Christopher Abbott on Portraying an Anguished Killer in Possessor

Pin It
Possessor (Signature Entertainment, 27 Nov 2020)
Possessor, 2020(Film still)

“I’m very aware that the entire crew is not in rapture while I’m on the ground screaming,” says the actor and star of Brandon Cronenberg’s terrifying new thriller, Possessor

It’s been barely a few weeks since one of the most divisive election results in US history was called, and yet with coronavirus cases still rising on the brink of winter, New York remains a city in flux. Actor Christopher Abbott spent that “gorgeous day“ riding around on his bike, watching gatherings of people from a distance – but now, he feels, things are getting “depressing“ again.

As a man who describes himself as a “watcher”, “fascinated” by human behaviour, the persistent instability can offer some valuable perspective. He is, after all, a performer who thrives on exploring the complexities of the human condition. This sentiment feels especially true when understanding his role in Brandon Cronenberg’s terrifying new thriller Possessor. And on the eve of the film’s UK release, AnOther finds Abbott in a contemplative mood.

Taking place in a dystopian alternate reality marred by the influence of ruthless data-mining corporations, the film explores a world where cyber-assassins commit contract murders by hijacking the minds of innocent civilians to do their bidding. Surveillance drone Colin (Abbott) finds himself the victim when he becomes the puppet to jaded killer Vos (Andrea Riseborough), who seeks to fulfil a high-profile hit in close quarters. But despite her experience, the job hits a snag as she begins to lose control of her host.

“This is a science-fiction world,“ says Chris of the film’s nightmarish concept. “[My] job was to find the reality in it.”

Since breaking through on Lena Dunham’s comedy series Girls, Abbott’s mainstream film career has exploded – and in 2020 he marked a new high after picking up a Golden Globe nomination for his role in the TV series Catch-22. A more left-field genre film like Possessor, though, offers a different kind of challenge, he says. It was an opportunity to revisit the formative years he spent working at a movie rental store – where he had his “mind blown“ by science fiction epics like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and The Matrix – but also a chance to ponder the human psyche on a deeper level.

“What’s it like to have another person’s body?” he asks, speaking via Zoom from his apartment in New York. “What is schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder, or paranoia? Where you become so paranoid that you become delusional, or have hallucinations?

“For me, the thing I trace [the role] to is mental health,” he concludes. “I have my own mental health issues – I feel like you’re crazy if you don’t – but I was attracted to [Possessor] because it comes from a very real place. There’s something deeper than just the world it’s in.”

For such a visually evocative and violent film, it is perhaps unexpected that the acting prowess is what makes it so effective. And yet even alongside a series of remarkable turns from Riseborough, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Sean Bean, it is the doomed duplicitous role played by Abbott that proves the film’s most captivating asset.

“It was important that the audience get confused, to lose track of who’s who,” he says, describing how he worked closely with Riseborough to bring nuance to the complex, body-swapping role. “That’s the whole idea – and if you pay attention, there are lots of little hints and signals that make it fun to go back more than once.”

In one of the film’s most unsettling scenes, the torment shared by the two leads as they vie for control over their shared body is palpable. Peering into a mirror, the possessor Vos calibrates her new host, Colin, by dialling through “a colour wheel of emotions”. Abbott’s face flicks back and forth from falsified glee to deep anguish, and through his eyes, he offers a glimpse of the deep, genuine anguish suffered by the defenceless host.

“I don’t like to plan too much,” Abbott claims of these emotional scenes. “You want to just capture a few seconds of something real, you know?” His explanation rings truer when applied to the film’s dramatic centrepiece: an intense face-off between the possessed Colin and odious corporate magnate John Parse (Sean Bean); a reprehensible drunkard with a penchant for intimidation. “He carries a certain … presence,” Abbott admits of his magnetic co-star. But at the end of the day, business is business, even when it comes to bloody violence:

“Movies are weird, right?” Abbott laughs. “These scenes are highly emotional, and yet there’s a room full of people doing their jobs who really don’t give a shit what you’re doing. You’re emotional, you’re crying, and then you look over – and there’s just somebody fixing an outlet, you know?”

“I’m very aware that the entire crew is not in rapture while I’m on the ground screaming with a huge piece of glass in my hand, stabbing a prosthetic head. But I’m not complaining – I just want to jump off the diving board when action is called and not think about it too much.”

Like much of Possessor, this pivotal scene ultimately doesn’t go quite the way you expect, though. “You feel like it’s going to be this James Bond-type fight scene,“ Abbott recalls. “But it pulls the rug out a little bit.”

It’s an apt summation, given the actor’s newfound love for textile flooring – but with working plans hanging in the balance for the remainder of the year, who’s to say solace can’t be found in a Turkish rug? “If anyone needs one, I’ve been buying a lot, lately,” he laughs. “You know you’re an adult when you start appreciating rugs on Etsy.”

With his emotionally resonant performance hitting UK screens this November, Christopher Abbott’s clearly got more to be proud of than just his carpet collection.

Possessor hits UK digital streaming services on November 27.