a lot of the stuff came from and saw the heart in the movie. Knowing Josh, friends of Josh and guys who grew up in New York, I was kind of doing research before I knew I was doing research.
CS: In the film, James White is moving through these really intense stages of grief: coming to terms with his dad’s death, then his mom’s cancer and having to take care of it all even though he’s incapable of taking care of himself. Was Josh explaining to you how he felt during his version of these events?
CA: I was around towards the end of when Josh’s mom was passing away, so I was able to be there for him as much as I could during that time. This was obviously before the idea of the movie was implemented, so there was already kind of an understanding between us about how to play it. He didn’t really explain it to me. He gave it to me and eventually said, “I want you to do this.” That was it. Josh and I have a rapport with each other where we don’t need to say too much. It’s just understood. I feel like he always trusted me to know how to interpret it the right way.
As far as explaining it, that was more on a day-to-day shooting basis, breaking it down to each scene each day and just talking through what it’s about. The faults that James White has, the poor character traits, we talked about where those come from. Some come from a place of insecurity, but the sum of it comes from a place of love. He always has high expectations of the people around him. Whether it’s his mother he’s known his entire life, his best friend he’s had for years or a girl he’s known for two weeks, he puts pressure on everybody to help him out or be there for him. That could be understood as an annoying or poor character trait, but he does it because he would do that for them. It always goes back to coming from this place of love or at least good intentions.