Before you ask, yes, you do know the guy pictured above from…somewhere.
Chris Messina plays dreamy Dr. Danny Castellano on Fox’s Mindy Kaling-helmed comedy The Mindy Project, he's the hardass, numbers-driven network president Reese Lansing in The Newsroom, and he just made his directorial debut with Alex of Venice, a heartbreaking indie drama which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. He’s had roles in two Nora Ephron-penned films (You’ve Got Mail and Julie & Julia), Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Ben Affleck’s Argo and guest arcs on Six Feet Under and Damages. Messina’s earned a reputation as “that guy you see in everything” —yet somehow, people have had a hard time placing him.
“For the longest time, I was always like a guy that people would think they went to high school with,” Messina says, over a cup of scalding hot green tea at a New York coffee house. “They’d be like, ‘How do I know you?’ After, we’d play a guessing game. I’d say, ‘I’m an actor,’ and they’d go, ‘Oh, what have you been in?’ I’d list my credits and they wouldn’t really remember me. And I’d finally be like, ‘Let’s stop playing this game.’”
Now, not only do people recognize Messina, they stop him on the street and demand that he answer for his characters. “Recently, people have been like, ‘Why did you do that to Mindy?!’” he laughs, referencing The Mindy Project’s season two twist (spoiler alert: Mindy and Danny’s will-they-or-won’t-they romance finally takes off but, three episodes later, Danny chickens out and offers Mindy the classic “let’s just be friends” breakup line instead). “I kind of feel like saying, ‘I didn’t write it, I just acted it!’ But at the same time, I like it because it shows that they’re invested. That’s cool.”
In person, Messina is a bit like Danny, minus the curmudgeon qualities. He’s dressed unassumingly in a black jacket and jeans and has a polite, quiet way of speaking (I show up five minutes late to our interview but somehow he ends up apologizing to me on behalf of the subway line that stranded me underground). A few times, he reveals an old-school mentality which Dr. Castellano would heartily approve. (When I ask him about his averseness to Twitter, Messina shrugs. “I dunno, I’m kind of like Danny that way; I’m a dinosaur,” he says. “A lot of acting, as I grew up wanting to do, is kind of like magic…I’m not comparing myself to him in the least bit, but if you knew what Daniel Day-Lewis was doing every step of the way and what he was eating, I don’t think when he popped up as Lincoln we would quite believe it.”)
But Messina—who is 39, by the way, and definitely not a dinosaur—did not rise from obscurity to ubiquity because he’s inflexible. The man can land jokes, direct and act (he even dances) in big-name projects and smaller indie films, romantic comedies and dramas, though he consistently deflects credit for his talents to the people around him. His newly honed comedy chops? Thank Kaling and her team of writers, who taught him everything he knows. The choreographed dance to Aaliyah’s “Try Again” that Danny pulls off as a Christmas gift for Mindy? That’s the influence of Messina’s mom, who is a former dance instructor. And his success in directing Alex of Venice? Actually, that was just him “trying to steal” from the directors he’s worked with.
“I was kinda looking to Woody Allen when he really cast [Vicky Cristina Barcelona] well,” he says. “I think that was one of the most important [things I learned], was if you cast it well you can kind of let your actors go and trust them.”
The one thing Messina doesn’t brush off is his acting—though he initially quit that endeavor almost as soon as he started.
A Northport, Long Island native, Messina discovered theater in high school. “I was so bad in school that acting gave me some kind of identity and gave me a home,” he says. “It wasn’t like Oklahoma. We did all these, like, black box theater, small plays about sex, drugs and rock and roll. It was pretty cool.” But trouble came when he tried going to college to study theater, an experience so much like a Glee-themed hellscape that he quit after one semester.
“At that point, I didn’t want to be an actor. I dropped out of Marymount [Manhattan College], went back to Long Island and worked on a lobster boat and delivered pizzas,” he says. “When you go to a college for acting, at least the college I went to, it’s like everybody just singing and dancing and acting and they all come together and everyone’s talking about head shots…It just turned me off. I was like, What is this? I don’t understand this. People are singing in the hallways. You know? I guess I just wasn’t ready for that.”
His black box sensibilities were assaulted by an army of Rachel Berrys, but Messina soon realized he missed acting, returned to the city to take acting classes and began working off-Broadway. He’s the star of a popular TV sitcom now, but his background in theater and his long career in indie films still shape what he prefers to see onscreen.
“A lot of times this season [on The Mindy Project], Mindy and I have had scenes where we were touching in quiet and it wasn’t just all comedy,” he says. “It’s kind of where I feel more comfortable, to be honest with you. I know it’s a comedy, so not every episode or every scene can be like that. But I’m hoping we can get more of those.”
Alex of Venice, Messina’s only non-theater directorial project so far, is rife with those quiet moments. Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars as Alex, an ambitious environmental attorney whose surfer-artist husband, George (Messina), leaves the family one day, unhappy with being a stay-at-home dad. Apart from dealing with a monster workload for an important case, Alex finds herself struggling to handle the couple’s ten-year-old, Dakota (Skylar Gaertner), her less-than-responsible sister Lily (Katie Nehra, who co-wrote the script), and their Alzheimer’s-afflicted, aspiring actor father (brought to life by inimitable Miami Vice veteran, Don Johnson). Apart from resisting the temptation to define Alex with a handful of easy traits (she is not just a workaholic, nor a mom, nor suddenly single; her actions and reactions are refreshingly normal, like she’s an everyday human), the film is notable for being unafraid of silence. The camera lingers on Alex as she stares into a crowd of surfers at Venice Beach, futilely searching for George; it watches Alex and George lay in bed together, expressing in everything but words how things between them will never be the same.
Of course, Alex of Venice pulls off genuinely funny, naturalistic moments, too, a testament to Messina’s Mindy Project lessons in comedy. Conversely, Messina is also able to see parts of the sitcom that are most like the character-driven dramas he’s used to. Answering the fans who stop him on the street and demand to know why Danny broke up with Mindy, Messina analyzes: “Danny’s just incredibly scared ‘cause he knows how much he loves Mindy; he fucked up in a divorce and he doesn’t wanna do it again,” he says. “I think he honestly just doesn’t want to lose her. I think he doesn’t know how to handle how much he feels.”
Filming has wrapped on The Mindy Project’s second season and, the day after our interview, Messina steps back into Reese Lansing’s shoes for The Newsroom’s third season. Asked whether he’ll direct again, Messina says yes: He and Alex of Venice co-screenwriter Jessica Goldberg are already at work on “a New York story.”
As for whether he feels like he’s “made it” as an actor (as opposed to a guy people think they went to high school with), Messina indicates he’s far from finished. “I’m never satisfied. I feel that I’m lucky that I have work and that I’ve come to a place where I have choices, which is nice,” he says. “But I feel like I have so much more to say and do, that I’m just beginning, a little bit.”