Welcome to ACTING UP, the place where we celebrate standout performances in TV, streaming and film. Other than spotlighting exceptional work from recent projects, this feature also shines a light on how certain actors got where they are today. Have a peek and then check out these notable performances to help hone your craft.
The Snapshot: Chris Messina plays a shrewd lawyer for a surreptitious criminal enterprise in the super-dark comedy thriller I Care a Lot. (Streaming on Netflix as of February 19th.)
Some films have scenes so good you remember them for all-time. It could be a chilling monologue like Alec Baldwin’s god-complex speech in Malice (1993), or Daniel Day Lewis’ “I Drink Your Milkshake” rant in There Will Be Blood (2007). Then there are dark – yet funny – scenes that are so incredibly well-played (and well-written) they deserve their own special due.
The highly entertaining I Care a Lot from writer/director J Blakeson has one of those scenes. It involves Chris Messina as Dean Ericson, the sharply dressed legal muscle sent in to rescue an old woman from the clutches of her new “legal guardian.” When we first meet Dean, he seems fairly unassuming, with his slickness, smile and charm intact. He represents “concerned parties” and shows up at the office of Marla Grayson (Golden Globe-winner Rosamund Pike), who has full control of the life of the seemingly harmless little old lady Jennifer Peterson (Diane Wiest).
It’s actually Marla’s grift – taking advantage of unsuspecting elderly parties who she can then vacate of their net worth. But this time, she’s got the wrong woman. Jennifer has powerful friends and Dean represents them in the first of two scenes where Dean and Marla do battle.
Sitting across from Marla at her desk, Dean tries to appeal to her good nature. At first. The only problem is Marla doesn’t do “good nature.” More specifically, she responds to the request for the woman’s release with the rather abrupt: “Now, why the fuck would I do that?” That’s when Dean resorts to more persuasive action – and where the scene escalates to fairly epic.
In the scene (one of only three Messina is in), Dean suggests that if she doesn’t let Jennifer go, that his friends could make life “extremely unpleasant and uncomfortable” for her.
Emphasis on the “uncomfortable.”
Marla: How uncomfortable are we talking?
Dean: Aggressively and excessively uncomfortable. And then eventually, well… let’s just say you’ll not be ‘comfortable’ or ‘uncomfortable’ ever again.
Marla: Because I’ll be dead?
Dean: Look, I didn’t say that… but we all die, right? Some of us will just die sooner in a more horribly protracted and painful way.
This scene alone makes the film worth seeing. It’s “an actor’s scene,” a game of verbal chess, loaded with subtext, loud pauses and perhaps the most powerful vape exhale ever recorded on film. Messina owns Dean in this scene, as he strives not to get beat at his own game. But he’s clearly met his match in Marla, and it’s not a comfortable place for him knowing his boss.
To be honest, you’re not even sure who you’re actually rooting for, given what you know of the two parties. But you know you’re watching a great scene – and two great actors – do their thing.
The first time I came to appreciate Messina’s work was back in 2005 when he joined the Six Feet Under cast for the last season and became part of what’s still possibly the best closing sequence to a series ever. At the time, the Italian-American Messina played Ted, boyfriend of the Lauren Ambrose character. But at that point, the now 46-year-old New York-born actor had already been acting for a few years, cutting his teeth in films like Rounders and You’ve Got Mail in 1998.
To most, Messina is probably most well-known for his work on The Mindy Project opposite Mindy Kaling, where he played the beloved love interest Dr. Danny Castella, his regular-guy charm on full display. The role earned him a couple of nominations for Best Actor in a Comedy Series at the Critics’ Choice Awards in 2014 and 2015 respectively. Amongst other notable TV roles, Messina also did a stint in the HBO series Sharp Objects (2018) opposite Amy Adams.
The talented actor has also appeared in many films over the years including Birds of Prey (2020) where he played blonde-haired villain Victor Zsasz, the Oscar-winning film Argo (2012) and the underappreciated Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012) co-starring Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg. He also starred as Jennifer Aniston’s boyfriend in the drama Cake back in 2014.
In his latest role in I Care a Lot, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year (in a virtual sense), Messina proves once again that he isn’t messing around when it comes to this acting thing. Expect more great things when he stars in his next feature ISS, a thriller directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite about six astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.