is one of the breakout films of the year: It’s the directorial debut of Borderline Film’s Josh Mond and it features a career-turning performance from Christopher Abbott; it’s already winning the Best of Next! at Sundance and recognition, recently, through the AFI Film Festival.
Despite audience awards, the film isn’t your normal crowd-pleaser. It’s more of a crowd-instigator, moving people towards pain, vulnerability and the bittersweet revelations that come after experiencing a tragedy. James White centers on the titular James, forced out of his partying habits and into the role of caregiver to his mother, Gail, who’s played with honesty and pathos by Cynthia Nixon. She’s been diagnosed with cancer; her condition is advanced.
Abbott, known for his role on Girls and in films like A Most Violent Year, is stirring as James. A close friend with Mond long before the film’s inception, he was able to bring his own ideas to the table. Abbott seeps into the character—or, it could be the other way around: The character seeps into him. Either way, the line between performance and reality is blurred.
Paste sat down with Abbott and Mond this week in New York at the Crosby Street hotel. Over red wine in a conference room—one almost comically grandiose considering the subjects discussed—and cigarettes on outdoor benches, the good friends opened up.
Paste: Did you feel like this film came at a time when people were sort of pressuring you to finally make your feature? Did you have to keep saying, “Wait, just trust me”?
Josh Mond: No. It was one foot in front of the other. I didn’t really feel like people were waiting on me. I was more concerned about just continuing to get it right—to make it through the day.
Paste: What do you mean by that?
Mond: I was only focused on the step[s] in front of me. Is the script ready? Can we get [Kid] Cudi to do this? Do we have the money? Then it becomes, on the day-to-day of shooting: Fuck, how the hell am I going to shoot this? How am I going to get through this day? There’s too many pages. In the edit, it was [all about] understanding the process and really just working on the film. I didn’t really think much outside of it.
Paste: Had you been waiting on the right story? One you could spend four or five years working on?
Mond: I started out working on another project while my mom was sick. It allowed me to get into more personal stuff and really confront it. Obviously, with the guidance and support from Tony [Campos] and Sean [Durkin] this was all possible.
Paste: What did they say to you to convince you that this was the story you should focus on?
Mond: Because it’s something that I needed to focus on; because it was personal to me. I needed to understand it. It seemed important to all of us.
Paste: This character is James. It’s not you, even though it’s inspired by you. Tell me about separating yourself from the character—and for you, Chris, was it a challenge? You’re playing James, not Josh.
Mond: For me, it was a story but there were things that were very personal. I was using one of my best friend’s names up until the end—’til he told me I couldn’t use his name.
Paste: Wait, who?
Mond: Doesn’t matter! No one you would actually know. When I started working with my DP, he’s so experienced and has so many great films under his belt, it wasn’t just talking about how we were going to shoot it. It was talking about what the film was about. He was like, “You need to let it go, the personal aspects of it, and hand it over and start really referring to it as James.” It naturally kind of happened. When you start to bring in people to collaborate with, you’re hiring these people because they’re bringing something to the table—their own personal experiences, their own concept of the character. That’s why you hire people. They’re artists. If you want to collaborate, you’ve got to hand it over and look at it as a living thing. That’s what I learned by doing and also by working with such experienced people. Through that I’ve learned about my process, I think! I love collaborating. I got to work with people that were patient enough for me to realize that and embrace it.
Christopher Abbott: There are aspects about it that I took from Josh, but it’s not a biopic in that way. It was in terms of the sentiment, of it coming from when Josh was going through this with his own mother, me being around towards the end of that, seeing him go through it: Trying to be as honest as possible with what Josh was going through at that time, what he was feeling, to try and portray his own conflictions and what he was dealing with. As far as developing the character, it’s an amalgamation of a lot of things and mostly stemming from the clothes.
Paste: The hoodie?
Abbott: I wear a hoodie a lot.
Mond: The whole time.
Paste: What’s the hoodie?
Abbott: It’s like armor.
Paste: Oscar Isaac talked to me about his costumes being armor in A Most Violent Year! Was this also a discussion you all had?
Mond: I think it was understood.
Abbott: Armor, blanket, protection.
Mond: Wear what’s comfortable to you always.
Abbott: You can always throw a hood on—
Mond: To hide. When you want to be seen, you’ll be seen.
Paste: Chris was involved with early drafts of the script, building such a compilation of a character. It’s coming from you, it’s James and it’s also coming from Chris. What parts were Chris?
Mond: We went through the script scene by scene and discussed [Chris’s] concerns or ideas. A lot of scenes, he made them more natural. The bar scene where he gets in a fight, he had ideas about that and that’s what we used. The scene when he goes to New York Magazine, I didn’t want to add the cell phone thing. We did one take and I was so happy because he forced me to do something like that.
Abbott: That was a Josh thing I wanted to add; always asking people to charge his phone.
Paste: Is that a thing that you do? I have an external charger if you need one.
Mond: [Laughing] Thank you! It’s my way to interact with people. I let it die overnight just so I can have a conversation. No, it’s just that my phone is always dead.
Abbott:It’s not too big, it’s simple.
Mond: It’s the details. I trust him and I respect him and that was one of the best things. My main collaborator was someone that knew who I was. Not to portray me because it’s not me in the movie, but allowing me to be vulnerable on set. Through this whole process, I feel safe with him at my weakest and I feel like that was really important.
Paste: Do you ever feel like it is a challenge to be best friends with the people you work with?
Mond: Absolutely. We’ve been best friends for 13 years. We’re family. There’s no family where everything is happy all the time. All of our movies are tough films to get made. Everyone is fighting for the same thing. We have a difference of opinions sometimes. We also have our own lives. We’ve been so intertwined since the beginning. It’s like a marriage. Chris and I have not known each other as long, haven’t been as interconnected until really now. I’m sure that I piss him off. I hope I don’t too much! We haven’t had blow-ups. I have a good sense when I’m starting to irritate him. There are some things that have happened that don’t matter. [They both start laughing.]
Paste: What is it? You both know the moment…
Mond: Nothing! Nothing. It’s those kinds of things, passionate arguments.
Abbott: It’s like brothers—it’s how brothers fight and makeup. But we don’t fight we just…
Mond: Sit in silence sometimes.
Paste: What are these giggles? What is going on?!
Mond: We’ve spent a lot of time together, especially traveling with the movie. The definition of insanity is repetition. There’s been a lot of repetition and we search to try and make everything somewhat fresh. Through that strain, we both become really tired and see each other in our tired states and can both commiserate together without really speaking.
Abbott: It’s comforting to be in those states together.
Mond: Absolutely comforting. It furthers the bond, for me at least, I can just be whacky!
Paste: It relates to a huge characteristic of James: how much he asks of his friends. Were those motivations coming from you personally? He maybe mistreats the people around him, but it’s coming from love.
Mond: He expects too much.
Paste: Is it too much?
Mond: I don’t know if it’s too much. What I’m working on is, like: You do for others because you want to do for others and you shouldn’t really expect anything in return.
Abbott: A big character trait that James has is that he has a lot of expectations from a lot of different people. It is because he knows that he would do that for them. Whether it’s considered a bad trait or not, it comes out of love. That’s the reason why he does it. James is extremely smart but he’s not a cerebral person. A lot of his actions are animalistic and guttural.
Paste: This is an actor-y question, but did you do any animal work?
Abbott: Not animal stuff, no. Maybe it’s caveman more than animal, I don’t know! I wasn’t doing “tiger” or anything.
Paste: I would think anyone put in those positions accesses caveman parts of themselves I’m sure.
Abbott:The real thing is maybe it’s more human than anything. Humans are animals. When you’re backed into a corner and you’re in those dire situations that James is in sometimes, no matter how much of an academic you are, in certain situations you react every gutturally. James feels like he’s backed into a corner a lot, whether it’s self-imposed or circumstantial, that’s the only way to react.
Paste: You all have talked about the bathroom scene a lot in interviews—it’s such a beautifully powerful scene. I related very much to it. To me, it was about survival, it wasn’t sappy. Was it about survival to you both?
Mond: I don’t think we discussed it at length in that sense, I don’t remember. Chris has said quite a bit, Cynthia as well: You’re just focused on the next thing. Getting her the Tylenol, getting her the water, what’s in front of you. I think that same sentiment is carried into that scene.
Abbott: In general, the feeling of this film, not just with James but with every character, the way that they’re acting and the way that they’re acting towards other people is very much in the moment. The approach to filming it, for acting, was to be as in the moment as possible, but for everyone, it was to just let the scene happen. Like the character, it wasn’t so cerebral in that way. There weren’t lengthy discussions before filming scenes. A) Because we didn’t have that much time; B) Because the script was there. I didn’t have to ask Josh a ton of questions about it. My job, aside from being a friend, my job as an actor is to interpret what’s on the page and be as truthful as possible, not to de-romanticize the whole process of it. There wasn’t much talking. Here’s the room, we figure out the blocking, here’s what you have to say. This is your mother. You just take the situation at hand and you act accordingly.
Paste: It’s not about emoting, it’s about keeping her alive.
Abbott: Right. This is age-old acting stuff, but you’re not worrying about yourself—in life and in the movie I’m worried about Gale, making her feel okay, making her feel comfortable. These are the words that I’m saying to her. Not a woe is me attitude towards what could be a very melodramatic scene. It is melodramatic in its own way but neither of us are tearing or looking at the moon!
Paste: There’s a line that Gale has in the film: If you don’t understand something, write it down. Josh, you not only wrote it down. You also made it come to life. How did making this film help you understand what you sought to from the beginning, if you even knew what you were looking for?
Mond: I don’t know what I was looking for. I think it’s a ton of things that I’m trying to become OK with. It’s the past. Not looking at it negatively or myself or the experience. I think trying to remember the beautiful moments and let it be the past.
Paste: I’m sure you evolved.
Mond:Definitely. It’s like she says, by writing it down, it’s encouraged me to be mindful of being present and not live in the future and not live in the past, just really understand what it is to be present and to be satisfied. That’s kind of where my journey is now.
Paste: Present and satisfied.
Mond: My feet are on the ground. My blood is rushing from my head to my toes.
Abbott: There might be another end to that sentence!
Mond: I haven’t gotten there yet!
Paste: Well, that’s what I felt at the end of the film. OK, James survived! He lived through that. We imagine going through that and think we could never survive it!
Mond: Sometimes you move past the survivor aspect of it—you’re no longer a survivor, you’re living.
Abbott: There’s today and then there’s tomorrow.