Interview by Clare Shearer
Images by Jan-Willem Dikkers
Styling by Lisa Mosko
Grooming by Dina Gregg
“That’s the motto or the mantra in everything I do...
Just focus on the person.
Don’t worry about me. What am I doing to you?”
— Christopher Abbott
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.
CS: The movie can feel claustrophobic in so many ways—the small apartment James and his mother live in, James’ emotional situation and the way it’s filmed with the camera in his face the entire time. As you filmed with the camera so close to you, did it feel claustrophobic or did it heighten the energy of the film?
CA: It didn’t feel claustrophobic because of the way it was handled and because of Matthias, our DP (Director of Photography). He, Josh and I talked about how we were going to shoot it and why, so I was prepared. We shot the opening sequence of the movie as one take—at the bar, into the bathroom, coming out of the bar, walking outside, getting in a cab—that was this whole long dance me and Matthias did. Under the camera, I was tapping him on the hip when I was going to move this way or that way, and sometimes he would just pull my shirt and hold onto it. It was like a little performance art piece. Because of the way Matthias works, it never felt invasive. The camera crossed the barrier of being too close and felt like an extension of my body. It’s so intimate that you don’t know it’s there.
CS: You also filmed incredibly closely with Cynthia Nixon as your mother. How did it feel during those intimate, familial scenes where you’re picking her up from the bed, carrying her, holding her?
CA: That’s exactly how it felt—very intimate. And between Josh, Matthias and everyone who worked on it, they let it be that intimate and that quiet. There was never anyone standing around too much. It just felt like me, Cynthia and the DP in the room. And the way Matthias lit it too, the mood of it all lent itself to the feeling the film evokes. The world they created encouraged vulnerability.
CS: It’s very subjective. All the actions and the reactions that you have as James White—that is the movie. You pulling and pushing things away from you.
CA: James is an anti-hero in that sense. Josh and I would have talks before a scene sometimes about, “Let’s not worry about making him too likable in this scene. Let’s just go for what it is.” He’s an asshole at times, and it comes from a good place, but he’s not aware of it. I feel like it’s important to tap into that because it’s relatable. It’s more believable.
“I never feel like I’m constantly getting more
mature with age. I felt more mature
six years ago when I was 23 than I do now.”
— Christopher Abbott
CS: He always seems like he’s trying to be a good guy, and that’s why you like him, but things overtake him or he’s stuck or he doesn’t know what’s wrong or right in the moment.
CA: Yeah, and he messed up sometimes. As an audience, if you get to see that, to watch someone learn from some terrible mistakes, it becomes cathartic because it’s all about getting older. Slowly but surely. It’s not a gradual steps thing. Sometimes it’s one step forward, two steps back. For myself, I don’t feel like I’m getting more mature with age. I felt more mature six years ago when I was 23 than I do now. I was like, “Oh god, I feel so old for my age.” Now as I get older I’m like, “Oh, fuck it. Am I getting stupider?”
CS: What are you thinking during the scenes when you’re not saying much, but you have so many emotions moving across your face?
CA: Just the actor. Just the other person. That’s the motto or mantra in everything I do, and it sounds easy, but just focus on the person. Don’t worry about me. What am I doing to you? Or what am I trying to get from you? Which is like classic acting school stuff that you’re taught, but it’s a vital thing to practice because you then relieve yourself of too many duties and being in your head too much. If you’re focused on the other person, then you’re extremely present. Then you don’t even have to worry about being present. You just are. You’re not thinking about vanity. You’re not thinking about, “How do I look here?” Because in life you don’t do that. It’s important to be out of your head.
CS: Which of the characters you’ve played do you relate to the most on a personal level?
CA: There are aspects of each one that I relate to. I don’t know if there’s one that I relate to as a whole more than others. The thing I take away most from the jobs is the actual doing of them, not the result of them. Sometimes I’ll do jobs just to work with a person. Not that I don’t care about the part that I play, but I think more about the experience of it. I mean this sincerely: when I’m filming something, I forget that people are going to watch it one day. I think that’s a healthy thing, too. Even with Girls, I remember it not clicking in my head while filming that it was an HBO show, and a lot of people were going to see it. Or doing a film: thinking it’s going to be submitted to a festival and people are going to watch it and judge it. I forget about it. I want to keep that attitude. James White was about doing the part. I wanted to do the part justice, but I also wanted to make a movie with Josh and Antonio again and friends and crew who I’ve worked with before. Of course I want to go do that. And then it’s like, “What do I have to play? What’s the part?” Almost like that came second. Close second.
CS: You want to keep the urgency on acting rather than thinking, “What’s next?” or “What does this mean for my career?”
CA: It’s a trap when you think about the result of the thing. For actors, thinking, “This is going to be my moment. This is going to be my chance to shine.” It’s then that you get lost and stop listening to people, and it can be dangerous. Or you end up doing it for the wrong reasons and it comes across like that. When it’s shot so close, if you’re being disingenuous, you can see it.