Tribeca 2014 Interview: Chris Messina Goes Behind the Camera for ALEX OF VENICE

Valentina I. Valentini, Contributing Writer
Chris Messina is nothing like Dr. Danny Castellano, the typical gruff New Yorker with a chip on his shoulder from The Mindy Project. Much to the contrary, Messina is warm, inviting and genuinely wants to have a discussion about his first film as director, Alex of Venice, which premiered this week in New York. Of course, there's still that New Yorker about him both in accent and word choice, but it only adds to his charm.

Alex of Venice is a quiet vraisemblance about a workaholic environmental attorney, Alex, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who is forced to reinvent herself after her husband (Messina) - the only man she's ever had sex with and bore a child for at 19 - ups and leaves the family. Co-starring Don Johnson, Derek Luke and Katie Nehra, Alex discovers her hidden vulnerability as well as her inner strength as she fights to keep her family intact.

Twitch sat down with Castel...oops, Messina to talk about why this story spoke to him, why he cut himself out of it (mostly) and why he wants to direct. (Don't worry Mindy fans. He's not leaving Dr. Lahiri's office anytime soon.)

The film has a moment where Alex's ambitiousness throughout her life comes into question as possibly not being an asset. What are your ambitions with directing?

I always wanted to direct. I directed a lot of little black box-type theater productions here in New York, and I found a certain way in which I was working as an actor that I was searching for in other directors. Sometimes I'd find that in another director, but often not. So I think I wanted to direct to give myself and other actors a playground where we could work this certain way. If that makes any sense...

And as the movie brings it up, is ambition a good thing? Do you think there'll be push back for going behind the camera?

There's always push back on everything we do. Not just actors, or what we do, but everyone's got some opinion about what we should or should not be doing. There'll always be someone who says, 'What the hell's he doing?' or 'Who the hell does he think he is?' But I don't give a shit. I've lived my life not accepting no and doing the things I wanted to do. 

Plus, I think actors make good directors. In terms of knowing how to relate to them and give them what they need to show through in a character.

That's true, so maybe just the rest of the crew hates you then.

Sure, yea, maybe. Like Doug Emmett (joking) [Messina's cinematographer who also shot him in 28 Hotel Rooms and The Giant Mechanical Man]. Man, I love that guy though.

So why direct now? Why this script?

The producers on 28 Hotel Rooms knew I wanted to direct and the timing was right when this script came along. But beyond timing, there was just something about this film and the family aspect of it I felt that I understood...I felt that I could do something with. I was scared to do it, though. I'd talked about directing to my friends and family for a while, wondering how good I'd be. We'd watch movies and critique them, questioning a casting decision or shooting decision. Then you're doing it, and you're making tons of mistakes. It's like a bullet train that you can't get off of and you're scared shitless. But that's kind of the fun of it, you know?

Did the train come in to the station?

It did. And I feel relieved. 

It's a small, slice-of-life film. If you're in to that, if you like that kind of movie, you'll like the film. If you want a face-paced film with more plot, this might not be the film for you. I love the movies of the 1970s and I try and steal as much as I can from them - like Hannah and Her Sisters, I watched that over and over, and Kramer vs. Kramer was a big influence on this particular film. I love Hal Ashby and Robert Altman. I like things that are slower paced.

That's interesting, since in your TV world as Danny Castellano and Reese Lansing in Newsroom, nothing is slow paced.

It's a whole different universe over there. I like to linger and to not cut so much, because as a viewer it keeps me in the story. Once there is a lot of cutting I'm very aware of the director and the filmmaking.

You seem to be able to go back and forth between independent films and mainstream television fairly successfully. Because of MINDY's success, do you think people will have a hard time seeing you as anyone but Dr. Castellano now?

Did you find it hard to watch me as George or did you keep thinking it was Danny Castellano?

No. I didn't. So you're still a good actor. You've got that going for you.

Well, hopefully I can continue to disappear into roles like that.

But it was a small role. Which reminds me, it seems that there was a deliberate choice there to keep George out of the story and make it very much about Alex, hence the title.

We found that the absence of somebody spoke louder then having a bunch of conversations between George and Alex about what they were going through. So we stuck with Alex and kept George away from the house.

Going back to your other question, I love playing Danny and I've learned so much about comedy from that team. But I hope that people can watch me in other things and not see Danny.

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