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Chris Messina on gaining 40 pounds to play a gangster in 'Live by Night'

The actor talks about going from nice guy roles to playing a gun-wielding psycho.

In Ben Affleck’s “Live by Night,” Chris Messina gets to do something he’s never done before: Play a cackling, trigger-happy gangster. Messina’s Dion is the right-hand man of Affleck’s Joe Coughlin, a WWI veteran-turned-bootlegger who finds himself creating a rum empire in 1920s Tampa. Messina knows you usually see him as a decent guy, whether in “Argo,” “Julie & Julia” or on “The Mindy Project.” That’s why he was so stoked to get a tommygun — and gain some 40 pounds for the role.

Messina, 42, talks to us about his love for the gangster movie and having an excuse to eat pizza and French fries for four months.

Gangster movies just don't get made anymore. In fact, one of the only reasons "Live by Night" exists is because Ben Affleck has enough power to do whatever he wants.
He’s one of the few people who can make one of these right now. My hat’s off to him for doing it. One of the reasons I became an actor in the first place was seeing “The Godfather 1 and 2” and “Once Upon a Time in America” as a kid, then exploring more of the earlier stuff.

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You wouldn’t think from the roles you’ve played that you were hoping to be Cagney or scary De Niro.
Most of my career I’ve been cast as a nice guy. It was nice that a director had some creativity and said, “You know, there are other sides to this actor.”

You’ve played a couple unlikable or sometimes mean characters before. I like how angry you get at Ben Stiller in “Greenberg.”
But I’m always mean in a white collar Republican way, at least in the bigger movies. But this is a big one. I get a tommygun, you know?

Dion is one of the classic cackling madmen who you like anyway.
I thought of him as the “night” of “Live by Night.” He loves being a gangster. This is the way he lives; this is the way he will die. I watched, of course, Joe Pesci in “Goofellas” and “Casino,” to see how much fun he would have. Then I went to James Cagney in movies like “Public Enemy” and “White Heat.” He had a devilish grin and love of being the gangster, which I tried to emulate as much as I could.

You also gained 40 pounds for the role.
The character in the book is described as “round.” He’s a big guy. I thought I should be heavy next to Ben Affleck, who’s really tall and wide-shouldered. I couldn’t make myself taller. So I gained weight. I went to a camera test and he saw that I gained weight. He loved it. I wanted to make him happy, so I went further. At the end of the film I was 202 pounds. As a wrap gift he paid for a trainer to help me lose it.

Put side by side you almost look like Laurel and Hardy.
That’s what I was thinking. I was also looking at Capone and that look. It goes with the idea that those gangsters thought, ‘I’m gonna eat what I want to eat, I’m gonna drink what I want to drink. I’m gonna smoke cigars, I’m gonna drive the cars, I’m gonna get the ladies.’ The only problem is we had a few additional shots after we wrapped, so I had to get a fat suit. When I was fat, it affected the way I walked. I carried my gait differently. I was out or breath a lot. All that stuff I loved. Then with the fat suit I just didn’t feel like the character.

It sounds like it was fun to gain all that weight.
It was. It was fun. It was four months of beers, pizza, pasta, ice cream and french fries. When I was at work I was respected, I was placed on a pedestal. And then when I was dropping off my kids at school, I was looked at like, ‘What happened?’ [Laughs] I felt kind of gross at school; at work I felt proud.

Did your body totally rebel afterwards?
My stomach was shattered for months afterwards. But you know, I’m a pretty skinny guy. My body just wants to be skinny. My body is like, “This is where we like you.” If you’re unemployed and have the luxury of having a trainer and working out twice a day, anybody could lose weight, really. Unemployment’s good for losing weight.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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