Part horror-thriller and part psychological exploration, Piercing (based on the novel by Ryū Murakami) is a twisted story about a man (Christopher Abbott) who seeks out a female stranger to help him live out his dark fantasies. That plan spirals out of control when he finds himself with a woman (Mia Wasikowska) who has her own internal darkness, leading to a game of cat-and-mouse that is frightening, surreal and, at times, oddly humorous.
Christopher talks about working with friend and writer/director Nicolas Pesce on Piercing, his reaction to the stylized look of the finished product, what he was most excited and most nervous about with this role, and the physical comedy of shooting scenes by himself. He also talked about his upcoming Hulu series Catch-22, executive produced by George Clooney, shooting Possessor with director Brandon Cronenberg, and trying to find a balance between goals and happenstance in his career.
Cre8tiveSHFT: Piercing is a film that clearly has a very stylized look to it. Did you know from reading the script just what this would be, and did you have an idea of what the finished product would look like?
CHRISTOPHER ABBOTT: Yeah. I was friends with the director (Nicolas Pesce) beforehand, and we talked a lot about it. It’s based on this little book by Ryū Murakami’s, so I also had that. It had its own world and tone, in itself, and the film did a very great job of mirroring the book. So, I was very much aware of the world. Nic wanted to make the location was very unspecific, so that you can’t tell exactly what city it’s in, and it’s almost like a fake city. Nothing is meant to feel real, and I knew that, going into it. That gave me some room to play, in this world with no rules, in that way. Which is kind of in a world where there’s no rules, in that way..
When you did see the finished product, was there anything that still surprised you, either about how it looked or how it ended up coming out, once it was all finished?
ABBOTT: Yeah, visually, it felt comic book-y, with the colors and the miniatures, which I didn’t get to see, until the first time that I saw the movie. I loved that because just having the miniatures, in the beginning, lets the audience know that it’s not to be taken seriously and there’s humor involved. So, I was surprised by that.
This is certainly the kind of character and project that I would imagine doesn’t come your way very often, and it feels very different from anything you might get to play. What were you most excited about with playing this character, and what were you most nervous about with him?
ABBOTT: Well, the most exciting thing, for me, was that it felt like it was gonna be this ode to silent films, which I was into. The dialogue is quite smart and there’s a lot of typical comedy, especially in the scene where I mime the murder, so I was excited to do an ode to old school silent film era humor. To at least attempt to do that, obviously modernized, is something I haven’t gotten to do And the character, himself, is a fairly quiet person, so throughout the film, there’s a tiny ode to the silent film style of acting, which was fun. And then, that was also challenging because, as modern movies go, people are generally much more verbose than they were back then, so it’s hard to get things across sometimes. The other challenge was that there’s a little backstory, but there’s not much of a change in the character, from beginning to end, in big ways. You only have this one night, so how much can people change, in a couple hours?
What was it like to shoot the scenes with just yourself, where you were enacting his fantasies with nobody there? Were there ever times where it just felt really hilarious to do that?
ABBOTT: Yeah, of course. The cinematographer, Zack Galler, is a good friend of mine, and we’ve worked together before, so we were in the hotel room, playing around. It was pretty silly, and we would laugh a ton. It was really fun to do that. I felt like I was able to do old school, physical comedy, especially in that scene. It also made me feel like a weird, psycho Fred Astaire.
You also have the limited series Catch-22 coming to Hulu. What was the appeal of that project and character for you?
ABBOTT: A lot of things. First and foremost, it was the script. That was my first step to the project. I hadn’t read the book before that. The script, written by Luke Davies and David Michôd, was one of the best written things that I had read in a long time. It had incredibly smart dialogue, and it was funny. And then, I find out, after that, that George Clooney would be directing it, and I was very excited to work with him on it. It felt like, with all of the people on the team – writers, directors, producers and Hulu – I wanted to be a part of that team, so it felt really right to be doing this part. The other thing is that I haven’t gotten to play a literary character before, so that was exciting. It’s a book that a lot of people cherish, and it’s some people’s favorite book. When the book came out in the ‘60s, it meant a lot to a lot of people. It was challenging, having to play a character that a lot of people already know, or feel like they know. Whether they like my version of it or not, that’s up to them, but it’s still fun to do that.
You’re an actor who works a lot, especially in the last couple years, but what’s it like to see someone like George Clooney, who’s acting, directing and producing the series, and watch him wear so many hats, at one time? Is it inspiring to see him doing that, and does it make you want to try other aspects of the business, as well?
ABBOTT: Yeah, and he makes it looks easy. What he’s really also good at is creating a certain energy on set that, as actors, can make you feel relaxed. He’s one of the most famous people, and he does a good job of bringing that mystique down on set. That can make an actor very nervous, when you’re trying to act yourself, and he does a good job of kind of squelching all of those kinds of things. But with all that said, at the same time, he gets very inspired, when he’s directing a take, and you feel that, too. It’s a nice combination of feeling relaxed, but you also wanna show off a little bit ‘cause he’s watching.
Are you also still looking to do Possessor, with Brandon Cronenberg? Is that a project that you still want to do?
ABBOTT: Yes. We’re finally gonna do that now. We were gonna do it, and then something happened. And then, we were gonna do it, but something happened. Now, we’re finally gonna start shooting that in April, for sure.
What’s the appeal of that project for you, and who would you be playing in it?
ABBOTT: I wanna do it to work with Brandon. He creates a world. I guess you could call it sci-fi, in a way, but it’s visual effect heavy. It’s a very human sci-fi film. It’s a really fun script, with a bit of action. And I can say that I play a body that Andrea Riseborough’s character inhabits.
Since you came to my attention in The Sinner, which you were great in, you’ve had First Man, Vox Lux, Tyrel and Piercing, in the last year, which are such different stories where you’re playing a wide variety of different characters. Does that feel like the goal, as an actor? Do you really work at finding that kind of a variety, in the projects that you do?
ABBOTT: Yes. I guess the overall goal is that I don’t wanna do a specific type of character more than like twice. That’s a very vague and general rule. A lot of things have happened naturally. Brady [Corbet], who directed Vox Lux, is one of my dear, close friends that I’ve known for years. Sebastián [Silva], who directed Tyrel, is also a friend that I’ve known for a long time. And Nic, who directed Piercing, is a friend. I work with friends a lot, and I’m lucky enough to be friends with pretty talented people. That’s not to say that I don’t work at it, but sometimes things just fall in my lap, and it’s nice to be able to do things that I would wanna do anyway. So, it’s a nice balance of having a goal and a path in mind, but also a lot of happenstance.
Piercing is in theaters, and currently on-demand and on digital HD.