When it debuted at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, Monogamy seemed more like a fiction film done documentary style than a highly stylized indie feature. No wonder, for director Dana Adam Shapiro had done a highly stylized doc, Murderball, as a sports action feature. And it snagged an Oscar nom in 2006 -- deservedly so.
In Monogamy, actors Rashida Jones and Chris Messina portray a couple, Nat and Theo, grappling with the very meaning of that word. Interfering with their relationship is Theo's obsession with a woman he has been stalking from a distance behind his camera lens.
A professional wedding photographer, he now spices up his business with this racier assignment (a stalker-for-hire) and finds an irresistible muse (Meital Dohan) in this fetching blonde who engages in sexually compromised situations. Though framed as a suspense story, the film is essentially about long-term relationships and what can preserve or destroy them.
Jones, known for both her comic turns in The Office and Parks And Recreation, and Messina who played Julie's hubby in Julie and Julia and had a reoccurring role in Six Feet Under, do some of their most interesting work in this subtle and involving indie. I sat down with both rising talents at the Ace Hotel as part of a small intimate roundtable recently.
Q: You get offered lots of independent films. What did you think was important about making this film?
CM: I'm from New York and did a bunch of New York theater where I got to play delinquents and drug addicts and amazing characters. And then Adam Ball cast me as a Republican lawyer in Six Feet Under, and all my friends in New York thought that was funny and interesting.
But then Woody cast me as a Republican and then Nora cast me as a nice guy husband, and although those experiences were phenomenal and I would never change them I was longing to play something more complicated and darker.
RJ: Less Republican.
CM: Yes, less Republican. So when Dana called about this movie and said he wanted to do a documentary about these two characters, that completely sold me. We immediately went after Rashida and said I don't know if we can get her, and we were lucky enough to get her.
Q: You knew each other before?
RJ: Chris' girlfriend is one of my oldest friends in the world, and so we knew each other socially and all that. And I've always admired him as an actor and really wanted to work with him and see him in this part and be apart of that part. And I also just liked the idea that we were going to be telling the story that was almost allegorical.
It's a heightened version of what I think is endemic right now in relationships with people this age, which is you're supposed to get married, you're supposed to be together, you're supposed to be committed, but do you really want that and what does that mean for you and your future?
If you don't want that, how do you react? Are you able to communicate that to each other? What do you find as a distraction? Are you ready? And I think that interested me. And it also interested me to play these characters in a way that felt dynamic enough that you didn't fully hate him and you didn't fully think I was a doormat.
Q: You guys have great chemistry. How was it to get into character and keep that chemistry while having in the back of your head that you're friends?
RJ: Making out with my friend's boyfriend? Awesome.
CM: It's actually safer because my girlfriend was like she's never, ever going to want to be with you in a real way.
RJ: She never said that to you.
CM: She trusts Rashida so it's less dangerous in a way. I was excited to kiss Rashida and more nervous to play the intimacy of the downward spiral of the relationship.
RJ: In a way you can't know if that's going to work or not, because in a way that could have been a hindrance for us to be friends and to know each other that well -- and for me to know your kids and your girlfriend and all that. But I will say I think the thing that made this not happen is you.
Chris is a very committed, genuine actor in a way that I don't get to come across that often. I deal with people who are flippant all the time because I work in comedy, which is great, which is awesome.
By the way, Paul Rudd is incredibly talented and committed. But there was something specifically about Chris where I felt really, really safe, and this is not really my forte. And he takes a lot of chances and is willing to experiment and do a lot of crap to figure out what works and what's right and what feels truthful, and I felt very protected being around him.
Q: So you didn't need a shot of tequila before you did the kiss?
RJ: Well, we did anyway.
Q: Was it tequila?
RJ: I think it was scotch.
Q: There was another kiss that was really interesting. After your character left, you call your dog over.
RJ: And they like made out. It was like disgusting, right? Disgusting.
CM: When I was watching that last night I was like, Why didn't someone call cut here?
RJ: There's an outtake I think that's on the DVD where I'm like, Fucking stop making out with the dog! Your hands are in his mouth at one point. So gross.
CM: We got along with the dog, we spent a couple of weeks with him, and I think he jumped on the couch and sensed that I was in trouble. And he was licking me and I don't know why, but I gave him my face and he went to my lips and I didn't pull away and that was that.
Q: Your girlfriend should be jealous of that.
CM: Yes, exactly.
Q: Did you want to adopt the dog?
CM: That's Dana's dog.
Q: Did you know anybody in the situation that you are portraying? Did you draw it from anything?
CM: I drew from myself. I drew from my friends and the stories they've told me and the breakups that I've had and the relationships that just kind of missed.
What I wanted to do with this movie is not to leave anything not on the table. I wanted to bring it all, all the shit, whatever I had, I wanted to put it on the table. That was the requirement of me doing it.
RJ: Similarly, I definitely relate a lot. I think when we shot that breakup scene -- Chris and I both -- I had a really hard time recovering from that. I don't do as much drama as I do comedy and you can't really tell your body that you're not breaking up.
I felt like I was breaking up and it felt so real and so painful. But I feel really grateful to have had that experience because I'm not sure every actor gets to have [it].
Q: Was that breakup scene totally scripted?
CM: It was a four- or five-line scene.
RJ: There were about two lines in the original script. It was like, "I'm leaving" and you're "Bye."
CM: That's the great thing about Dana and what he promised me on the phone that day: "I want to make a documentary about these people and I want to make it loose." We were talking about not having marks on the ground and the camera following us wherever we went.
For that particular scene that's a great example of them just putting the camera on Rashida and me sitting into the shot and him letting it go. I only think we did a couple of takes of it, and when you watch the movie they cut away once or twice to pictures. He let us go.
Q: Were you playing this guy when you weren't on camera? Were you feeling creepy throughout the shoot?
CM: I wasn't feeling creepy. Like when I did Vicky Christina Barcelona and Rebecca Hall would give me the side of her lips to kiss because she didn't want to be with me anymore, you go home and you feel like shit. You feel unattractive and you feel dorky.
In fact, I saw Javier Bardem at the press junket for that movie and I was like, "Hey, we're going to get fucked up tonight, right? We're going to get drunk tonight?" and he was like "Yeah, we'll have a couple drinks."
I'm like, "Let's get really drunk!" because I wanted to show him that I wasn't that dork. You carry it around with you. And so when [I was doing this movie], I didn't feel creepy, I felt lost. I felt confused.
Q: What did you carry around with you?
RJ: This movie was reflecting where I was personally when we shot it. It sounds so actory, but I was having a weird emotional renaissance. I'm a very logical person and I kind of keep things all tightly knit, and everything was coming out at a speed that I couldn't keep up with. It was definitely an intense time for me. I'm happy that I had this place to give it to.
CM: We shot this movie in 17 or 18 days. When Rashida showed up, we were like, Okay, lay in the hospital bed and this is the scene where he comes in and goes down your shirt. We shot that in a hospital that day they did some work with "Murderball." So they gave us the hospital to use, which was really kind of them, but you have to understand the set was one room and everybody was in that one room.
RJ: It was a functioning hospital outside our room.
CM: When you were outside of that room, you were watching men and women learn how to walk possibly or deal with never walking again. So that was her first day of shooting and nothing was easier after that.
Q: Were doctors trying to hit on you?
RJ: Fortunately, no.
CM: Who wasn't trying to hit on you? Everybody was trying to hit on her.
RJ: The fake doctor in the fake movie was trying to hit on me.
Q: Were you subjected to bars and partying, like we see in the film, at a young age?
RJ: No, I was very sheltered how I grew up. I went to a very sheltered, very academic school, and I wasn't partying with my parents [the legendary producer Quincy Jones and actress Peggy Lipton] or anything. I was home. My parents had friends over.
Q: Is that why comedy comes to you so well, because it's like a release from that background in some way?
RJ: I don't know. Maybe. More and more as I get older I believe in nature more than nurture, and I feel like I've always been the same person. I've always liked crossword puzzles and reading books and wry comedy and sensible clothes. That's just always been how I've been, and my parents are not those people. They did what they could to just nurture me and love me through that and let me be who I am.
Q: You wore this big gown at the Oscars, so what was that like for you?
RJ: Sometimes you've got to step it up. It's all part of the job.
Q: What do you remember from your experience now looking back on that whole Oscar thing?
RJ: You mean last week? Looking back on last week I feel like I have so much perspective. It was fun. I was disappointed The Social Network didn't win.
CM: Yeah, I love that movie.
RJ: Mainly because I just thought it was such a great movie.
CM: It's such a great movie. You're so great in it.
RJ: Thanks. I thought The Social Network was the best movie of the year, but it doesn't have the same heart. It's a very impressively intellectual movie and there are some characters that are not that likeable in it. Ultimately people want to root for somebody.
Q: This movie is also a study in obsession. Have you guys ever been obsessed by anything -- or have an obsessive nature or quality?
CM: Not to the extent of this character. I think the obsession in this movie, if there wasn't this girl or this obsession, it would have been something else. This relationship probably would have broken somehow or blown up somehow.
But in my life I've always been pathetically obsessed with actors, which his kind of boring I guess. But I've always been obsessed with everybody that you probably think, from Robert De Niro to Dustin Hoffman.
Q: The first one that came to my mind was Clint Eastwood.
CM: Yeah that's a good obsession.
RJ: I'm a pretty moderate person. I'm pretty level headed. I had teen obsessions.
Q: Okay, who?
RJ: All the normal '80s names, like Kurt Cameron, Ricky Schroeder.
Q: Duran Duran?
RJ: Oh my god Duran Duran, yeah. I actually hung out with them and had dinner with Nick Rhodes a couple of months ago, and it was probably one of the best nights of my life. It was the same week that I got to make out with Rob Lowe on my television show, and it was like '80s fantasy week. It was make-your-obsessions-come-true week. Make out with Rob Lowe, what? I don't even understand. I still don't get it.
Q: Is it hard to juggle all these things? I know you still like to write.
CM: And she's writing a lot. She's got a bunch of scripts.
Q: Do you focus on doing this now and doing this later, or is it just go at it whenever you can?
RJ: It's interesting you say that because I'm trying to figure out how to balance those things. I'm slightly exhausted because I'm trying to optimize every opportunity, and you can't do that because you'll just burn out. I'm realizing that I have to find a way to take care of myself.
But I've been very lucky in the sense that I've been able to pursue those things, so I'm trying to meet that luck with some gratitude and hard work, and hopefully at some point I'll take a break.
Q: What have you've encountered as a woman of color?
RJ: It's such a complicated issue. I'm so proud of all of my heritages, and I've got lots, and I'm so happy to be a part of the history of people of color in film in any way that I can be. It definitely bums me out that it's not more represented, but I also feel like at a certain point everybody's going to kind of look like me and we're not going to be able to judge each other based on the way that we look.
Whatever discrimination people have faced, or I've even faced - "You're not white enough. You're not black enough" - everybody's going to get over it. I'm proud to be black. I'm proud to be Jewish. I'm proud to be all these things, but I don't ever want people to feel like they can take ownership of me and use it as a fight against the other side. I just feel like we're kind of past that. I feel like it's not postmodern to think that way.
Q: Are you leaning towards comedy or are you doing more serious?
RJ: For writing? I write with a partner and we're sort of in the middle where we do write comedy, but it comes out of relationship stuff. We don't write straightforward, broad comedy; it's more situational.
Q: So each of you have a passion project that you'd like to bring forward?
CM: I have a bunch of projects right now.
RJ: You're working on a lot of stuff right now.
CM: I don't write. I have a film that I did with this actor, Matt Ross from Big Love, and we improvised a movie together, and through improvising we wrote it down. And then I did a movie with New York theater actress Marin Ireland. It's 10 years in hotel rooms, two people having an affair over 10 years. Then we improvised what was on the page and we shot it in LA and New York. I want to direct.
Q: What's it called?
CM: That was titled But Beautiful, but that title doesn't really work because you have to spell it out.
RJ: Then you're talking about butts.
CM: It's untitled at the moment.
Q: Are you going to show it in festivals?
CM: Yeah, Lynette Howell, who produced Blue Valentine, produced it.
Q: So that is the next immediate thing coming out besides Like Crazy?
CM: And The Giant Mechanical Man. I did this movie with Jenna Fischer, Malin Ackerman and Topher Grace where I play a giant mechanical man.
Q: You've done a lot of theatrical stage work. Do you find this being a flip in how you actually work now with improvisation?
CM: It's very different ways of working. I like them both -- when the writing is so good you just want to say the lines. And not that Monogamy wasn't, but Monogamy was set up as a blueprint for something else. We were always going to go off the page and explore and that was the whole process of it. So I like both.
Personally, I don't like hitting a mark. I don't like saying, "What line did I say when I picked up the iPhone again?" I don't like doing that because as an actor it puts me in my head and I'm not lost in the moment. But that's what movie making is.
Q: Improvisation, did that feel good for you coming from more comic experience?
CM: She's a natural improviser.
Q: And what about your next few projects?
RJ: I'm still learning about improv. I get to work with such talented improvisers, it makes it much easier to learn. And yeah, having done that in I Love You, Man and in Parks and Recreation and a tiny bit on The Office, I think maybe I got to bring some of that to this movie.
But it ends up being the same thing that you're doing when you're acting, which is you're just listening. That's really all it is. I think it's the kind of thing you can only get better at.
Q: Besides My Idiot Brother with Paul Rudd, what else do you have coming out?
RJ: That's coming out and then The Muppets comes out in Thanksgiving. And I'm in a movie called The Big Year, which comes out in October with Jack Black and Owen Wilson.
Q: Didn't you work with him on something else before that?
RJ: Jack Black?
Q: Isn't he in The Muppets?
RJ: Oh, yeah. It gets confusing. We have scenes next to each other.
Q: And these are all comedies?
RJ: The Big Year is kind of. David Frankel directed it, who did Marley & Me and The Devil Wears Prada, so it's kind more of a heartfelt comedy about bird watching.
Q: Did doing something like this that's more romantic as opposed to comic help inform how you do your romantic comedies?
RJ: I like to do things that feel challenging and different from what I've done before, and I've been lucky enough to be able to do that. And hopefully every experience I have I can bring to the next one.
CM: Obviously Rashida is very funny, but what makes her so funny is that she's so real. She's so honest and she's funny in this movie. I was watching it last night laughing. But it's touching and moving. I don't think of you as a comedic actor, you're just an honest actor.
Q: Is this the first time you sang on film?
RJ: I think so.
Q: Why did you wait so long, and what was the experience like?
RJ: It was horrifying. No, it wasn't horrifying, it was scary. I was definitely scared. I don't know. How could you pursue singing in a film? It's such a small category of thing to do.
CM: You could put out an album. You have a nice voice.
RJ: Yeah, I don't know, maybe. I would like to. In a vacuum it would be a nice idea, but I would love to do it in a way where I could actually commit to it and be good at it and also not have to promote it or be an artist at a label.
Q: But you have connections.
RJ: Yeah, but who wants to do that? I'm 35. Who wants to start all over?
Q: What made it scary?
RJ: There's something out it where you feel so vulnerable. And I was in front of extras, which is basically like being in front of an audience on open mic night; they've never heard me sing.
CM: And you did it over and over.
RJ: Over and over and over again. We're also playing out the scene between us where we're making each other cry. It was just very exposing. I did not feel good.
Q: In light of Rashida doing music, did you do any photography?
CM: There was film in those cameras -- I was shooting poorly. Anything I shot was terrible and not usable, but I got into photography after that movie.
RJ: You have a really nice camera now and take really nice pictures of your children.
CM: It's the camera.
Q: Are you ready for an exhibition?
CM: No, but I really enjoy it and the movie turned me on to photography, so that was nice.
For more stories by Brad Balfour go to: filmfestivaltraveler.com