John Hanlon Reviews


Christopher Abbott talks about his award-winning performance in "James White"

By: John Hanlon  |  December 4th, 2015
Christopher Abbott in James White

In the past, viagra buy actor Christopher Abbott has often played supporting characters. From his work as Charlie on the first two seasons of Girls to his smaller performances in acclaimed films like A Most Violent Year and Martha Marcy May Marlene, adiposity he’s often supported the main story through subtle but strong performances.

But in James White, rx the young actor takes center stage as the title character and proves his worth as a leading man. From the close-ups of the actor to his delicate scenes opposite Cynthia Nixon (who plays his cancer-stricken mother), the film is an intimate look at the main character as he struggles with his own demons and his mother’s growing illness.

After premiering at the Sundance film festival in 2015, the drama has been receiving great reviews with many of them focusing on Abbott’s stellar performance. Abbott has already won the Hamptons International Film Festival award for breakthrough performance and this week alone, the film was nominated for three Independent Spirit Awards including best first feature and best male lead.  I recently had the chance to talk to Abbott about his role in this strong film.

Below is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation.

When did you first hear that Josh Mond, the writer and director, was working on this movie and wanted you to play the lead character?

It was a little while after we did a short film called 1009 together. He was about halfway through the writing process of James White when we did that so not long after that. I’m using his words, not mine. But then he had said after we did the short together… he knew right away and then at that point, he started writing it for me more or less.

I heard that you were involved early on even before the final script was written.

I didn’t write any of the script but we would just meet up constantly and talk about each draft and where it was going and I would chime in here and there. I got to have the script soak in for quite a while– a year– before we started filming it. I was lucky in that way to have that much prep time.

I know the film isn’t autobiographical but many of Josh’s own personal experiences are in it. With that in mind, was there some hesitation from you in terms of taking this on?

I also felt a right to do him justice in that way as much of it as an actor but even just as a friend. In a non-egotistical way because of that, I felt like I should be the one to do this part. I was around when his mother did pass away. It felt more like a responsibility — more than stress — to tell Josh’s story in that way.

How long did you have for the production itself?

We started in December/ November of 2013. We shot eighteen days in New York and then after the new year, we went to Mexico for like four days and did the Mexico section of the film. It was like 22-23 days total. It was pretty short.

How much of a crew were you guys working with?

In New York, it was about twenty-some odd people and then Mexico was like a skeleton crew. With the DP and the keys (main actors), I would say like four or five and then some producers were there and stuff so it was a small skeleton crew in Mexico and a slightly larger one for all the New York stuff.

How did you prepare for the big emotional moments in the film?

I think the big thing is to do all the homework beforehand well before we start shooting so that when we did improv in the film, everything was always through the character and not just for me. Again I had a lot of time to do this homework so that when you showed up on set, you were then free and able to do everything via the character and via the story. It’s a tricky thing with improv too because improv can be really bad if it’s too loose.

It’s kind of how I try to approach everything. Just to be as present as possible when you’re on set and it’s a tricky thing. I’ve said this before but I don’t want to be thinking about some kind of bad memory of my own while acting. I like to be present. I like to be listening to the other actor and try as hard as possible to believe in the actual situation at hand.

I know you didn’t know Cynthia Nixon that well before you started filming scenes with her. With that in mind, how were you able to build up that emotional connection?

Given the allotted time that we had, we had to kind of jump right in and like how I said I would do homework, Cynthia did hers as well. Cynthia herself can relate a lot to the part. She’s talked about this before. In the same calendar year that we shot the film, she had lost her mother to cancer. She also grew up on the Upper West Side. She was saying that her mother was kind’ve like a Bohemian upper West Side mother much like Josh’s mom was so she had a lot to kind of relate to so she had a lot of prep herself, whether it was subconscious or not. I think we both got it. The first scene that we shot together, it was all there and made everything much easier.

Towards the end of the movie, there’s a big intimate scene where you’re helping Cynthia’s character use the restroom. It’s very intimate between the two of you so I’m wondering how you were able to capture that being surrounded by a film crew.

Between Josh and Mátyás (Erdély), our DP, and everybody— they would set up the world so that it could be as intimate as possible and as few people in the room as possible like Mátyás would light for 360 so you could almost shoot anywhere. That scene was quite technical cause it would go from the bedroom, through the hallway and into the bathroom and it was all kind of just one long take and the bathroom is actually fairly small so it was only me, Cynthia and the DP in the room while actually filming it. It was probably as intimate as it could get and that was because everyone that worked on the film had kind of a respect for the story and were as emotionally invested as the actors were and as Josh was.

You previously played a more sensitive New Yorker on the show Girls. How did your preparation for this role differ from your prep for that role?

It’s been a while now since I’ve shot Girls– four or five years. For lack of a better word, Girls tends more towards comedic. There’s a slightly different approach. You want to be open. You want to be open to improv. I feel like one is slightly more loose than the other.

What was your experience like at Sundance?

I’d seen the movie quite a few times before we got to Sundance. I didn’t have that kind of  fear going into it. I knew what the movie was. With that, it was extremely exhilarating to show it in front of an audience for the first time and in front of people that hadn’t worked on the movie or didn’t know anything about it and just kind of get their reaction so I was almost more interested in looking around at the theater while the movie was going on and seeing how gripped some people were. It was moving. It was extremely moving in that way because Josh and I — who had been friends for years — had kind of made this movie.

It’s a personal story and it’s a scary thing to share a personal story for a bunch of strangers and see people– a lot of people can relate to it. They have had similar experiences. In that way, it was one of the more moving experiences that I’ve had in my career so far.

James White is in theaters now.