Tribeca Interview: The Mindy Project’s Chris Messina Talks His Directorial Debut

Many actors work for decades producing a great body of work but aren’t recognized in the public by name. Then there are some who work for years and find themselves in a whole different ballgame of notoriety when a project really hits well on a large scale. In the case of Chris Messina, that moment happened when he found himself cast as Dr. Danny Castellano in the FOX show The Mindy Project, which is currently in its third season. In a business that seems to fuel off of talent measured in hard work and fortuity, Messina is in a unique stage where striking while the pan is hot seems like the best decision, even if it’s one that sees the actor-director stretched thin at times.

“I spent so many times in my backyard in California, wondering if I’ll ever work, so I’m very grateful that I have work. I know this business is crazy, so I know that may not always be the case for me, so I’m enjoying it while it lasts,” said Messina. The actor whose resume includes roles in Argo, Six Feet Under, Julie & Julia, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, is exploring avenues that he hasn’t been able to tackle until now.

Now that everyone and their mother seems to be in love with his Mindy Project character, Danny Castellano, Chris Messina is very eager to show other sides to his craft. This week he made a gutsy directorial debut at the Tribeca Film Festival with his film Alex of Venice. Co-written by Katie Nehra and Justin Shilton, Messina was able to get the project off the ground with a steady hand that’s heavily stylized and influenced by great directors he’s worked with in the past, such as Woody Allen and Sam Mendes.

Alex of Venice centers around Alex (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who after being walked out on by her husband (Messina), and without warning, has to navigate her life as a single mother, a caregiver for her ailing father (Don Johnson), and a full-time environmental lawyer.

Chris Messina was kind enough to sit down for a roundtable discussion to talk about his heroes in the industry, The Mindy Project, and his directorial debut.

THE INQUISITR: You’re wearing the hat of an actor and the hat of a director in Alex of Venice. Do those two perspectives ever clash?

CHRIS MESSINA: When we did Argo I really loved watching Ben Affleck. I would watch him go from shooting to the monitors and then he would adjust himself and us accordingly. We didn’t have that luxury because we were 21 days, and when you’re watching your 27 minute takes, you’re not going to make your day. My friend Matt Del Negro, who’s an actor, was there to direct and guide me.

THE INQUISITR: Since you’re so heavily invested in The Mindy Project and that shooting schedule, is it hard to dedicate your time to a project separate from that?

MESSINA: Yeah. I was lucky. This season I left for three days. I played Al Pacino’s son in David Gordon Green’s film Manglehorn. I was lucky to get out for that and it was a dream come true. I grew up like any short ethnic actor wanting to be Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman, so to work with Pacino as his son was awesome. The dumbest thing I did by far was I finished this movie, I had two weeks off, and went back to the second season of The Mindy Project, and then cut the movie in my trailer as I was shooting. It was just a foolish thing to think that when I was done shooting I’d have time or energy, so it was like having two full time jobs. I would never do that again.

THE INQUISITR: Are you and Mindy getting back together on The Mindy Project?

MESSINA: We kind of dance back and forth together, but the last episode is very romantic and I think the fans who watch the show will like it.

THE INQUISITR: Besides Ben [Affleck] were there other directors that have inspired you?

MESSINA: When we were making the movie I had everyone watch Hannah And Her Sisters, All The Real Girls and Kramer vs. Kramer, but every shot of the movie is stolen from another movie and not done properly. The films are like tattoos and they stay with you. Woody Allen casts his movies really well and then he kind of let’s you go and do your own thing. When I worked with him I never felt like I was making a movie. Sam Mendes said something, he told me that “Every actor comes with a gift and it’s director’s job to let that gift out.” That really hit home. I tried to set a place where these actors were able to bring their gifts and let them flow.

THE INQUISITR: Why did you decide to set the film in and around Venice beach?

MESSINA: I love Venice. It’s very eclectic. It’s changed a lot but it’s got this small town vibe. It’s got a lot of interesting characters. Sometimes it reminds me of Brooklyn by the sea or Coney Island so I felt like it was a great character that I wanted to bring into the film.

THE INQUISITR: You’re very versatile in your work from The Mindy Project To Argo, how do you juggle it all?

MESSINA: I’m very lucky that I have that “problem” and it’s not a problem,it’s a gift, but I won’t lie to you, it’s tiring. I definitely think all the overlapping is fun, and great, but then there has to come a time when you have to refill the well.

THE INQUISITR: You have this play within the film that Don Johnson’s character is in called the Cherry Orchard. Where did that idea come from?

MESSINA: One of the last plays that I did was about eight or nine years ago, and it was The Cherry Orchard with Jessica Chastain and Michelle Williams at the Williamstown theater festival. The theater town had a great impact on me. I wanted the play in the film to mirror what was going on in these characters lives. They’re going through changes — some of them big and some of them are small. As in the play The Cherry Orchard there’s a lot of change. People are saying goodbye and accepting a new life. That was the idea to meld those two. I think it’s hopeful.

Alex of Venice is currently playing at the Tribeca Film Festival.