‘Catch-22’s Christopher Abbott Talks Tapping Into His Inner Yossarian

Episode 103
Philippe Antonello/Hulu

Portraying a literary character is on many actors’ wish lists, but not all of them get the honor of playing the protagonist in a Hulu limited-series adaptation of Catch-22 — unless you’re Christopher Abbott.

The actor, whose previous TV credits include Girls and The Sinner, is the star of the show — which debuted May 17 on the streaming platform — as bombardier Yossarian. TV Insider caught up with Abbott on June 1 at the IFC Split Screens Festival in New York City where he appeared for a talk-back with festival goers following an airing of the first episode.

Opening up about his role, working with George Clooney and more, Abbott offers new insight into one of Hulu’s most talked about projects.

Has this experience influenced how you’ll choose projects moving forward?

Christopher Abbott: No, not particularly. I’ve always kind of had the same approach, and similar to probably a lot of other actors — you want to work on [something] if it’s a good script, and a good director — those are the boxes [you’d like to] tick. But it was the first time that I kind of had to carry something this big. So that was kind of a new experience. I think, in some aspects, I’ve grown because of that.

(Credit: IFC Center/Lou Aguilar)

You worked with George Clooney. Were there any lessons from him that you took away from this experience?

Yeah, I mean, aside from being a great director, he’s an actor and he gets it. So he’s very sensitive to actor energies and what it’s like to kind of create an atmosphere that makes an actor comfortable. And it’s admirable how he can wear so many hats, you know? Obviously, just with this show alone, he produced it, directed it and acted in it, and what he does in his life socially. He makes big impacts on a lot of things, so that is something that’s admirable and I will strive to try to do one day.

This is a dark comedy through and through. How did you find the balance between those tones in Catch-22?

I think a lot of that is done in the writing. Luke [Davies] and David [Michôd] had to get the tone of the book, and it kind of zig-zags all over the place. It’s only then up to me to play those things truthfully… I just have to give credit to Luke and David for that because that’s a hard tone to nail and I think they did.

How did you get in the head of Yossarian? Did you do any research on World War II bombardiers to prepare?

A bit. We had training for being a bombardier. But no, I just used the book. It’s a plethora of tone, backstory and knowledge. Then I just did the scripts as they were, because again, it’s truly an adaptation. But there’s things that I relate to in the character Yossarian, and I try to match that when I can.

There’s a certain existentialist through line to Yossarian that I can kind of relate to… [how he’s] always questioning life. Essentially his life is completely moment to moment and [there’s] a certain lust for life, so it’s a certain marriage of playing a character and then using me — my life, my body, my voice, my face — and just trying to find some kind of marriage between that.

(Credit: Philipe Antonello / Hulu)

Did you get to experience flying in B-25 bombers for real?

No, I think insurance-wise that… They were not going to allow us. I would have loved to, but no one allowed us to.

Would you say filming on location helped your performance?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, the book takes place on [the island of] Pianosa. So just the world — the colors and the constant heat — all of that kind of made it feel like how the book is. There’s a certain kind of oppression. I mean, it’s a gorgeous place, but in the dead of summer in Italy, in Sardinia and in Rome, it’s hot. So, that kind of adds to the pressure cooker scenario that’s happening in the story.

What will you remember the most from this experience?

Well, in retrospect it all feels like one long day, because it was like a hazy, crazy summer and there was a lot of work. But me and all the young guys that are in the show, we all stayed at the same hotel in Sardinia. Just being able to shoot all day, then go jump in the ocean after and then all go have dinner together — the social aspect of it was gorgeous and I loved it. And that’s the fun of doing this job. You work hard and you get to work on something good, and then you get to enjoy your time while doing it, and we definitely did that.

Catch-22, Streaming now, Hulu