The Next Big Thing? Christopher Abbott On His Breakout Role in 'James White'

Abbott and director Josh Mond are two names you'll want to remember.

Christopher Abbott and Josh Mond at the James White photocall during the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival on September 17, 2015. (The Film Arcade | Getty Images)
Christopher Abbott and Josh Mond at the James White photocall during the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival on September 17, 2015. (The Film Arcade | Getty Images)

Avoiding conflict and shuffling his feet, Christopher Abbott made his mark on the HBO series Girls quietly. He plays Marnie's sensitive ex, Charlie, but nothing in that series will prepare you for what Abbott does in his new film, James White. If you're familiar with Borderline Films (Martha Marcy May Marlene, Simon Killer, Afterschool), you won't be surprised by the artful grace and resonance of their latest release.

Directed by Josh Mond, who formed Borderline with fellow Tisch film school grads and current writer/directors Antonio Campos and Sean Durkin, James White is a new chapter for the production house but a familiar-looking one. Mond uses the handheld, reality-based approach that's marked all the Borderline movies to give his leading man and James White their heavy credibility.

Speaking with Mond and Abbott about the film, it became apparent these guys were never messing around. They set out to make a serious, personal film and mission: accomplished. Hailed at Sundance and TIFF this year, James White is a visceral character study of a young man whose fragile life is breaking apart. His father is gone and his mother (played by Cynthia Nixon) is terminal. Heavy stuff, but the filmmakers are two stars on the rise and they were up to the task.

Zimbio: Josh, the movie looks a lot like the films you've been in involved with in the past, could you talk about your influences?

Josh Mond: My partners obviously, Antonio Campos and Sean Durkin... I've been producing for them for years and working with them for about 13 years so they're definitely a huge inspiration to me. It's what's familiar to me. I learned to tell stories with them and also from them. I'm also a huge fan of, and it may sound strange, but Law and Order (laughs). The first three seasons to me are the most authentic New York. And the pacing, and it was pretty radical... very Sidney Lumet, Prince of the City. I just like the pacing of it and the rawness of it. Then you got Joachim Trier, from Reprise, Oslo (August 31st), and Louder (Than Bombs), to me is one of the most important voices. Denis Villeneuve is another one. The Iranian director who did A Separation and The Past is just unreal. True Romance is my favorite movie...

Is it?

Yeah it is. It is my hands down favorite movie. Antonio, Sean, and I all grew up on the same cinema, everything from The Goonies to Back to the Future, traditional American adventures... And we discovered Haneke, Dumont, Polanski, Kubrick. For me at least, the idea of entertaining while challenging is a goal. I want to make movies I want to go see and I think James is a movie I made that I would go see.

Abbott in James White. (Film Arcade)
Abbott in James White. (Film Arcade)

The cam is in Christopher's face a lot. Could you talk about the intimacy of the film and the distance from the camera to the actor?

Abbott, Nixon, and Mond at the Sundance Film Festival this year. (Getty Images)
Abbott, Nixon, and Mond at the Sundance Film Festival this year. (Getty Images)

Because the movie is a portrait I obviously want to deal with the character and, in terms of his energy, psychology, emotionally, and the concept of the story I wanted the camera to make you feel how claustrophobic he feels... the anxiety he feels and also the idea that he can't run away from himself. The language we set up from the beginning of the film, where you're in his head and it's objective and it's subjective, it kind of sets it up to subconsciously take you on an adventure whether you're with him or watching him. I say this a lot in interviews but, for me, New York is a place where, if you submit to it - and it's easy to do that - it's a place of reaction and not much reflection. It has this rhythm and this energy to it if you fall for it. For all those reasons. The last thing I'll say is: Going wild in Mexico is everything he wanted but he's also lonely. He doesn't have the tools, doesn't know how to take what's in front of him and do the work so what's familiar and what's easiest is to feel something good. So he does what he knows. He goes after the girl and does what he did when he was a kid. He gets messed up with his friends to not think about it.

That was definitely one of the things I related to. Christopher, what was the most challenging thing for you about the character?

Christopher Abbott: Every day there was a fairly big scene to do so the entire movie was pretty challenging. As far as the character goes, as an audience member, there are things about him I find challenging watching it. He has certain traits that tend to be infuriating. But in the doing of it, which is 'Actor 101' stuff, is just not judging the character and justifying everything he does. A lot of what Josh and I talked about, even in his worst moments, or what would be some of his bad character traits, a lot of it came out of insecurity but also out of love. He would do something for other people and would expect them to do it for him. He puts an unrelenting pressure on everyone around him. In a way, it was kind of hard to justify some of that stuff but in the working on it, it became easier to.

Nixon and Abbott in James White. (Film Arcade)
Nixon and Abbott in James White. (Film Arcade)

I always like to hear from actors who in film history they see in a character.

The character for me is kind of an amalgamation. It's a mix of people I grew up with, Josh grew up with, it's a mix of Josh, maybe other performances I stole from, and you kind of put it in a pot and mix it up. So, not to dodge the question but there are so many influences, from my own personal experiences to other people's, to other performances, I'm not sure if could name a specific one.

Was it hard for you to leave the character behind?

It was such a whirlwind shooting it, so non-stop... I was also lucky that the Mexico portion of the movie, the most fun part, was at the end. (That) was a weird little pseudo-holiday at the end after the New York stuff. And I stayed there for a few days afterwards. Josh stayed too and our good friend Alex, and we reflected on something we all just accomplished. But no I think I left it in Mexico.

Sounds like a good transition back to the real world...

The Next Big Thing? Christopher Abbott On His Breakout Role in 'James White'
Film Arcade

It was

Could you also talk about working with Ms. Nixon and maybe something you learned from her?

She's such a consummate professional, and has so much experience that she, across the table... plus all the directors she's worked with... She was very much in the same frame as you and be very present in the scenes. In the best way possible, she didn't make me feel intimidated. She just felt like a great giving scene partner.

Are you a Sex in the City fan?

I've never seen it so I can't say that I am.

No girl ever forced you watch that?

Nope.

Pretty lucky.

(Both laugh)

Just kidding. Okay guys, thank you for making a personal film.

JM: Thanks brother

CA: Thanks

Senior Editor at Zimbio. I'll take Johnny Clay, the Rev. Harry Powell, and Annie Savoy. You can have the rest.
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