“Gabe?” asks Christopher Abbott, and for a moment across the screen he looks befuddled. Then the penny drops: “Gabe, the name of the character?” He laughs. “I was like: ‘Who’s Gabe!’ I should know! It’s been a while …”
It has, indeed, been a while since Abbott shot Black Bear, the “meta comedy thriller” directed by Lawrence Michael Levine and set in the Adirondack mountains, and more than a year has passed since it premiered at Sundance. Anyway, such are Black Bear’s layers and twists that anyone – even its actors – could be forgiven for forgetting who was who and where and why.
It is divided into two parts. In the first segment, Gabe (Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon) are a young couple expecting their first child, having left the city with vague plans to turn the family lake house into a creative retreat. Their first guest is Allison (Aubrey Plaza), an actor turned film-maker in search of inspiration. As Gabe, who is clearly attracted to Allison, bickers with Blair, the night unravels.
Part two offers a different setup: Gabe is now the director of a movie at the lake house, while Allison and Blair are actors. This time, Gabe is married to Allison, but apparently eyeing up Blair. Once again, things fall apart.
How much of this is real, and how much is the product of one character’s imagination becomes increasingly debatable. The film is, we gather, a rumination on fact, fiction and creativity.
Today, Abbott sits in his apartment in Tribeca, New York City, in a black sweater and gold chains, wearing a fleece hat that he shuffles about his head, from beanie to cossack and back again, as we speak. Behind him there are glimpses of white brick walls, framed paintings and a guitar case.
It was Black Bear’s experimental nature that appealed to him, he says. “As an actor, you’re playing two parts in a movie, more or less, so there’s something interesting about that. But I was more interested in the doing, in the playing. It wasn’t as cerebral, maybe, but it was the being there and doing these scenes with these people. Long scenes, theatrical.” He remembers the remote location, the night shoots, driving home as the sun rose, the dreamlike quality of the set. “It was experiential, I guess.”
Above all, the appeal of Levine’s script and premise was that “it felt like a play”. Abbott says: “I thought it would be kind of interesting to do that on screen, especially as, at that time, I hadn’t done a play in a while, so I felt like I got close to that. There’s shades of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. And it feels like there’s some Cassavetes vibes going on in there …”
But he is hesitant to delve much deeper – the creative trope of the cabin in the woods, the symbolism of the black bear, the nature of fiction; largely, when he speaks about the film, he looks like a man trying to draw the Taj Mahal from memory. “I’ve got to be honest: usually when I’m done with something I don’t think about it,” he says. “It feels a little bit like a checklist: I’ve had that experience, I’ve had that feeling, now move on, now do something different. I wouldn’t want to give Larry that much credit to say that it affected my life afterwards.”
Abbott was a latecomer to acting. He grew up in Connecticut, attended community college and worked in a video store and then a wine shop before deciding, at 20, to enrol at a performing arts college in New York. He bedded in to theatre, appearing in several off-Broadway productions, before making his screen debut in 2011 with Martha Marcy May Marlene, followed by 2012’s Hello I Must Be Going. For some while, Abbott was best known as the sweet-natured Charlie in Lena Dunham’s series Girls, quitting after series two with the rationale that he could not relate to the character.
As a performer, he is a gift; he has a presence, and a face, that can shift gently with the light: from beautiful and contemplative to brutish and surly. There is something quite unexpected about his approach to his career – the abrupt departure from Girls and its attendant fame and fortune, his tendency to mention John Cassavetes, his reluctance to analyse much of his craft in interviews – that has helped to mark him, potentially, as one of the left-field greats.
It is more than a year since Abbott took any acting roles. Last March, as the pandemic descended, he was returning from shooting with John Michael McDonagh in Morocco. Since then, he has navigated the “ebbs and flows” of this strange year: no new hobbies, no “Thoreau plain”, occasional trips upstate. He finally put up a projector in his apartment and began watching movies: Hou Hsiao-hsien, Christian Petzold, Lee Chang-dong: “All for pleasure, all for complete pleasure.”
I wonder, for someone who spends his life pretending to be other people, how it has felt to spend a year being only himself. Abbott thinks for a moment; shuffles the hat. “Honestly, I’ve enjoyed it,” he says. “I do a lot of indies, but I was lucky enough to have worked a good amount that whole year prior, so at least financially … I wasn’t killing it, but it was enough to hold me over this year. It’s been nice to do exactly what I want to do every day! To make your own schedule is nice.”
There are, of course, many things that should have happened: a turn in Tennessee Williams’ play Orpheus Descending, for instance, potentially delayed until the summer. He relishes the “heightened poeticism” of Williams’ writing, he says: “The fact there’s a world to it.” He has a long-running hope to play Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, a role that has nearly happened on several occasions, including in the past year. “But I don’t know how the theatres are going to get back into gear,” he says. “There are things I was attached to for a while; we’ll see when they happen.”
Among them is a screen adaptation of Deborah Levy’s novel Swimming Home, with the director Justin Anderson. “Hopefully, by May, we’ll see,” Abbott says. “I really want to do it and I hope everything comes together. It’s really, really good. I’m very excited about it, but I don’t want to say too much, because energy-wise I don’t want to jinx anything. So, yeah, I could be extremely busy or continue to be not very busy; I really don’t know.
“I’m not in a rush to get back,” he adds. “It’s kind of unromantic, the Covid set.” If he is honest, he is not wholly enamoured of film sets in general. “There are things I love about it, but things that are so annoying,” he says. “I really don’t like waking up early to shoot. To wake up at five is a nightmare for me to go to work.”
He channelled some of this ambivalence into his role in part two of Black Bear, making Gabe “an amalgamation of some director friends of mine, maybe even a little bit of Larry himself, one of those directors who are always eating constantly – there’s celery, and there’s a bit where I’m asking to have nuts in my hand … it’s those little things that I find hilarious about a film set.” That was your suggestion, I ask? Abbott smiles. “That was my one brilliant suggestion, yes.” I think it makes the movie, I tell him. “It makes it,” he laughs. “It’s why it’s good!”
Theatre is a different matter. “I remember doing my first Broadway show and just being in that building with those old narrow corridors and little rooms … It felt like there were ghosts there, in a nice way. I love the feeling of that, of being in New York and doing that.”
Out on the stage, he says, “you have the energy of the crowd, you feel like you’re able to orchestrate a little more, and in a nice way have that quality where you can control an audience, make them listen, make them lean in. There’s a whole other dialogue happening with the audience and an energy to a live show that I miss.” It is rare, he admits, to see a good play. “And when it’s not good it’s the most uncomfortable place to be. Sometimes, I really enjoy seeing plays and often I don’t. But selfishly, doing them, you don’t have to be in the audience.”
I ask Abbott what it is that acting gives him that he doesn’t get anywhere else in his life. He frowns and pulls the hat low over his brow. “Well, how much of your life is spent being regretful of something, or being shameful of something, or wishing you had done something different?” he says. “So, even though it’s fantasy, sometimes it’s nice to live out certain moments as if you were able to do that thing.”
But it is a strange life – one that the fixedness of this past year has perhaps only amplified. He talks about the pleasure of being in one place: of walking around New York, hanging outside in the summer months, being with old friends; a world at odds with the transitory nature of the film set or the theatre production.
“In this business, you meet so many people, which is a nice thing,” Abbott says. “But sometimes it’s hard to deal with, because you have these short bursts of intense connection with people and then in five or six weeks it’s over, it’s done. And sometimes you stay in touch and sometimes you don’t. People’s lives move on.” He frowns again, then his face softens. “But movies are inherently romanticised versions of life, right?” he says. “And there’s even something romantic about making them, the fleeting nature of it. There’s something melancholy, but also sweet about it.”
Black Bear is released on 23 April on digital formats.