There’s a particular ailment that afflicts actors of a certain caliber. These actors are cursed with being exceptional at what they do. They bring a depth and nuance to their roles, even when they’re turning in a 30-second cameo for a Jim Carrey vehicle. They’re always a welcome screen presence, exuding a charisma that can be adapted to nearly any purpose. Put simply, they’re versatile. Yet, in addition to being talented character actors, they also have that wonderful element of familiarity: In movie stars, it’s sometimes called the “it” factor, but with these actors, it’s usually demarcated by a half-smile or flicker of recognition in the viewer—“Oh, I like that person.”
These actors quietly, and with only a modicum of recognition, toil for years, turning in the kinds of performances that would vault someone who looks like Ryan Gosling, to the top of the A-list. Despite generally being noticed for doing good work—reviews will often cite their performance favorably—they still seem to float beneath the radar of wider popular recognition. There’s no one reason for their failure to connect on a mass level; perhaps they simply never got the lucky combination of right role/right time that’s so difficult to achieve. Eventually, they may gain some renown, but when it does happen, it will be long overdue. Let’s call this ailment “John C. Reilly syndrome”: a condition in which a great actor is consistently undervalued for far too long.
It’s a rare condition; truly great actors, the ones so good that, ultimately, their talent is undeniable, don’t come along all that often. Even rarer are those who, just by the ineffable aura they possess, draw you in to their character, no matter how obscure or repellant they may be on the surface. While John C. Reilly syndrome is uncommon, I would posit there is no better representative of it in the current calendar year than Chris Messina. He deserves to be a massive star.
For years now, Messina has been quietly building the kind of career most actors would kill for. He’s never had that specific “breakout” role, though the first time I (and many others, most likely) took notice of him was on the last season of Six Feet Under, when he took a character that could have easily fallen into the Alan Ball Pantheon Of Pandering Portrayals (“He’s a Republican… but he’s nice?!?!”) and turned him into a richly shaded individual, full of masculine insecurity and generous spirit. It’s the kind of performance that attracts attention, analogous to the young Philip Seymour Hoffman’s transformation of a rote Law & Order guest spot into a mesmerizing calling card.
Messina’s talent is no secret in the artistic community; his credits since then read like a bucket list of dream collaborators and/or prestige projects to make any actor salivate: Towelhead (Alan Ball, again), Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Away We Go, Julie & Julia, Greenberg, and Argo. And that’s not even a third of the total. He’s delivered affecting performances in numerous indie films, from romances (Like Crazy), to comedies (Celeste & Jesse Forever), to dramas (The Giant Mechanical Man), and to the uncategorizable/whatever-you-want-to-call-thems (Palo Alto).
More importantly, though, he’s not the lead in any of those films. Half the time, he’s not even in the top five, in terms of screen time. You could probably count on one hand the number of minutes he appears in Argo. But in every single role, Messina shows up to play. His magnetism gives him a memorable presence, even when he barely says a word.
However, it’s his work in the less memorable outings that confirms his greatness, movies like Made Of Honor, Devil, and the made-for-TV weepie The Anatomy Of Hope. Often, these are the kinds of underwritten or clumsy roles that are made to be coasted through. But Messina sells the hell out of them. There are moments in Devil where he seems to be channeling a latter-day Humphrey Bogart: exhausted, cranky, and wishing he were anywhere else. It’s an astounding feat for a role that essentially asks nothing more of him than to hit his marks and deliver exposition.
There’s a wonderful anecdote about Kathy Bates that illustrates this point. (Watch Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s James Marsters tell it here.) She was filming the execrable Hilary Swank tearjerker P.S. I Love You, and on a particular day, Bates sat around for 11 hours while the director got close-ups of Hilary Swank emoting. Finally, at around 2 a.m., Bates was called to the set from the group trailer—all so she could give a reaction shot. Marsters was convinced she was about to give the director a piece of her mind. Instead, Bates gathered herself, strode to the door, and, as she headed out to the set for her single brief reaction shot, turned to Marsters and said, “Men from the boys, James. Men from the boys.”
As anecdotes go, it’s one of my favorites, not just because it makes Bates seem exactly as cool as you always imagined she is, but also because it demonstrates the self-fulfilling nature of the theater truism “there are no small parts, only small actors.” And if an actor’s talent-size is dictated by how much they invest in each moment, no matter how small, then Chris Messina strides the earth as a colossus.
Take, for example, his work in Julie & Julia, a movie not without its problems, yet Messina isn’t one of them. He takes a wallflower role—sounding board for Amy Adams’ Julie—and turns it into a master class in reaction shots. It’s not scene-stealing; he’s not trying to upstage Adams. He’s just trying to make her look better, as any good actor should. Watch him in the following scene, after they sit down for dinner. He basically just listens and eats, but it’s so damn charming (especially in the face of some fairly clumsy dialogue) that you already know he’s someone you want in your corner, just as Julie does. Just as the movie does.
Messina’s got that elusive “everyman” quality in spades. A third of the half-dozen or so message boards on his IMDB page provide such revealing titles as “Could easily pass as the brother of…” and “Reminds me of…” This suggests that John C. Reilly syndrome is in part an aesthetic issue. Hollywood is a deeply conservative place when it comes to assigning starring roles, and the traditional, retrograde notion of “movie-star looks” is still very much ingrained in the mindset of many executives. But Messina, to continue the Hoffman analogy, is so good it seems likely he will eventually gain wider success, long after he should’ve been handed the keys to the city.
When he is given a rare opportunity to play the leading man, in indies like 28 Hotel Rooms or Fairhaven (on which he also has a “story by” credit), Messina unleashes a one-man charm offensive, digging into the roles and coming up with magnetic performances. Another condition of the syndrome: the naturalism of his acting tends to overpower, leaving the viewer with a sense of ease in the performance, rather than awe. It’s not the kind of showboating that leads to Oscar nods, or even film-festival nods.
Which brings us to The Mindy Project. Messina’s Danny Castellano is almost an inverse of Sam Malone from Cheers: Where Ted Danson made Malone believably conflicted as a louche Lothario whose easygoing, center-of-attention qualities masked a deep well of anger and bitterness, Messina has taken a character who, at least as written, was often all over the map, personality-wise (especially in the rough first season), and turned Castellano into a flawed, desperately needy individual. He took what presented itself as a stock character—the nebbish who thinks he’s a stud—and kept adding layer after layer, until Danny became the most three-dimensional person on the show.
Plus, the writers probably shared a collective high-five once they found out Messina could dance. Like, really dance. This was taken full advantage of in the recent season premiere, when the episode ended on a scene of Castellano performing a full-on striptease number for new girlfriend Mindy. The scene is interesting for all sorts of reasons, but primarily as a sort of tacit acknowledgement on the part of the show that Messina was a gift sent from heaven.
Messina is not the only actor currently experiencing John C. Reilly syndrome, but he might be the best. He’s added value to every project he’s been involved with, and despite being noticed for his work, he continues to float beneath the radar of mainstream recognition. He should have a bevy of award nominations; his knighthood is long overdue. Yet, he continues to turn in superlative performances, time and time again, his labors going without the rewards that should accrue from such a body of work. Many great artists wait overly long for their just appraisal—more than a few die before they get the acclamation they’ve earned. That’s the curse of the syndrome: It usually takes far too long for performers to get what they’ve earned. Let’s hope Chris Messina’s just appraisal is right around the corner.