Venice meets Tribeca: TFF Interview with Chris Messina and the Cast of Alex of Venice

| April 25, 2014

For his directorial debut Chris Messina, Hollywood’s current Renaissance man and star of The Mindy Project, wanted to explore the veracity of a family seemingly falling apart through a character-driven film set in Venice Beach, California. Alex of Venice made its premiere at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival earlier this week and the team came out to talk about the film.

Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World ) as Alex, Don Johnson (you already know) as her aging former soap star father, Derek Luke (Antoine Fisher, Captain America) as her legal opponent and rebound man, co-writer Katie Nehra as her flighty, foul-mouthed sister and director Chris Messina as her long unhappy husband, Alex of Venice tells the story of Alex, an ambitious environmental lawyer who has unintentionally lost sight of her family situation until her husband George abruptly leaves her.

Katie Nehra and Justin Shilton started writing what would become Alex of Venice over six years ago (Jessica Goldberg would later join the writing team at Messina’s suggestion), and finally having seen it come to complete fruition for the first time at the Tribeca Film Festival, was in her words “surreal.” One of Nehra’s objectives was to write Alex as someone both compelling and real. And why not write an interesting role for herself as well?

“I feel that no one is gonna write as great a part for you than you can write for yourself,” say Nehra. “Everyone wants to cast women in these boring roles. I think that’s why Mary did this film because it’s actually seeing a woman fall apart rather than being in a kitchen going ‘Where have you been all day!?’”

Twenty-nine year old Mary Elizebth Winstead, who was almost passed up for the role for being too young, was drawn to all of Alex’s vulnerabilities. One of her favorite moments of the film has Alex asking a ouija board if she’ll ever have sex again during a rare moment of sisterly bonding. “It shows how she’s insecure about the way she is, and where she’s going, and where she’s gonna end up,” explains Winstead.

When asked if it was challenging to balance humor and drama as naturally as she does, Winstead credited the following as a testament to those qualities as an actress: “The kind of thing I feel like I’ve grown into — as I’ve gotten older and further into my career – is bringing myself as much as I can and knowing that’s a good thing,” states Winstead. “When I was younger I didn’t think that was really acting.”

There was nothing but high praise for Don Johnson, whose performance is one of the centerpieces of the film.

“We’d never see him really falling apart,” says Nehra.”He always sort of plays the slick, put-together, handsome guy. I think that he really rose to the occasion. It’s a really heartbreaking performance. “

“He’s also such an actor’s actor,” Winstead chimes in. “He really focuses and does the work. Even when he’s not acting he’s in acting classes and workshops. He’s a really committed actor.”

The cast also unanimously approved of first-time director Chris Messina. He was the reason why some, including Derek Luke, signed on to the independent project. Though, Katie is quick to point out that it was her idea to cast Luke in the first place.

“Derek had just been on “The Americans” and I sent Chris a screenshot with your fro,” recalls Nehra. “I was like ‘What about him playing Frank? That would be really hot.’”

“Really?,” asked Luke laughing and surprised. “I didn’t know that.”

“A lot of times in my experience […] the directors would have a law, meaning you could only walk down this path,” explains Luke. “I’ve had great journeys with actor-directors –Peter Byrd and Denzel Washington.” Luke says Messina’s collaborative spirit allowed for everyone to search for the “gems and jewels,” of the film together.

Winstead found the set of Alex of Venice to be the most collaborative and engaging she had experienced. “He’s an actor and cuts out any communication issues,” says Winstead. “He knows what actors like to do which is to get to play and go every direction possible. That’s what he let us do.”

Chris Messina has done a little bit of everything in his nearly twenty-year career, but he’s just now on the road out of Oh yeah, that guy and on the road to becoming a household name, thanks partly to his starring role on The Mindy Project. But Messina has had his hand is screenwriting (Fairhaven, which also premiered at TFF in 2012), directing and starring in theater productions; he’s a veteran independent film actor (Ira and Abby, The Giant Mechanical Man) and a veteran TV actor, known for his supporting roles in Damages and The Newsroom. He’s also been in big-hit, Oscar-winning films like Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Julie & Julia and Argo. Basically, he’s in everything and you know it.

Messina’s resume is very substantial and truly impressive, and he is now probably as busy as he’s ever been. Between directing a feature film, shooting a 22-episode season of a hit comedy and starring opposite his idol Al Pacino in the upcoming Manglehorn, Messina continues to check off boxes on an extensive checklist, but those things have done nothing to chip away at his genuine humility.

“It’s not really a problem, it’s a gift,” says Messina of his workload. “It’s tiring, but I spent so many times in my backyard in California wondering if I’d ever work, so I’m grateful for having work. “

The directing rookie is also quick to point out his lack of time-management skills and the mistakes he made his first time around: “[…] the dumbest thing I did by far was that I finished this movie, had two weeks off, went back to the second season of The Mindy Project, and pretty much cut the movie in my trailer as I was shooting,” explains Messina. “It was just a naïve, foolish thing to think that when I was done shooting that I’d have time or energy.”

Messina also doesn’t hesitate to site his guides and inspirations. He had everyone watch Kramer vs. Kramer, Hannah and Her Sisters and All the Real Girls.
“I think every shot in the movie was stolen from another movie and then not done properly,” says Messina sincerely.

“I like to watch things that don’t have a lot of cutting, because I get lost into the material, and I stop seeing all the filmmaking,” he adds. “I felt like this story lends itself to that kind of stuff. That stuff I definitely ripped off from Woody Allen and Steven Soderbergh.”

Having worked with Woody Allen on Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Messina says Allen left a strong impact on him as a director, as did Sam Mendes with him he worked on Away We Go:

“Woody casts his movies really well, and then he kind of lets you go. When I was in that movie I never felt like I was making a movie.”

“Sam Mendez said something that I quote constantly. He told me that every actor comes with a gift. It’s the director’s job to let that gift out. To me that really hit home, because so many times I’ve been in where directors are trying to shove me this way and shove me that way.”
Messina also drew inspiration from Venice itself, a place he loves for its eclectic and interesting characters. “Sometimes it reminds me– and its very different, so don’t get mad at me– but sometimes it reminds me of Brooklyn by the sea …like Coney Island. I felt like it was a great character that I wanted to bring it to the film.”

The idea that this small film might only find an audience outside of the theater, with more  independent films finding newer platforms for distribution, is not at all disconcerting to the 39-year-old director. “It doesn’t make me worry,” he states. “I think it’s just a new day. “

With his directorial debut finally under his belt, Messina has plenty to stay excited about, like the upcoming David Gordon Green film “Manglehorn,” in which he stars opposite Al Pacino as his son. Although this is not the first time Messina has worked with Pacino, he is no less amazed by the opportunity.
“That was like a dream come true,” says Messina. “I grew up, like maybe any short ethnic actor, really wanting to be Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro or Dustin Hoffman.”

As for a Mindy and Danny reunion, the very un-Danny-like Messina has this to say:  “We kind of dance back and forth a little bit. The last episode is very romantic. I think the fans that watch the show will like it.”

Oh, and by the way—Chris Messina is also in Palo Alto, the film from James Franco and which is also featured on the Tribeca slate this year. The former New Yorker is quite the Tribeca darling.

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