Christopher Abbott Opens Up About Why 'Catch-22' Is Still Relatable Today

Ileane Rudolph
Q&A Philipe Antonello/Hulu

When author Joseph Heller needed a phrase to describe being hopelessly trapped in a paradox, he created his own: Catch-22. He used the expression as the title of his scathing 1961 World War II satire, and since then, both the term and the work have become an indelible part of pop culture.

Now Hulu has adapted the original work for a six-episode limited series with an all-star cast including George Clooney, who's also the co-director and an executive producer.

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The six-hour miniseries from EPs George Clooney and Grant Heslov premieres May 17.

Set on an Army Air Force base in Italy, the story centers on American bombardier John "Yo-Yo" Yossarian, who finds himself stuck in a bureaucratic military system that risks flyers' lives for no reason that he can understand. Christopher Abbott (Girls, The Sinner) plays the desperate soldier who believes the moral choice to make in this untenable situation is to simply survive.

Below, Abbott takes us into the war zone.

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The actor also reveals how faithful Hulu's series adaptation is to the original novel.

What was your first impression reading Catch-22?

Christopher Abbott: I skipped it when it was assigned in high school. But when I read it before I auditioned for the part, after the first chapter, I knew it was not quite like anything else I'd read. It's a satire that made me laugh…then it was incredibly heartbreaking a few sentences later. And the script really reflected that as well.

Describe Yossarian.

He's an antihero who has a lust for life — someone who always asks higher-ups why he's constantly being sent to his death. He understands fighting for your country, but he is terrified of dying for no good reason, like Colonel Cathcart [Kyle Chandler] wanting to make a name for himself. As his friends are dying around him, it becomes an existential crisis. 

(Philipe Antonello / Hulu)

What is Yo-Yo's specific catch-22?

[In the military], you can be grounded [from flying] if you're crazy, but if you say that you're crazy then you're not really crazy — so you can't be grounded. It feeds into that kind of cyclical, endless hysteria that he's involved in. 

Was it intimidating to work with George?

For actors, especially young ones, the idea of George can make you quite nervous. But he quickly dilutes that by creating an energy on set that is very easy. You feel taken care of. As a director, he knows what he wants and I just have to go and be truthful.

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The 1970 movie adaptation premiered during the anti–Vietnam War era. Will people be receptive to this absurdist treatment of the military in a period where veterans are so venerated?

I think so, because I don’t see the book or this show as antiwar, but more anti-bureaucracy. That's very relatable. Catch-22 things happen in everyday life for people.

Who's In Catch-22?

George Clooney (Lieutenant Scheisskopf)

(Credit: Philipe Antonello / Hulu)

The not-too-bright, order-barking soldier has an obsession with parades and the pageantry of military life. He also ignores his gorgeous wife, Marion (Julie Ann Emery), a scenario that Yossarian exploits.

Hugh Laurie (Major De Coverley)

Catch-22

(Credit: Hulu)

The elegant major gets what he wants, including lamb chops flown in from Scotland, and free time to spend in his garden tossing horseshoes. Meanwhile, no one can figure out what, exactly, his official duties entail.

Kyle Chandler (Colonel Cathcart)

Catch-22

(Credit: Hulu)

To Yossarian, this war-lover is the enemy, since he keeps increasing — for no good reason — the number of missions bombardiers must fly before they can go home. "It's certainly not for the greater good," says Abbott. 

Catch-22, Series Premiere, Friday, May 17, Hulu