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How Chris Messina takes phone acting to all new expletive heights with ‘Air’

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Chris Messina
“In playing David Falk, yes, he’s angry and yes, he’s fierce, but I also think he enjoys this game that they’re playing,” Chris Messina says of the hard-charging, foul-mouthed sports agent he plays in “Air.”
(Nolwen Cifuentes / For The Times)

He’s made more than 60 movies and TV shows since moving from New York to Los Angeles in 2003 for “Six Feet Under,” but self-described “acting nerd” Chris Messina finds himself generating Oscar buzz for the first time on the strength of a 2-minute, 31-second master class in phone acting. Sports drama “Air” casts Messina as Michael Jordan’s hard-driving agent, David Falk. He begins a call to Matt Damon’s Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro with “You fat f—.” From there, the f-bombs just keep dropping as Falk reams Sonny for going behind his back by personally visiting Jordan’s family in North Carolina.

To prime himself for the role, Messina says, “I watched ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ on repeat.” Speaking by Zoom from his home office surrounded by two snoozing dogs, a poster of Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Passenger” and piles of books about the craft of acting, Messina elaborates. “I was looking at [Al] Pacino as Ricky Roma and the great writing of [David] Mamet, seeing how there’s poetry in the foul language. In playing David Falk, yes, he’s angry and yes, he’s fierce, but I also think he enjoys this game that they’re playing. At least that’s what I tried to bring to it.”

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Messina filmed his “Air” scenes in a repurposed Santa Monica building not far from where he lives with his wife and two teenage children. “That was great for me, because I could come in whenever I wasn’t shooting and spend time in Falk’s office with the set decorator. ‘I think we should have nuts here, we should have a picture frame of my mom there.’ I knew everything in every drawer, what drinks I have, what books I had. By the time we started shooting, the office felt very much like mine.”

Chris Messina stands up from his desk chair and screams into a phone in a scene from ""Air."
Chris Messina actually had Matt Damon on the line while filming his phone scenes in “Air.”
(Ana Carballosa/Prime Video)

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Messina values detailed preparation, having studied at the Method-famous Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute. Growing up in Long Island, he’d caught the acting bug in high school after his older brother turned him on to Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. “It was like lightning struck me,” says Messina, who also became fascinated with James Dean. “When I found out those guys had gone to the Actors Studio, I got sucked up into the romanticism of it all.”

Deploying dramatic chops honed during a decade spent on off-Broadway stages, Messina imbues his alpha male performance with sly wit hinting at a recent side-step into comedy. For six seasons he played dirty-dancing tech bro Danny Castellano in “The Mindy Project” and now co-stars with Kaley Cuoco in Peacock’s “Based on a True Story.” “I find comedy really hard,” Messina says. “With me, there’s this actor who’s trying to keep it honest and raw and real and then there’s this ham who’s going, ‘Do you like me, do you like me, do you like me, is this funny?’ Those two things are often at odds.”

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The “Air” script by Alex Convery supplied Messina with high-velocity dialogue that tolerated no room for hesitation. To memorize the tirades, Messina enlisted his kids to run lines. “They’re super smart and not afraid to say, ‘I don’t believe that’ or ‘This line doesn’t make sense,’” Messina says. “It was funny to rehearse Falk with them, cursing and screaming. If you were listening from another room you’d go, ‘What the hell is going on in there?’”

On set, “Air” director Ben Affleck offered Messina the luxury of phone-acting with Damon actually on the other end of the line. “I’ve done a ton of phone scenes, and many times you end up doing it with script supervisors. They do a fine job, but they’re not actors.” By contrast, he says, “Ben has a cinema IQ like nobody I’ve ever met. He had Matt down the hallway from me with three cameras and I had three on me so we could react to any kind of improvisational moment that was happening. [After a take] we could then come together, talk about the scene and go back to our corners.”

Chris Messina
(Nolwen Cifuentes / For The Times)

“Air” marks Messina’s third collaboration with Affleck, which began a few weeks after they connected at the wedding of a mutual friend. Messina recalls, “We sat at the same table, I said something that made Ben laugh and three weeks later I get the call to do ‘Argo.’ I was convinced they’d made a mistake, because getting a job like that — no audition, ‘It’s yours’ — was not the norm for me at the time.”

In the 2012 Oscar-winning Iran-hostage picture, Messina plays a CIA official. He then gained 40 pounds and wore false teeth to portray a stout mob enforcer in Affleck’s 2016 period crime drama “Live by Night.” For “Air,” Messina again wanted to physically transform himself in the spirit of Falk’s memoir, “The Bald Truth.” “I was kind of begging Ben to shave it back,” Messina recalls. “We did some hair and makeup tests and then Ben said, ‘You looked so bad in “Live by Night” and I appreciated that but for this, I want you to look like Michael Douglas in “Wall Street.” I want you to have slick hair.’ He wasn’t interested in having me do a caricature. It was like, ‘You are the essence of David Falk.’”

Although Messina did not meet Falk in person, he did uncover common ground with the agent after reading his book. “David felt like he had to outwork everyone else to get where he was, and I learned early on in my career there are some things I’m OK at as an actor but there’s a lot I’m not good at,” Messina says. “In order to thrive in a business full of so many talented people, in order to keep looking at that lighthouse of De Niro and Pacino, I have to outwork everyone. I have to stay up all night, I have to wake up really early, I have to not surrender. That’s really in the DNA of this character and something I relate to in myself.”

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