Interview with Cynthia Nixon and Christopher Abbott on James White
The filmmakers at New York’s Borderline Films – Sean Durkin, Antonio Campos and Josh Mond—burst onto the scene in 2008 with Campos’ directorial debut Afterschool, and three years later, Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene really put them on the map, gaining many awards for Durkin and star Elizabeth Olsen. After Campos’ 2012 follow-up Simon Killer, it was time for Mond to take his own turn behind the camera, writing and directing James White.
The title character is played by Christopher Abbott (“Girls”), a hedonistic New York City slacker having trouble getting his life together as his mother Gail (Cynthia Nixon) contends with terminal cancer and James spirals deeper and deeper down the hole he’s dug for himself. It co-stars Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi as James’ best friend Nick and Ron Livingston as a friend of his mother’s who tries to help James with a job.
We first met Josh and the guys of Borderline at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011 where Martha Marcy May Marlene received raves, and at the time, Mond told us he had been working on something, but that’s not what ended up becoming James White as he told us during a sit-down interview with him and Abbott. “I was working on something that allowed me to get to this and this was the right thing for me to do. While at Sundance, my mother was about to go into hospice and she passed in March of 2011. I was in Los Angeles meeting with Searchlight about our other projects and getting to meet the whole team that was working on ‘Martha’ when I got the phone call that I need to come home, that my mother was going to pass, so I flew home and she passed that evening. We went to Cannes with that film and life goes on. Sean had the brunt of the responsibilities and Antonio was finishing ‘Simon Killer’ but it was a tough year for sure.”
“We’ve all been friends since (Martha Marcy May Marlene),” Abbot said about his own involvement, having starred in a number of prominent plays on and off Broadway beyond his role as Allison Williams’ boyfriend on the first two seasons of Lena Dunham’s “Girls.” “‘James White’ came up maybe about a year before we started shooting. At some point while Josh was writing it, he said that he wanted to start writing it for me so that was about a year before. I was lucky enough to be involved early on, as the actor.”
“I’ve always respected Chris not only as a friend but as an actor,” Mond confirmed. “I did this short experimental precursor called ‘1009’ and I asked Chris to do it during the middle of the writing process and a lot of it was shot very close to his face. When I got to the editing room, I was seeing things that I didn’t see on set that he was doing and I was blown away and just called him and said, ‘I’m going to be writing it for you now. Would you do it?’ He read a few drafts, but that’s how it all went down.” The rest of Borderline were convinced after seeing Abbott in the play “Where We’re Born.”
“I was very intrigued by the script when I read it and I loved the part, and then we just had a few meetings,” Cynthia Nixon would tell us during a separate phone interview. “Josh and I, if you looked at us, you wouldn’t think we were very similar but we kind of have a lot in common I think. We both grew up in Manhattan with artsy parents, not a lot of money but a lot of ambition in the arts and kind of a Bohemian lifestyle. And then, unfortunately both of our mothers died of cancer. My mother died of cancer in the year we made the film, about nine months before we made the film.”
“Josh and I talked a lot about the script but we also talked about our moms and our New York experience,” she said about their first meeting over breakfast. “We realized pretty quickly that we were from the same world in a funny way.”
“It sounded like her mom and my mom would have been friends,” Mond said about that meeting. “She was generous with her information, which was really great and I feel like we connected. That was the starting point and then Chris and I met with her a couple times over tea or went to her house for breakfast, just getting to know you stuff.”
Nixon wasn’t familiar with the guys of Borderline at the time when she decided to play James’ cancer-stricken mother. “I live in my tiny little world where I don’t know who people on the movie scene are most of the time, but I love them all. It’s interesting, because a lot of projects I’ve done over the years, particularly in the last 10 or 15 years, have been very female-focused from ‘Sex and the City’ to doing ‘The Women’ on Broadway. I played Emily Dickinson, like a really female-centric kind of world. And this is just a very male world in the loveliest way.”
“They’re like an adorable wolf pack, and I think it’s a very male film,” she continued, “But how welcome I felt and how respected, and I think that was partly their sweetness and admiration for me but I think all of Josh’ comrades knew Josh’s Mom quite well and really revered her, so I think the magnificence with which I was treated, I was also basking in her reflective glory a bit.”
Abbott talked about realizing the character of James and where he found his inspiration. “It’s an amalgamation of quite a few people including myself—I can’t deny there’s some of myself in there—my face, my body and whatever anxieties I have. People I know in my life, people I’ve met. He’s very much a New York character, someone who is born and raised in New York and I met a lot of those.”
“New York makes up our character,” Mond said about the decision to set it in the city he knew best. “You don’t see New York but you feel it, because if you submit to it, New York can be like a train where there’s no opportunities for reflection. You’re just operating off reactions.”
“It’s a very real feeling film so I think at times it looks improvised but it’s really not at all. It’s pretty much word-for-word in the script,” Nixon said, explaining why she was so taken by how real Gail felt to her. (Nixon received treatment for early stages of breast cancer herself a few years back.) “One thing that was nice about the character is that she’s very intense and I’m very intense… and my mother was very intense. It’s nice feeling permission to be that on screen. When you hit a certain age and you’re playing mothers, mother characters are often extremely reactive and they’re all about their child or if they’re married, their husband. The great thing about Gail is that as focused as she was on her grown son, she’s just a complete character. Her hopes and dreams and aspirations didn’t begin and end with her son. You get very much the sense of the hopes and goals she had for herself that she didn’t achieve. She doesn’t defer to her kid. She’s a fighter and she treats her son with a lot of respect but she doesn’t pull her punches with him.”
“She was incredibly patient with me being a first-time filmmaker and she was extremely professional,” Mond said about working with Nixon. “It was a learning experience for me, but it was also amazing because I was able to feel so vulnerable with such an experienced professional, she was very generous.”
“I think Cynthia and I have a similar approach in that film is film and theater is theater,” Abbott said about working with an actor with similar theater experiences. “I don’t really like to rehearse that much when doing a film. It’s good to just get your bearings and blocking but otherwise, I like to leave it up to when we’re actually shooting to figure it out. We had some camaraderie over both being theater people and having something to talk about, but I don’t think it influenced too much in the making of the movie.”
“I’ve been lucky enough to work on very different things,” Abbott said about where he might go from James White. “Not a lot of people have seen the plays that I’ve done or the smaller films but I’m always trying to explore different roles and different types of characters.” (Abbott can next be seen in Jackie Earl Haley’s directorial debut Criminal Activities, which opens a week after James White.)
Finally, Mond talked about the transition to directing and how that’s completed “Phase One” for Borderline. “We became business partners and basically best friends/brothers the first day upon meeting,” he told us. “Our intentions were always to become directors and support each other in that process when nobody else really was. We got to know each other through the years pretty quickly and wrapped into each other’s personal lives where we’re family. Now we have a new chapter. We’ve all done what we said we’re going to do. We all hope to be directing films at the same time and still serving as support for each other, watching the dailies and being involved in the script and development, casting, basically whenever we’re needed by one another and that’s really the goal.”
The guys of Borderline have also been working as support and mentors for other first-time filmmakers, while Campos has been working on his third film Christine. “We’re interested in portraits of people,” Mond explained when asked about the fact that many of Borderline’s films have people’s names as their titles.
“I really feel like we’ve set up a world where we get to work with our friends, not even just each other but Chris and Brady Corbet and our DP Matthias and our costume designer,” he told us about Borderline’s masterplan. “The idea is to continue our relationship with people like we are with each other.”
James White opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, November 13.