Christopher Abbott has quietly become one of the more respected actors on the indie-film scene, and his latest film, Sanctuary, is yet another example why.
Written by Micah Bloomberg and directed by Zachary Wigon, Sanctuary certainly has the trappings of a contained psychological thriller, but it’s ultimately a twisted romcom about power dynamics, starring Abbott and Margaret Qualley. Abbott plays Hal Porterfield, a hotel heir who decides to end his relationship with Rebecca (Qualley), a Denver dominatrix, now that he’s taking the reins of his family’s company. However, Rebecca doesn’t react well to the news or the severance package being offered, given her role in Hal’s success.
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Abbott’s characters are often put through the wringer, physically and psychologically, and the Connecticut native also isn’t afraid of humiliation on screen, something Sanctuary reaffirms when Hal is asked by Rebecca to scrub the bathroom floor in his underwear.
“On camera is where I want to have the least amount of ego, but I probably have more ego in my daily life,” Abbott tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I probably want to feel some sense of shame [on camera]. I want to be open. As much as you can call yourself an artist as an actor, that’s where you can control that and be vulnerable.”
Another one of Abbott’s most tortured characters is Colin Tate from Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor (2020). In the sci-fi horror film, Andrea Riseborough’s Tasya Vos possesses Tate in order to carry out an assassination, and one of the most indelible images of any film in recent memory involves Abbott wearing a mask that resembles Riseborough’s character. Well, it turns out there was even more to the story.
“There were some other things that didn’t make it into the film, and one of them was Andrea being made up to look like me,” Abbott recalls. “It was cool, but it bordered on ridiculousness. So they cut that part out of the film.”
Below, during a recent chat with THR, Abbott also discusses reuniting with his A Most Violent Year collaborators J.C. Chandor and Alessandro Nivola on Sony’s upcoming comic book movie Kraven the Hunter.
Well, Sanctuary and Piercing would make quite the double feature. Were you drawing those comparisons during your first read?
(Laughs.) When I’m dragging Margaret’s character away from the elevator, that’s sort of where I noticed. I did a similar thing in Piercing, but I do feel like they are different enough. So, in a general sense, I think I can put whatever this genre is to bed.
I love that I can always count on you for something offbeat and unconventional. How much of your choices are by design versus just going through the door that opens?
It’s a little bit of both. I can only control so much of what I can control, and a lot of it is timing in terms of when a movie gets made, if someone wants me to do it or not and if it works. But if I do one thing, I try to do something very different the next time and vice versa.
How deep did you dive into the psychology of someone like Hal who role plays with a dominatrix?
This one didn’t really feel too research-heavy. This one was more being open and present with Margaret. The movie feels like a play in a lot of ways. It’s dialogue-heavy, and it’s very much a two-hander. So Zach Wigon, the director, had a very clear approach on how he wanted to shoot the movie. There wasn’t much coverage, and there were very specific shots for specific sequences. So I didn’t intern at a hotel for this one. (Laughs.) It was really about being open and present with Margaret.
This type of behavior is often tied to CEOs, Wall Street types, politicians, etc. Why do you think that demographic is more prone to this type of lifestyle? Of course, they can afford it, but is it because they have too much control during the day?
My short answer is I have no idea, but it seems like it’s some sort of control kink. Being more or less in charge of your daily life makes you want to be submissive and dominated in your sexual life, I guess.
Was the script performed to the letter?
We stuck to the script. Micah [Bloomberg], who wrote it, is also a playwright, so he’s very good with dialogue and timing. So there wasn’t much room to riff. We didn’t need to, but we also really didn’t have time.
The scene where you’re scrubbing the floor in your underwear reminded me that you’re often unafraid of seemingly humiliating moments on camera, and I bring that up because there are some actors with egos that would never let themselves be put in a position like that. So, where do you think you picked up such a willingness to commit without ego?
Well, that’s very kind. On camera is where I want to have the least amount of ego, but I probably have more ego in my daily life. I probably want to feel some sense of shame [on camera]. I want to be open. As much as you can call yourself an artist as an actor, that’s where you can control that and be vulnerable.
Of all the twisted stuff you’ve done on camera, which scene lingered the longest?
There was probably something to the time and place, but I did this movie called James White some years back. I made that movie with a friend, and it was somewhat personal for him. I wasn’t playing him, but it was an amalgamation of a character where I was playing him and a little bit of myself. So there’s probably something within that movie that was the hardest to shake, just because there were a lot of things that were aligned in a very specific and special way.
Did Sanctuary have a scene that was difficult to shed?
We really treated this one like a strange romcom, so it wasn’t like I took the character home and couldn’t sleep. We were just having fun. We shot the movie pretty much in sequence, and wherever we stopped shooting one day, we would just pick it back up the next day. So it felt like we just shot one big piece, and I don’t really remember which sequence we shot on what day or anything like that.
Given the small cast and how contained this movie is, was Sanctuary conceived with pandemic-type production in mind?
As far as I know, Micah, the writer, had this idea and versions of the script floating around before that. So it was just very convenient that it was a two-hander in the same location without a big crew. It just sort of worked out that way.
You and Margaret obviously have good chemistry, but outside of this experience, what percentage of the time is good chemistry just good acting or good editing?
It’s a good question. It can be all of the above, but in this case, it was good chemistry. Margaret and I had been wanting to work together, and there were a few projects we were possibly gonna do together. And this one, for obvious reasons, felt like the right one, finally. So it depends on the partner you have on set, sometimes, and on this one, we really listened to each other and were able to play. But good chemistry can obviously be edited. (Laughs.) That’s where a good editor comes in.
So we saw the teaser for Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things the other day, but did you and Margaret know that it was on the horizon when you were shooting this?
We didn’t have anything together in Poor Things, but it was just a coincidence that Poor Things came after Sanctuary.
Yorgos Lanthimos is one of the masters of oft-kilter storytelling, so you’re a perfect match.
What’d you make of his set and his way of doing things?
I loved it. First of all, the set design was incredible. You can see in the teaser how wild it looks, and while it didn’t look exactly like that, I was sort of amazed by how magical the actual sets felt and how detailed they were. When I saw the teaser as well, it was even more vivid and wild than it felt on set. So it just sort of doubled itself, and it looks incredible.
You’ve got a studio project coming up with J.C. Chandor, but even that has a different ambition than most of the films in the comic book genre. So how was your A Most Violent Year reunion with J.C. and Alessandro Nivola on Kraven the Hunter?
Great. I love J.C., and Alessandro is a good buddy of mine. I’ll always work with people that I like very much and love. J.C. is just so good at directing on a big set. His brain works in a way that he can wear a lot of hats and cover a lot of bases at once. So I feel comfortable and confident with him, and to be able to hang out and joke around and have dinner together is icing on the cake.
Going back to the subject of twisted stuff you’ve done on camera, I thought you were going to point out the time you wore an Andrea Riseborough mask. Does that rank pretty high as well?
You’re probably right. Possessor definitely had some of the stranger things I’ve been asked to do. There were some other things that didn’t make it into the film, and one of them was Andrea being made up to look like me.
It was cool, but it bordered on ridiculousness. (Laughs.) So they cut that part out of the film, but I love Brandon [Cronenberg], too. That was another wild one.
Since her character possessed your character, did the two of you have to communicate pretty closely about how you should portray her version of your character?
A hundred percent. Strangely, we didn’t have that much to do together in the movie itself, and for good reasons and bad, we had a lot of time before the movie. There was a time where we were gonna shoot it, and then it got delayed. So, inadvertently, we had a lot of time to prepare it, and I remember us getting together in Toronto to meet Brandon and work on it. There were also a lot of opportunities to chat about it over the phone. We wouldn’t mirror each other in that movie, but if there was a scene where I was more her or she was more me, we would check in with each other on certain mannerisms and certain physical gestures that we would do in order to make sure those things were linked.
I’m a big fan of Sweet Virginia, and I’d love to hear what your main takeaway was from that experience. What did you walk away from that set with that you didn’t have previously?
Well, I love Jamie Dagg who directed that. He’s got a specific noir style that he’s drawn to, and he was influenced by a lot of Sam Peckinpah movies. So I like the tone and the world that he created for that. It’s very dark and moody, but it’s based in reality. And it was just a blast to be able to do a lot of those longer scenes with [Jon] Bernthal, who I love. That diner scene was the first scene that I shot with him, and I just loved it.
What else are you excited about that’s coming up?
I’m doing a play in the fall that I’m quite excited about. I can’t say for sure yet, but I’m pretty sure we’re doing it. It’s just not a hundred percent. I haven’t done a play in a while, so I’m excited about that. I’ll follow up with you once I know for sure. And then I’m excited about the things that are coming out this year and just being able to watch them.
With film, you leave your performance in the hands of a director and an editor to present as they see fit. Do you like stage work in part because you have “final cut” over your performance?
Well, I don’t love it in reaction to that. It’s just a different beast. I compare it most to being in a band and playing a live show, versus recording a record in the studio, which are both enjoyable. Whether you’re recording a record or making a movie, you can nitpick and fine tune, and there’s something enjoyable about being able to do that. And then being on stage, you’re just left to your own devices. You’re out there alone, and you have good shows and bad shows. If you have a bad show, the nice thing is you have another show the next night. So you’re walking on a wire, but I enjoy both for different reasons.
Lastly, decades from now, when you and Margaret bump into each other on the street, what day on Sanctuary are you going to remind her of first?
Are you telling me this is going to happen?
Yes, it’s predetermined.
(Laughs.) I guess you could say the first day or the last day, [meaning] day three. I’m just kidding. But like I said before, I really don’t remember. It really feels like we shot one long scene. So, in ten years, I’m a hundred percent sure my memory will be gone by then, but hopefully, I’ll still be able to recognize Margaret.
Sanctuary is now playing in theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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