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Christopher Abbott is best known for his now non-existent recurring role on Girls as Charlie Dattolo, lover to Allison Williams' Marnie. His fallout from Lena Dunham's hit HBO program has been well documented, so much so that it's a topic of conversation he has no interest in discussing. The resistance is understandable, especially considering the heart and soul he put into James White, director Josh Mond's bruising drama about a self-destructive New Yorker who's unraveling as his mother (played by Cynthia Nixon) slowly withers away from cancer. As the eponymous character, Abbott, 29, turns in the best performance of his career.
In conversation, the emerging talent discussed the hardships of making James White, intimately engaging with fans, and the moment he decided to sign up for an acting class.
Considering the power and pain of James White, was there a moment in filming that was especially taxing?
It's been a while now. We shot it in the end of 2013 to the beginning of 2014, and in the style we were shooting, it was kind of go go go. To be honest with you, it's become a bit of a blur. It was a marathon in a way, and we were very prepared for it, and everyone was very much in the same mind-set. There wasn't much sleep for anybody, there wasn’t much to do other than film the movie and go to sleep. So it's hard for me to say one scene was particularly hard or difficult—the entire movie was difficult, but at the same time, extremely fulfilling.
Do you feel a kind of detachment from it now that you’re a year and a half removed?
Of course, you do other movies, you do other jobs. There's a detachment from the emotional standpoint, but you're in a different section of the ride of the film. Now it's Josh and I traveling around with the film and showing it to people, and people coming up to us after, and relating their personal stories. It's a different chapter. I'm detached emotionally and physically from the shooting of it, but we're still going through the experience of it.
What is that like to have someone come up to you and relay an extremely personal anecdote that somehow connects to your work? How do you take stuff like that?
Well, you try to be graceful, you listen. It's a weird line of, I don't want to seem condescending. I want to be as genuine as possible. It's really just listening to them and maybe I can relate something back. It's hard sometimes; the interactions are so brief, because it’ll be after a Q&A and there's other people standing around and other people will have things to say. One person will just relate a very personal story, and you want to give to them as much attention as possible. It's weird.
I imagine it's overwhelming.
Yeah, but it's a case-by-case basis kind of thing. And it's great when you meet good people. You just wanna give them as much time as you can, and maybe avoid the people where there are different intentions. Don't give them as much time. [Laughs.]
What are the different intentions?
Just like, who knows? A bit more business, like networking.
What would you say is the best part of the work?
For me, it's during. It's the doing of that I think is the most fun. I truly so often forget when I'm filming something that people are eventually going to see it. I realize it, but on the day-to-day basis, it's not at the forefront of my mind. Just the doing of it is the whole thing in its most purest form in a way. On a meta level, of course I enjoy acting, I enjoy creating characters, I enjoy playing a part, I enjoy acting with other people, but it's more about the making of the film. With James White, which was made with some extremely dear friends of mine, Josh Mond being the writer/director, just being able to do a project with some dear friends of yours is kind of a dream. In that way, more than the acting, it's the time spent on something important with people that you love.
When you're in the project, does it wholly consume your life?
Of course, some more than others. I'm not much of a multitasker. When I'm working on something, it's all I can think about until I'm done.
Is there a goal or a place you want to take your career? You’re kind of in a great spot right now.
Well, the general answer to that that people say is, Working on great scripts with great people that you admire. I can't deny that's true. But, no, I don't have some long-term plan for anything.
Is that how it's always been, no plan?
I trust my gut. I became friends with Josh, Sean [Durkin], and Antonio [Campos], who are Borderline Films [and the team behind James White], back a little while before Martha Marcy May Marlene. These guys are doing something real. They're good people, and I want to be friends with them first and foremost. So it was two birds with one stone, when they also make really good art.
Right. Is it a requirement that you have to be friends with the people to work with them?
No, of course it doesn't always work out that way. It has worked out for me that way. I don't know if more than other people, I'm not really sure, but I do feel I've gotten pretty lucky. There's a few directors I've worked with that afterward I've become friends with and hang out with outside of work.
Admittedly this is a broad question, but when did you realize this was a job and not just a passion?
It became an aspiration in school, because I knew I liked acting, and going to school at HBC in New York is where I learned I had a knack for it. I got enough praise from teachers and fellow students to keep going with it. You need some sort of validation from other people, you can only believe in yourself so much. It's such a strange interpretative art form in that way. Is there one moment that crystallized it for me? No, once I started working and once I started getting hired for jobs, just little by little, it started becoming clear, just the fact I was getting hired for stuff. That means that maybe more people trust me to do what I do. They like what I do and I like what they do. It was a kind of slow burn in that way.
Did the validation come right away?
Yeah, I was still learning about it. I guess I started fairly late comparatively to other actors. I didn't take my first class until I was about 20.
It was that late?
I didn't even know what I was really getting into when I started taking an acting class. So I did need validation because I was so outside of the world of it. I liked films growing up but the idea of being an actor was not something that was in my mind growing up, so I did need people telling me I was doing the right thing.
What made you sign up for that first class?
I don't know, to be honest. I was going to a community college a town over from my home town, and I took the class there, and it was just kind of on a whim. I would walk by the theater there, and I wasn't sure what I was gonna do, so I just signed up for the class there. That class was good, it made me realize I had a knack for it, but it wasn't the most inspired class in the world. Soon after that, I started auditing at HB Studio in New York. I took the train in and audited a class and started taking classes there. I think that's where it started to set in for me.
James White is now playing in NYC at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema. Showtimes and tickets available here.
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