Q&A

Chris Messina is a work in progress on and off 'Mindy Project'

Chris Messina works on his comic timing on 'The Mindy Project,' finishes 'Newsroom' and finds time for 'Cake'

Chris Messina is that guy you can't help seeing. Last year, the 40-old actor worked on the Jennifer Aniston-led "Cake" and Al Pacino-fronted "Manglehorn," finished out his run on "The Newsroom" and found time to be a philanderer in a Sam Smith music video. But to a certain group of TV watchers, Messina is simply Danny Castellano — the gingerbread house-making, ale-brewing love interest with a stripper past to heroine Mindy Lahiri on "The Mindy Project." The Fox series, created by Mindy Kaling, is in its third season.

Ahead of this season's launch, Mindy posted a photo on Instagram of her straddling you on the set. Does she get clearance from you?

Oh, boy. Instagram is so weird. It's such a strange thing. But, no, she did not ask my permission. That's the thing about Instagram, all of a sudden you're there and you're like, "What does this mean?" I don't understand it. I don't have it. Some people show me their Instagrams — what are they called? Pages?

Three seasons in, how have you adjusted to acting in the comedy space. I know it made you a little anxious in the beginning.

The comedy is difficult. We've talked about it before, that my co-stars are so damn funny. I think as a season progresses, you get into a groove. If it's too grounded, it's another TV show. If it's all just jokes, that's not interesting to me. So trying to find that balance is difficult for me. It's always hard for me because it's not my go-to place.

Have you reached a level, though, where you feel comfortable improvising with them — or is that too daunting?

I think I've gotten more comfortable in knowing that's not my great skill and I don't have to worry about it. I can shut up and let them do that. I like to improvise — but my improvising is more like paraphrasing. I'm kind of in awe of what they do. I don't understand how the brain does it. I'm always like, "What planet are you guys from?"

You had a busy summer, the film you directed ["Alex of Venice"] made the festival rounds and you were shooting "The Newsroom."

Yeah, I directed the film and five days later I came back to do the second season of "The Mindy Project." There was one moment where I fell asleep in my car, during the day, at a red light. I woke up to horns honking. So it was pretty intense and stupid.

But, yeah, "The Newsroom" was a fun ride too. Reese Lansing was a fun guy to play.

Would Reese ever go for Mindy Lahiri?

Hmm, I don't know. I'm sure he'd be attracted to her. But I think he would maybe be afraid because he has to have the token everything. He has to have the token blond woman. He lived a rigid life that is about what people think of him. I think he'd be attracted to Mindy Lahiri, but once she started talking and getting all crazy with her pop culture references, he'd probably freak out. Whereas Danny, he's a little more patient and in love with her. But I do think Danny would kick the … out of Reese Lansing. As well he should. Reese is stuck trying to prove himself constantly, which is an interesting character to play, trying to show everyone that it's not just because of his mom.

And, excuse me, but what a mom to have!

Oh, yeah, Jane Fonda is amazing. We were lucky, we got invited to her Lifetime Achievement Award. One of the things she said that really stuck with me was when she said she worked with all these people — Katharine Hepburn, Lee Marvin, Barbara Stanwyck — but she was like, "I didn't ask enough questions. Ask questions!"

So what have you asked Jane Fonda?

I love "Coming Home," it's one of my favorites. So I've asked her about the making of that a lot. But I could have asked her many more. She also studied with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, so I'm wishing I grilled her on that. There were a couple of times where we'd talk about relaxation, which ultimately is the key to great acting. And I wanted to ask her what Lee would say about relaxation, but I felt like a dork.

You worked for two dynamic figures in the last few years — Aaron Sorkin and Mindy Kaling. How would you compare their boss styles?

It's so different. Aaron, he comes into rehearsal and he listens and watches and he gives notes or answers questions if an actor is confused. Then he goes back to the writers room. A lot of times he'll come back when you're shooting, and a lot of times he won't because he's so busy. Mindy is my acting partner and boss. So it's very different than if Aaron Sorkin and I were in a scene together.

The pros are: You're right there with the creator, and she is incredibly smart and she is really funny and has original ideas. A lot of times, I'll be playing it one way and she'll tell me to play it the exact opposite, and it ends up being such a better choice. The con to that is that your scene partner is giving you acting notes, which is kind of against the rules.

"The Mindy Project" pulls a lot from Mindy's own life in various ways. If you helmed your own show, what elements of you would be in there?

I love that question. I love "Boardwalk Empire." I like slow things. I don't want to be told things. I want to see it through behavior. That's more my style. I think there'd be a lot of silent moments on my show. One thing is for sure is my show would be, at maximum, 15 episodes. Probably 10. If I could do eight, that would be great. Actually, four would be terrific. I love these shorter-run projects like "True Detective" — because as an audience member, there's so much great stuff on but there is no time. I can't commit to five seasons of something as a viewer. This year "The Mindy Project" is doing 15 episodes, which is great. A lot of times on the network, which is totally aggravating, they swap things around. It's like, "Wait. He was just mad at her! And now he's so nice to her!" It annoys me.

yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

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