Chris Messina (Dion Bartolo) Q&A – Live by Night
Chris Messina has appeared in movies such as Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) and Argo (2012). His latest film is Live by Night, which stars Ben Affleck and was released today. This Q&A focuses on his experience working with Affleck on this film.
When Ben Affleck first approached you about Live by Night, what was the draw for you and how did you become involved?
Chris Messina (CM): From my earliest discussions with Ben – even before I was cast – I read Dennis Lehane’s brilliant novel because I wanted to be ready for the audition. In the meantime, I was really enjoying working on the character because he was unlike any I had played before. Then Ben gave me the part without an audition, which was great because I could now apply all my early prep work to the movie. By the time we started shooting, I had been preparing for the film for about two years. That was an unusual experience for me, but a great one.
Dion is Joe’s right-hand-man from their early gang days in Boston to building a rum-running empire in Ybor City, Florida. Can you talk about this ‘bromance’ and how it evolves over the course of the story?
CM: It’s an epic friendship. They’ve always been a team – their own gang. They were childhood friends, along with Dion’s brother Paulo, and then they all become outlaws together, doing mostly petty crime. Then, as the story unfolds, they move from being outlaws to becoming gangsters – Dion certainly does; Joe waffles a bit. But Dion’s proud to be a gangster.
Dion really looks up to and respects Joe, and their interaction shows how close they are. They’re constantly bantering and making fun of one another, as friends do, and that was fun to play. There’s a lot of love, loyalty and real brotherhood there, which was really interesting to navigate with Ben.
When you were making the film, how did you find Ben as both director and scene partner?
CM: Well, a big attraction for me was the chance to work with Ben Affleck again after working with him on Argo. I was so impressed by the way he juggles his work as a director and as an actor. Having done that myself on a small independent film, I can tell you: it’s not easy! I don’t know how he does it, but when he’s in a scene, he’s completely in the scene with you. He’s Joe; I’m Dion; we do the scene, and then, afterwards, he’ll give you an adjustment. You’ll look at the monitor, play it back, and then return to the scene and he’s not the director anymore – he’s Joe, again. That’s really an extraordinary talent.
He’s also a really great actor and knows how to work with other actors. Actors love and respect him and want to be in his films. I feel lucky to have been in two of them.
Is it true that you gained something like 40 pounds for this role?
CM: In the book, Dion is described as being robust, and I imagined that he was a taller, thuggish kind of guy. So, after reading it, I thought I should start gaining weight immediately. But I was working on another project, so I didn’t start ramping up until about three months from the start of production. When we did the first camera test, Ben really liked that I had gained weight for the part.
As the story unfolds, I envisioned Dion becoming more and more comfortable being a gangster, and that he would sit into that lifestyle, eat more and enjoy life to its fullest. He’s a character who certainly lives by the meaning of the title – he absolutely lives by night, defines his own moral code, takes chances, and lives all the ways the night affords him. That’s fun to play.
Dion sports quite distinctive facial hair for the period. Can you talk about what went into the decision for Dion to have a mustache in the film?
CM: We were initially on the fence about that [laughs] because mustaches weren’t exactly what people were doing in the 1920s and ‘30s. It was our costume designer, Jacqueline West, who suggested it. She showed me some photos during a costume fitting of Frank Nitti – Al Capone’s right-hand man – and he had a little mustache. So we continued the conversation with our makeup department head, Kate Biscoe, who designed a mustache using tea leaves and tape. I tried it on with the costume so we could show Ben, and he really liked it. He said it felt like another symbol of Dion’s rebelliousness [laughs].
Did that process help you find your way into the role?
CM: Completely. Never before had costume and makeup departments have such an effect on the way I develop and play a role. They gave me so much, including an incredible pineapple tie that Dion wears. I mean, just putting that tie on helped me become Dion.
What do you hope audiences experience when they see Live by Night in the cinema?
CM: They just don’t make movies like this anymore – epic gangster movies that transport you to another place and time in a big, big way. And I think that’s what audiences are really craving right now. The movie is a lot of fun. It takes you on this journey with Joe into this other world and introduces you to all these incredible characters. There’s gangster action, a great love story, and a big heart pumping through it all. I just hope they go on the ride and have a blast.