Chris Messina Discusses Why He Enrolled in a Master Class at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio During the Height of the COVID-19 Pandemic and Why It Was So Rejuvenating and Inspiring
TKS: You’ve had roles in 75 movies and television shows in just 25 years, and many of those have been landmark productions and longstanding engagements, including 90 episodes of The Mindy Project, 14 episodes of The Newsroom, and starring roles in such award-winning films as Julie and Julia and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Why, after all that, did you enroll in a Master Class at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio?
Chris Messina: Acting is like fine wine. It gets better, as it ages. And the goal of acting for me is to keep exploring, to keep opening new doors. But that requires overcoming blocks that evolve during the course of one’s career. Those blocks can be habits that are comfortable; they can be practices that even helped establish your career; they can be attributes that are prized but still stand in the way. They may be things we choose to ignore or things we don’t even know we’re ignoring.
The pause in movie and TV production caused by the COVID-19 pandemic gave me an opportunity to confront those blocks and move into the unknown, which is unsettling but enormously rewarding. For that, I needed a master teacher and a safe space, and the Master Class at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio gave me both. With Terry Knickerbocker, the acting class is always a safe space, even when conducted by Zoom, as it was at the time due to the pandemic. Terry has a kindness and a discipline to the way he teaches. He’s honest but never cruel. He’s demanding, but you always feel safe. If he doesn’t see progress week to week, he’ll call you out on it, but he cares deeply about his students, about the craft of acting, and about continuing the lineage of respect for acting. When a teacher has that kind of respect and love for the work. It has a domino effect that empowers everyone.
TKS: What brought you to the Terry Knickerbocker Studio?
Chris Messina: I’ve known Terry Knickerbocker for years. Sam Rockwell, who is a close friend of both of ours, introduced us. Sam coaches with Terry, and I’ve coached with Terry for a number of movies. In some cases, when Sam and Terry are working together, I’ve also helped by reading the other parts. It’s wonderful now to have been in the classroom with Terry.
Terry Knickerbocker is a master teacher. He’s fluent in the works of the great playwrights like Tennessee Williams, Chekhov, and Arthur Miller, and the best training comes from great playwrights, not typically from TV or film. He’s so fluent that his insights become crucial to honing one’s craft – and sometimes falling on your face in the process.
TKS: What was it like, given all your acting credentials, to train with actors with less experience?
Chris Messina: It was wonderful to explore with everyone in the class. We all brought different experiences, backgrounds, and insights that contributed to the process of exploring together. People with less experience also bring other advantages. There’s inspiration in their newness and their optimism and excitement.
TKS: What made the experience inspiring for you?
Chris Messina: Going back to class and to so many great plays reminded me of why I became an actor. It underscored the distinction between entertainment and acting. It reminded me of who I want to be.
TKS: How did the Master Class at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio affect how you approached acting afterwards?
Chris Messina: When you take a class of the caliber of a Master Class with Terry Knickerbocker, you’re reminded of all the questions that you forget to ask yourself when you’re exploring a play. The Master Class reminded me of the questions I was leaving out and the avenues I wasn’t going down. The thing about acting is that you hear things differently all along the way, and when you have someone as astute as Terry and as versed in the great plays as he is, you rediscover the process. Terry sets the bar high, because of the extraordinary writing in great plays. Then the way he asks you to go about the work reminds you of all of the different possibilities, as you search for a character – all the different places where that person could be found. I left the Master Class feeling rejuvenated – feeling shot out of a cannon and ready to go.