How Northport's Chris Messina prepared to play agent David Falk in 'Air'
Chris Messina has less height, more hair and — according to him — less smarts than David Falk. “But we do have the commonality of both being from Long Island,” he said.
And one other thing: They now share a real-life role and the movie version of it.
The actor from Northport has a distinctive part in the new movie “Air,” portraying Falk, an alumnus of MacArthur High School in Levittown.
Falk was the agent for Michael Jordan during the fight among sneaker companies to sign him out of North Carolina in 1984 — a battle eventually won by Nike.
That process is the subject of the film, which opens on April 5 and also stars Ben Affleck (who directs), Matt Damon, Viola Davis, Jason Bateman and Chris Tucker.
The Long Island connection is coincidental, and the physical differences were not a concern to Affleck, who did not want his actors impersonating real-life figures.
So Messina did not meet with Falk to prepare, but he did read his 2009 book, “The Bald Truth.”
Then he fashioned a comically profane character who appears mostly in a series of contentious phone calls with Damon, playing Nike dealmaker Sonny Vaccaro.
The real-life Vaccaro was on the set the day Messina’s phone scenes were filmed. “That scene with David Falk? He was brilliant,” Vaccaro told Newsday. “He nailed it. That was Falk. All the swearing, that happened. He nailed it, yes he did.”
Messina said he had “tons of fun” with the role, in part because it allowed him to act against type.
“I usually get cast as a nice guy,” he said. “If you do anything halfway decent in Hollywood, they want you to repeat it. It's Ben Affleck who is constantly saying, ‘I see other sides of you’ and giving me opportunities to do something different.
“So as an actor, that's really the dream. That's how this whole thing started — wanting to be somebody else.”
“Air” works as a film even though it centers less on action than on people talking to one another in rooms — or in Messina’s case near one another in rooms.
He said performing one end of a phone conversation can be tricky for an actor, but that Affleck smartly placed Damon and Messina on either end of a hallway and had them film their phone conversations organically.
“That was much more fun to do as an actor,” he said, “and I think as an audience, you kind of feel that the phone calls are maybe more alive than when you've seen phone calls [in films] before.”
Messina grew up in a house of Knicks, Giants, Islanders and Mets fans, occasionally going with his father and brother to watch the Jordan-era Bulls play at the Garden.
“Obviously, we were rooting for the Knicks, but seeing Jordan play in person was very magical,” he said. “It was like a ballet dancer, like watching Baryshnikov, this almost an alienlike, godlike creature flying through the air.
“You couldn't take your eyes off them. And I did fall in love with him. I wanted the shoes really bad but we didn't get them. They were expensive. I never got them. Then later on I made some money on my own and bought a pair.”
Messina’s mother, Phyllis, was a dancer and dance teacher, and after seeing him dance around the house at a young age she put him in dance school.
“I fell in love with it,” he said.
At Northport High School, he discovered electives in the arts that were “incredibly advanced” for a public high school in the late 1980s and early '90s.
He credited teachers such as John Gavriluk and Frances McGarry for steering him into acting, including a program of performances on challenging subjects such as “sex, drugs and rock and roll,” as he put it.
“It wasn't your typical, ‘Oklahoma!’ that's usually done at a high school,” he said. “It was dealing with things that kids were going through right there and then, and it was cool to be an actor.
“For the first time, from a person who didn't do very well in school, I felt like I had a place. I felt like I was being seen and I immediately got bit by the bug.”
Messina, 48, since has had a long career in film, television and theater, including a play called “The Light Outside” in 2000 in which he played the son of a fellow Northport alum, Robert LuPone.
LuPone, who died last year, was the brother of Broadway star Patti LuPone. Edie Falco, best known for her role on “The Sopranos,” also is a Northport alum.
Falco joined Messina last year for a reading of “Our Town” in Northport that raised funds for Huntington Hospital in memory of Messina’s father, Philip, and mother.
“Edie did us a big favor and played the narrator; she was phenomenal,” Messina said.
Messina said he was unaware when he was in school of Northport’s long history in acting, music and other arts but caught on quickly later.
“I’m always proud to say I'm from Northport,” he said. “I'm always proud to say that I went to the high school of Patti LuPone and Edie Falco. It makes me feel good.
“I'm very, very proud of my roots, and very thankful that my father and mother found Northport . . . It was the greatest thing for our family.”