Chris Messina was worried about his big moment in Ben Affleck‘s latest film, AIR. The movie—based on the Nike executives who signed Michael Jordan in 1984 and promptly created the most popular basketball shoe of all time—would have him play Jordan’s longtime agent, David Falk. But that wasn’t the problem. It was Messina’s scenes with Matt Damon‘s Sonny Vaccaro, which were also almost entirely acted over the phone.
Affleck rigged together a situation where Messina was just a couple of rooms down the hall from Damon, barking through a phone, cords and all. It worked like magic. The duo’s verbal tennis matches are by far the most hilarious scenes of the entire film. At my screening, the audience was downright cackling. “I was originally like, Oh shit, this is a lot of phone calls,” Messina tells me over a phone call of our own. Thankfully, he spares me from the insults. “Doing it live—it was more fun to play because it felt like I was in those scenes with Matt,” he explains. “You can sense, watching the film, that it’s more alive because we were actually talking to one another.”
AIR marks Messina and Affleck’s third film working together, following 2012’s Argo and 2016’s Live By Night. Of course, there’s more to Chris Messina than yelling at Matt Damon over the phone. He grew up a dancer—fans of The Mindy Project may recall—with aspirations of becoming the next Mikhail Baryshnikov before he started acting. In our chat, he describes the movement of basketball greats like Michael Jordan the same way he would if they were dancers. “Ballet’s not the most popular thing for a kid from Long Island,” Messina reveals, but dancing and acting made for some the first times in his life that he felt seen.
Below, Messina shares stories of a young Matt Damon destroying him in poker—and the moments on set that inspired the now-legendary insult, “I’m gonna chew on your nuts.”
ESQUIRE: What do you like most about working with Ben Affleck?
CHRIS MESSINA: Having a shorthand with a director makes for a really fun experience. As an actor, most of us are all looking for our people. When you find those people, and they happen to be exceptionally talented, the job becomes easier. When Affleck’s directing you, you can just let go and trust. The people you’re acting with, the team, and the wardrobe crew, are also incredible. You’re wearing incredible suits. You can focus solely on what you’re there to do.
You’ve known Matt Damon for a long time as well, right?
I have, yeah. Not as long as Ben, but we’ve gotten friendlier over the years. I met him right around the time Good Will Hunting came out, and I was a huge fan of that movie. We were just about the same age and I thought, Wow, they really made this happen. Then, I got a very tiny part in Rounders, and I had three lines. I remember, on the day the director took one of those lines away—we were around the poker table, with Matt Damon and Edward Norton, and Matt was just crushing us. He was in the beginning of this new fame. He had just won the Golden Globe. He was completely focused. So, it was nice to be back with Matt, and with more to do. [Laughs.]
You two have an amazing chemistry together in AIR. Were any of those scenes improvised?
At one point, Ben said, “We got it, I’m really happy. Let’s just do it again where you do whatever you want. Go nuts.” He really understood our mindset in that moment, and he was smart enough to give his actors wings. It was like he said, “I cast you and I trust you, now go fly.” A lot of times, those things happen and maybe someone will laugh on set. But it doesn’t often make the film. So, out of that take came the I’m gonna chew on your nuts section. And he put it in the movie.
Anytime anyone gives you a role and they don’t audition you—you show up, wondering if they’re thinking, Why did we just give this to him? He’s terrible.
What does it take to get into the mindset of a hardheaded, insult-slinging character like Falk? You play it so naturally and I can’t imagine you’re anything like that guy in real life.
In Hollywood, when you do something halfway decent, they just want you to keep doing it. I come from the New York theater where I got to play all these characters like delinquents and troubled souls. I played a nice guy in Six Feet Under, and then that continued. But I’m lucky that, for whatever reason, Ben always lets me do something different. Although I don’t think David Falk’s a bad man—he’s an incredible advocate for his clients, who would fight tooth and nail to get them what he thought they deserved. I’m sure a lot of the other people he had to deal with would think, Oh shit, David Falk is on the phone.
Did you reach out to David Falk before filming?
I thought about it, and I wanted to, but I was hesitant. I’m playing David Falk, but I’m playing a movie version of him that’s such a different guy. He’s much taller, smarter, balder. [Laughs.] The one thing that we had in common was that we’re both from Long Island. So I could sit on that.
The TV landscape has changed a lot since you worked with Affleck on Live By Night and left The Mindy Project as a series regular. Do you have any thoughts on the current streaming era? Or enjoy having more creative freedom in limited-series roles, like Sharp Objects?
I’ve always enjoyed the carnie life of being an actor. Being on any show for a very long period of time was always scary for me. So yeah, I enjoy the short-run TV landscape now. I feel like the story, at some point, is complete. It was sad to leave The Mindy Project, but I did end up coming back a bunch and I got to do Live By Night. That movie was, unfortunately, hardly seen. But it was an unbelievable experience. As a sort of Traveling Wilbury, I’m always looking for my ride to the next town.
I remember when you were on The Newsroom that you talked a good amount about how nervous you were—and that you even considered giving up the part. Do you feel more confident as an actor now?
Not really. [Laughs.] Some of the fun of it is being scared, not knowing if you can do it. Certainly in the case of AIR—anytime anyone gives you a role and they don’t audition you, you show up, wondering if they’re thinking, Why did we just give this to him? He’s terrible. That part with The Newsroom, I was worried because I like to improvise and play. I like to find stuff in the moment that may not be on the page. And I knew that on Aaron Sorkin’s shows, the script supervisor walks up to you if you don’t say an uh or a the. But I thought, Well, it’s only three episodes. I’m up for the challenge. I went to the table read and it was a great compliment that they ended up giving my character a bigger role. It had never happened to me before where they said, Stick around, we want to do more. So, I had to keep coming back. Maybe, in some way, the universe was telling me that I had to face my fear.
Are you still a basketball fan?
I grew up a Knicks fan. I was never really good at sports, but my father would take me and my brother to the Garden to the see the Knicks vs. the Bulls—which, during that time, was incredible. We got to see [Michael] Jordan live. It was like seeing Baryshnikov dance. It was this godlike experience watching him fly through the air. But I’ve recently found basketball again through my kids, who are 13 and 14, and super into it. And talk about the anxiety. I took my son to a Clippers vs. Warriors game, just seeing [Stephen] Curry and how much fun he was having out there. He was like liquid. Honestly, it’s the greatest acting lesson in the world.
Josh Rosenberg is an Assistant Editor at Esquire, keeping a steady diet of one movie a day. His past work can be found at Spin, CBR, and on his personal blog at Roseandblog.com.