PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Christopher Abbott on The Hill Town Plays, "Girls" and More
By Michael Gioia
September 7, 2013
Playbill.com chats with Christopher Abbott, who made his Broadway debut in the 2011 revival of The House of Blue Leaves and quickly rose to fame soon thereafter in the popular HBO series "Girls." He returns to the stage in the Off-Broadway play cycle The Hill Town Plays.
In the Lena Dunham HBO series "Girls," Christopher Abbott played Charlie Dattolo, the on-again-off-again, passive aggressive boyfriend of Marnie Michaels (Allison Williams). Following the show's second season — in which, after Charlie rakes in cash from designing and selling a new smartphone app, the couple rekindles their love for one another — Abbott abruptly left the series for encountering "creative differences" with creator Dunham. He now stars in Where We're Born, one of the five plays in Lucy Thurber's Off-Broadway play cycle The Hill Town Plays, chronicling a woman's journey through life in the throes of poverty, alcoholism and abuse.
Abbott plays Tony, a 180-degree spin from his character on "Girls" and the edgy (and sometimes hostile) cousin of Lilly (Betty Gilpin), a conflicted teen home from her first semester at college who causes a riff between Tony and his longtime girlfriend Franky (Mackenzie Meehan). When Lilly comes between the two, Abbott's character — a scruffy womanizer always in search of his next bottle of beer — gets violent. Prior to the play cycle's official Off-Broadway opening, Playbill.com chatted with Abbott about taking on the dark character of Tony, his Broadway debut alongside Ben Stiller in the revival of The House of Blue Leaves (where he played Stiller's sadistic son Ronnie Shaughnessy) and his experience with HBO's "Girls."
I saw the show last night, and I found it very dark. Tony is totally different from Charlie on "Girls," which a lot of people know you from. Were you attracted to this type of character?
Christopher Abbott: "Girls" was kind of something that was different for me to do — comparably to other stuff that I've done — it just so happens to be the most well known. But, you know, I grew up not too dissimilar from the world of [playwright] Lucy [Thurber]'s plays — in Connecticut. The work I've been doing over the last year or so has been kind of similar — that kind of blue-collar, working-class world — like a friend of mine, [director and writer] Mona Fastvold, I did her film back ["The Sleepwalker"] in November, and that character was not too dissimilar from what I do in Lucy's [play]. It's kind of exploring new territory. Now that I've just, generally in life, gotten older, it seems to be a little bit more fitting. I'm not as young as I used to be. [Laughs.]
Tell me about exploring the darker themes in this play. When I was there last night, there was an elderly woman who, during the pinnacle of the second act — where things got a bit violent — got up and left, and I thought it was interesting. The material can be a bit offensive to some. What was it like in the room?
CA: I don't find the play to be that dark. I think the situations that happen in this play aren't actually that abnormal to what people sometimes go through in life. We didn't approach working on it like, "Okay, we have this heavy drama that we have to tackle" and "How are we going to do it?" The first 75 percent of the play, I would say, is fairly lighthearted. It doesn't really accumulate to a climax until the second half of the second act. I think the trick of the play is to not "play the end" because nothing gets truly unraveled with these people until that point. The majority of the first act is a homecoming [for Lilly], and there are little droplets of tension, but it's nothing… You can't play the end of the play at the beginning. I think we had a pretty fresh approach to it and [did] not overthink it… The play — the way it's written and moves — is so sharp. It moves so well on its own that, once you work on it enough, you just kind of play the scenes from beginning to end, and all of a sudden, you wind up getting to that point. Just as much as maybe the audience doesn't see [the ending] coming, we don't see it coming. Obviously, we know, but it just "happens," you know.
Abbott and Betty Gilpin in The Hill Town Plays.
photo by Sandra Coudert
Do you gravitate more towards stage or film work?
CA: I think I kind of go through moods of both. Sometimes I feel like doing a play, and sometimes I feel like working on a film — just because they're different animals. The fun part about being in a play is that you get to go through the full journey nonstop, and the fun parts about doing a film is that you can be ultra, ultra-specific, and you, obviously, don't have to emote as much to get an idea across. You can get an idea across with just a glance at somebody — a knowing glance. And, I'm a big fan of camera, and I love visuals, so that means I like to work on films just because I love looking at a picture. I definitely go through mood swings with both.
What was your first brush with theatre? Were you always into theatre growing up? Did you do stage work as a child?
CA: No. I didn't start until… I took my first class at a community college in Connecticut about a year-and-a-half into college.
Did you do any shows at college?
CA: No. I didn't do any shows there. I took a theatre class there among the other classes that I was taking, and then I audited… I forgot which paper I read it in, but it was HB Studio that had a free audit week, so I went to audit some classes there, which was down in the West Village [in New York]. I really liked the classes, and then after about six months of kind of going back and forth to Connecticut — because I was still working a few jobs in Connecticut [and] commuting to New York to take a few classes — I eventually stopped working in Connecticut and started going to classes full time there.
And then you made your Broadway debut two seasons ago in The House of Blue Leaves…
CA: My Broadway — not theatre, but Broadway [debut].
Tell me about getting to work on that show. I love that play.
CA: Yeah, I do, too. That was, on multiple levels, a really awesome experience because I had never really done… Blue Leaves is essentially a contemporary piece, but it has history to it. It's been done before, and I only — up to that point and still — have done new plays. Just the fact [of getting] to work on something that is a classic piece, and people knew it already, was something new. And then to do it on Broadway for the first time was just as fun. [Playwright] John Guare was there all the time, so to work with someone who has been around for a while and has so much history… And then having David Cromer, too, who is one of my favorite directors ever, was a treat because I loved his approach to the play. He didn't do the typical… I don't think he [envisioned] the stereotype, I guess, of what people think that play should be. He went for the truth in it, and I loved that about him in making that choice.
What was it like working with Ben Stiller and having him in the room? Did you have any conversations about your role, since he played the same part over 20 years ago? It was a full-circle moment for him to revisit Blue Leaves.
CA: He was incredibly hard working and super fun to be around. I think that play meant a lot for him because he had history with it when he played Ronnie back in '86. I think it was kind of a sentimental project for him, and it showed. He enjoyed doing every show. In a way, if you do a small play downtown, you go and have drinks after with the cast — it felt like that. It didn't feel like I was doing a play with a bunch of movie stars… There was a kinship there that was very comfortable.
Abbott on "Girls."
Photo by Jessica Miglio
Speaking of working downtown, have you gotten to see the rest of Lucy's play cycle, which plays in the West Village?
CA: Not yet. Not all of them. The schedule is staggered so that I can see all of them, but we just kind of finished doing rehearsals during the day, so now I'll be able to see them. I've only seen Ashville so far.
I'm wondering if seeing the rest of the play cycle affects your performance at all. Since they're all tied together, do any of the other plays provide you with more substance for your role and your journey?
CA: They do. I wouldn't say that they affect the way I do my role, but it's very informative because there's little things here and there that repeat. There's some version of all the characters — in certain plays [they] are essentially younger, and then in other plays [they] have essentially gotten older. The thing is, all the plays stand alone. They're not the exact characters. They're just different versions of one another. Instead of doing your own backstory, some of the other plays could have some of your backstory for you already. Obviously, we're all doing different plays, but I think that we're taking this kind of team effort and approach to the whole thing almost as if it was one big play. To have that cohesiveness with the other casts and the other plays is really helpful. At least for me, [I] feel like I'm a part of something bigger than just being an actor in a play and [thinking], "How well am I doing in this one play?" You're a part of a bigger idea, which is humbling and beautiful.
Talk to me a little bit about your experience with "Girls." There's a lot of fans who are disappointed that Charlie isn't coming back.
CA: Yeah… That was just one of those things that… It was the right timing. I was ready for other projects, you know. There are no real hard feelings about it. Things change, and people's lives change a little bit. You've got to go with it.
Was leaving a choice you made to seek projects that would fulfill you differently? What part of your career do you want to explore next?
CA: It's not that I'm thinking that big about it. It's just… As a human, as you get older, you change as a human being… So, for me, it's hard to deny that change in me as an actor as well. It's not a thing of "bigger and better" at all. It's just "different," you know — a slightly different mindset. Working on television was also a challenge for me because I've never really done a TV show before. It's a difficult beast to tackle because you keep going back to a role or a job months and months after you did it already. It was a hard thing for me to learn how to do when I do a certain role or a job for a few months, and then I have my life for 7-8 months after it, and then I have to go back to it. In those 7-8 months, I change, and then another year goes by, and then another 7-8 months go by, and you change again. It was a challenge for me to learn how to do that. It was difficult.
Are you looking to go back into film or television again or do you want to stay in the theatre circle?
CA: I'm not sure yet. It's usually not a question of film, television or theatre. It's usually just if something is good, then it's good, and I want to do that. I think that if something really great comes along, I'd be happy to do it.
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)