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Christopher Abbott talks about his breakout role in 'James White'

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We first meet James White, drunk and possibly stoned, in the pulsing darkness of a New York City nightclub. He’s good with girls, charming, masculine, but non-threatening with his baby-ish face. He whispers in one’s ear and is in the bathroom with her just a few moments later. It’s only as he stumbles outside, so that he can sit shiva for his recently deceased father, that we realize that it’s the middle of the day.

Beginning to understand who James is and how he handles his mother’s battle with cancer is the heart of Josh Mond’s new movie. James White (out Nov. 13) is a Gotham Award-nominated showcase for Christopher Abbott, known best for his two-season stint as the long-time boyfriend of Allison Williams’ character on HBO’s Girls.

After his sudden — and somewhat controversial — exit from the show, Abbott has continued what was already a growing career in independent film, having appeared in a 2011 film from Mond’s Borderline Films compatriot Sean Durkin, Martha Marcy May Marlene. Last year, he was the foiled truck hijacker in an extended chase sequence in A Most Violent Year.

When Mond told Abbott that he was planning his first feature with him in mind for the lead role, it was a brand new opportunity for the actor. James White would put him at the center of every scene of the film, which was partly inspired by Mond’s own life and the loss of his mother. Abbott tells EW that knowing where the story was coming from added a new dimension to his job.

“I think more as a friend than an actor, I felt at least a certain amount of responsibility to do justice by him in telling his story — not that it is entirely his story — but the aspects that are of the most importance being based on his relationship with his mother,” he says.

That meant figuring out for himself who James was, and the sense of discovery began, at least partly, in an unexpected place: a black hoodie. The sweatshirt is practically James’ uniform as he roams the bars and clubs of New York City. “For me, costume is one of the most important things, from what I’m wearing to the shoes,” Abbott says. “Once we started having fittings and deciding what the look was going to be, that was very telling.”

The rest of the cast was the other major piece. Abbott stars alongside Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi, who plays his best friend, and Cynthia Nixon, who plays his dying mother. Within the frame of the story, James is often defined by his extremes: his quiet sadness and his ferocious anger. The range offered a challenge to Abbott, something he looks for in a project.

“For their own reasons, each scene is its own little animal. The scenes with Cynthia are these quiet little animals, or there are more heightened scenes like the hotel room fight (see above),” he says. “The point is that there’s still a lot of energy between the characters and a lot going on with things under the surface that are left unsaid. There are things you want to say but can’t. Each scene has the same ingredients in a way, but it depends on how high the burner is on.”