Max Minghella shuffles by in stockinged feet and expensive loungewear, taking in the scene. The photographer sits frozen, his thick gold chain no longer around his neck, as it’s now coiled and balanced atop his head. Standing over him, the make-up artist quietly moves her arms in patterns, inches from his husky chest. As a student in the ancient art of Korean meditation, right now she is focused on using the gold in this necklace to facilitate his energy’s flow.
Minghella watches for a moment, head cocked at the scene. Then he sticks his tongue out at the photographer, knowing the man can’t respond mid-blessing. This is quintessential Max: playful, unfazed and gliding through the world, pausing long enough to appreciate others, but thankful to just be a spectator.
The 33-year old British actor is most often recognised for his role as Nick Blaine, the driver and laconic love interest of June (Elisabeth Moss) in The Handmaid’s Tale. The critically acclaimed Hulu show won eight Emmys—it was the first streaming show to win an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series—and has seen its audience double over the past year.
But long before he was playing both sides in Gilead’s resistance movement, he played a wronged student in The Social Network; a scandalised political press officer in The Ides of March, and the brother of Danny Castellano in The Mindy Project, just to name a few. And for his next feature, audiences won’t see him at all; he’s moved behind the camera.
Working with La La Land’s producer, Fred Berger, and his friend/ producing-partner, Jamie Bell, Minghella is ready to bring his own vision to life as writer and director of Teen Spirit. It’s the Cinderella story of a young girl, from the small Isle of Wight, trying to change her family’s circumstance by competing in an American Idol-style singing competition.
We’re in an unmarked Los Angeles studio, tucked between an El Pollo Loco and a questionable massage parlour. But inside, everything is stark and bright—a room full of angled white walls and controlled light. Almost everyone on set wears some version of the artist uniform: black hoodies, black T-shirts, black jeans. The chatter concerns how easy the shoot is, how lovely the space, how amazing the photos.
That is, until Minghella emerges sporting a bright red sweater covered in knitted dreadlocks. It’s a USD1,200 top that makes the young man look like a Puli dog. His trusted publicist, Kate, who has been in his corner for the last decade, speaks up. “I don’t love it.” Adjusting the pose to something more intimidating doesn’t fix the problem.
“Nope, we’re changing it.” The sweater is too loud, too distracting. It’s the kind of look that could quirk up the image of a more generic pretty person. But, Minghella doesn’t need gimmicks to look captivating. His face does all the work.
And work he does. For four hours, he cycles through poses, following directions from both the photographer and videographer, and occasionally dancing along to the pop music playing. Draped sideways across a chair, holding a pose, Minghella suddenly launches into a technical conversation with the videographer about camera equipment. This is my first glimpse of Max the director instead of Max the heartthrob. This is the real Max Minghella.
After the shoot, we meet up at a coffee shop in Silverlake, a neighbourhood on the east side of LA popular among many of the working writers, artists and actors who constitute Hollywood. It’s a refuge for those who want to settle into a neighbourhood but refuse to give up and move to the Valley. Minghella has already had three, maybe four, espresso shots today, but the barista is able to sell him one more. I really want the cream- filled doughnut holes; I wait to see how much food Max orders.
Gone are the layers of fashion from the photo shoot. The real Max Minghella wears a plaid shirt, white tee, jeans and dirty Pumas. He’s one baseball cap away from what he calls “the Max uniform”. And all he eats is a slim plate of scrambled eggs. I don’t order the doughnut holes.
Max Minghella should’ve been a doctor. He comes from two immigrant families—one Italian, one Chinese—and a lineage packed with doctors. But both of his parents broke the cycle by following creative endeavours. More specifically, his father is the late Anthony Minghella, a writer and director known for Cold Mountain, The Talented Mr Ripley, and winner of 11 Academy Awards including Best Director for The English Patient. Minghella’s mother, Carolyn Choa, a powerhouse of success in her own right, has choreographed for the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, and the English National Opera.
They raised him in a loving home in England, where they put emphasis on academia and broadening his interests. They failed on both counts. And it’s his mother’s fault. Long before his father was collecting Oscars, it was Minghella’s mother who was involved in film. She worked for the British version of the Motion Picture Association of America by day and then would come home and recount the film’s plots as bedtime stories to him. Minghella was hooked, although these days it’s he who shares stories with his mother in the form of showing her his scripts.
“My mother’s a fascinating, wildly intelligent person who—I don’t know how to say this—she’s very Chinese,” he says. “She’s of a different culture and really carries that with her. So film has been the one thing we both connect over and love… She introduced me to all of the significant filmmakers.”
He also inherited one other passion from her. “I’m a fantastic dancer. I get it all from my mother. But everybody close to me would tell me I’m a terrible dancer. I should never boogie again.” (Having seen him shimmy between takes, I would side with him on this one. Though Minghella did do ‘the robot’ for a moment? Maybe that’s what those close to him are noting.)
The most important lesson we often learn from our parents, good or bad, is our model for romantic relationships. (Yes. He’s in a relationship. Yes. His mother has met her. No. Don’t believe the Internet about who it is. Many of the women he’s said to have dated, he’s never even met.) But, he doesn’t see a correlation between his romantic exploits and his parents’.
“I read a star sign the other day that described me so accurately I wonder if this is all just connected to what month you’re born. Something as arbitrary as that.” A serial monogamist, it’s always been this way. He says he never dated anyone he thought that he couldn’t eventually marry, even when he was 14. But don’t think that Minghella had it all figured out by his teen years.
“I was already a pretty douchey kid in school,” he admits. “And getting [acting jobs] on top of it was too much.” He now had Hollywood’s attention. One problem. “The first couple of things I did, I’d never acted before. Ever. So the first time I was seeing myself perform was in these wide release movies that I wasn’t doing a very good job in.”
And to help him off his high horse was Josh, his best friend from high school, who chauffeured him around. Minghella confesses: “I was on the phone, rolling calls the entire drive, and I never spoke to him, or acknowledged him or said, ‘thank you for picking me up’, and we got out of the car and he just lost it on me. I was 17 and that really was a wake-up call.
“I was all the worst things a person can be.”
Now Minghella is embedded in Hollywood, which is an entire industry built around sitting at the cool kids’ table. But he’s not worried about going back to bad habits.
“Acting is the best job for shredding people’s egos,” he says, “and I mean that for everybody. It’s just like somebody smashing your ego into a trash can and I think it’s good. It gives you massively thick skin. I would say by the time I was 20, I felt like I could probably hear somebody say anything to me and it wouldn’t affect me.”
All Minghella is hearing nowadays is praise for his portrayal of Nick Blaine, Commander Waterford’s personal driver on The Handmaid’s Tale. The role is not a total stretch. (Yes, Minghella can drive a stick. And he loves driving fast, having just upgraded to a Mercedes at a friend’s insistence.)
But, from there Minghella and Nick differ. “He’s not as verbose as me, I ramble a lot… Also, I’m not as moody as Nick all the time because Nick’s obviously living in a very duplicitous world and extremely dark nihilistic environment. I’m living in Silver Lake.” And even in the world of Gilead, Minghella isn’t weighed down by the show’s settings and themes.
“Nick represents an escape, not only for June’s character, but also for the audience—a little bit of a break from not only the heaviest stuff, but also intellectualism. What I love about playing this part is the romanticism of it. That’s the stuff I like to go and see. Lizzie and I joke because we both love Fifty Shades [of Grey] and Twilight, and I always feel like that’s the movie I’m in, while everyone else is in a more serious, grown-up movie. But, I’m pretty happy to be in the Fifty Shades movie.”
From the very first conversation Minghella had with the creator, Bruce Miller, the focus has always been on storytelling, on creating good TV that makes you desperate to tune in next week. Minghella isn’t precious with his own character. “My director brain kicks in and I’m much more interested in what’s best for the overall story than protecting his emotionality. He’s expendable.”
Many fans would disagree. The show has a loyal following, many of whom see it as a stark, terrifying warning about the direction America is heading. Others watch it purely as sci-fi escapism and don’t make a correlation to current politics—this in spite of dialogue about ‘building a wall’, ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘believe women’. I ask him what would have to happen in American life to make the parallels undeniable?
“Red hoods.” Short of that quip, Minghella avoids the political conversations that surround the show.
“I think The Handmaid’s Tale unfairly gets pulled into this and becomes almost like a flagship for liberalism. I don’t think that’s accurate about what it set out to be. I’m proud of the fact that it’s on the right side of the conversation. But I am allergic to activism in filmmaking. I think right now we’re in a place where, and this isn’t about Handmaid’s Tale, but with other work, where it’s almost being embraced or celebrated. Didactic filmmaking, I was raised to believe, was the opposite of good storytelling.”
Had Minghella known that The Handmaid’s Tale would run for three-plus years, leaving him to inhabit the same character for numerous seasons, he never would’ve signed on. He may be monogamous in his relationships, but that kind of commitment to one role would’ve given him a panic attack. Now, his attitude has shifted. He loves his role and will continue as Nick for as long as they’ll have him.
That attitude shift comes from a happy work environment, where everyone gets along and there are ‘no bad eggs’. In his cynical, younger years, Minghella bristled at his father’s insistence that process matters more than product. But, this experience has swayed him. “I just realised that if something succeeds, or doesn’t succeed, none of it seems to tip my emotional scale. The thing that tips my emotional scale is: did I like going to work in the morning?"
When his father passed away in 2008, Minghella had not yet added writer / director to his professional blurb. But, did Anthony Minghella have a sense that his son would follow so closely in his footsteps? “I really would be interested to ask him that now. He knew that I was shooting stuff because he would like to look at my little things. I’d be editing a final cut and he would peek over my shoulder. But I think he really did see me as an actor.”
Minghella takes comfort in the fact that at the time of his father’s passing, he was cast in Agora, directed by Alejandro Amenábar, “who was probably one of my father’s three or four favourite filmmakers”. The first publicity stills from the movie were released the morning Anthony Minghella died. “I knew on a very shallow, silly level that was exciting to him and meant something… it felt like a really lovely gift.”
Minghella also became a de facto shepherd of his father’s legacy. When Anthony Minghella passed, he left behind a huge library of film projects, in collaboration with Sydney Pollack. With the death of both men, Minghella stepped in and began guiding these unfinished projects towards completion. This included The 9th Life of Louis Drax, a film the elder Minghella was planning to write and direct. Minghella wrote his own version.
“That was really just about wanting to see something I knew was so close to my father come to fruition and not let it disappear. And I felt like if we committed to it, put energy behind it, it would survive… I made a very different movie to the film that my father would have made. I know roughly what direction that he had in mind, and I didn’t do that. I made a film that was very much my film, but also was very much a tribute to him and a tribute to our relationship. It’s about a young boy coping with his father’s passing. That’s what I changed the whole narrative to be. That was a very therapeutic experience.”
Though he has one more film, How To Disappear Completely, that he still feels a responsibility to, he is also happy to “be moving on from that chapter now, starting to make my own things”.
Not that he has a choice.
“If Teen Spirit is catastrophic and they take away my director’s licence, I would still just be shooting things on my iPhone and trying to put them out in the world. It’s an addiction.”
The move behind the camera meant that Minghella now gives the orders, the boss of an entire crew. Was he excluded from the fun outings where cast often bond? “I think I’m excluded from fun outings as an actor as well as a director. I’m not very fun nor into outings.”
What he’s ‘into’ is being behind the camera. “As opposed to today, taking pictures and stuff, I feel awkward. It’s not me. It’s not like what I would choose to be doing or where I feel most useful. I don’t think I’m the best model in the world. Surely there’s somebody else who is prettier to take pictures of. Whereas, I feel with directing, I sort of understand this.” He jokingly adds: “At least I know what all the words mean.”
And unlike acting, where he admits that he went straight to features without the experience, “I would say the opposite about directing. I’ve actually secretly been practising for 16 years. I’ve done more of that than anything. Particularly editing. I’ve probably shot over 100 videos. It’s been my own sort of film school, I guess. Empirically, I’ve probably directed 10 times more than I’ve acted. I’ve just kept it under my hat.”
But, now Max Minghella is finally showing the world what he’s been secretly working on. Teen Spirit hits Singapore cinemas this month, and leave your moody, brooding expectations at the ticket counter because this is a pop-song celebrating, teen-centric romp through music-video aesthetics.
Which makes sense because Max obsesses over K-pop (specifically BTS), he loves chick-lit (Goodreads suggestion: The Wife Between Us), and though he has a history degree from Columbia, his favourite time period is based on aesthetics (late ’50s—“the fashion, the colours; I’m very fetishistic”).
And his tastes remain unchanging. “I’m some dichotomy of a little boy and an old person. I’ve always been that way. I don’t mind having this childlike quality because I don’t feel like I get left behind. I like that whatever the 16-year-olds in the room are watching, I’m also excited about.”
The soundtrack to Teen Spirit highlights this dichotomy. The song choices span decades. And the music is practically a character in this film, alongside Elle Fanning’s Violet. Minghella explains why he put so much emphasis on the soundtrack.
“Making my first movie, I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford a CGI dinosaur or a giant Transformer. I knew that music’s expensive, but it’s probably the cheapest of the big special effects. I get the same rush from a pop song playing in the right moment as I do from a giant dinosaur smashing through Times Square.
Teen Spirit was totally an experiment of: what if we just double down on that idea? One of my dear friends, [actor] Oscar Isaac, always laughs whenever I put mixtapes on and it’s just the hits. There are no filler tracks. The movie is a little bit like that, too. It’s just the hits.”
Minghella wants you to dance in your seat, but he won’t be sneaking into any theatres to see heads bopping to the music. “I don’t know what the win would be. Even if [the audience] has the best time, I don’t think I’d feel better about the movie.” He wrote the first draft of Teen Spirit in 2009, giving him time to obsess over every detail, a luxury he doesn’t anticipate having on future projects.
Those years have solidified his confidence that “it’s the film I set out to make, for better or worse. I’ve been through not feeling that way and, in those circumstances applause means nothing. If it’s not what you wanted, and people like it, it’s almost worse.”
But what would his father think? “I don’t know if he’d like every movie I make. But this movie I do think he’d like a lot because it’s focused on music and my dad loves pop music as I love pop music. Also, the immigrant element of it is so inherited from him, I think he would connect to that, too.”
And even though it’s the story of a teenage girl on the screen, it’s all Minghella. “I used to think actors were exposed. But then you meet horrible people that come across as wonderful people on screen or vice versa. I think actors are quite mercurial in a way that directors aren’t, but I do think as writer-directors particularly you are completely naked, and it’s all very narcissistic to the form of therapy. Even now I’m discovering things about myself, through the movie, years after it’s been filmed.” Do you go to therapy? “I don’t. I think this is it. I mean I’d like to go to therapy but I think this is sort of how I work on my stuff.”
It’s amazing that one of his defining characteristics is his equanimity, in spite of the fact that he has to balance creative perfectionism with a relentless work schedule. The last four years have been non-stop. The moment he finished shooting Teen Spirit, he “literally went straight to Toronto” to film the second season ofThe Handmaid’s Tale. Which meant that, contractually, he couldn’t touch his own film for another six months. And even after editing, the project wasn’t finished. He just shot a new end credit sequence and two weeks ago he finally—finally—locked Teen Spirit.
Max Minghella has mastered many things, but relaxing isn’t one of them. He’s working on it. He wants to relax. But, the traditional four days on a beach just doesn’t work for him. “I’m an obsessive person or I wouldn’t be able to do this job. It requires an endless perfectionism… I have a lot of friends who love movies, but they’ll be bored after 20 minutes of being in the sound mix. It requires an almost imbalanced level of infatuation.” His obsession isn’t just with the creative side of film. It’s also with the business of film.
When other children were watching cartoons, Minghella would watch the box office numbers. “In the ’80s or ’90s, you’d call on Sunday night and Variety would give you the numbers for the weekend. I’ve been doing it since I was four.” Minghella nods as he watches me process that anecdote. “Obsession.”
His four-year-old self would be pretty thrilled to know that the 33-year-old self has taken this interest to a whole new level. Minghella spends 99 percent of his online time tracking “screen averages and lots of very boring financials”. For years he’s been competing in a secret, and exclusive, fantasy movie league.
You know, like fantasy football but with film box office stats? (Biggest miss: A Quiet Place. Best future bet: Book Smart) In the past, it was all for bragging rights, but this year there’s a financial component. The stakes have been raised. “People take it so seriously, you would not believe it.” But, seeing how much talking about this topic brings him joy, I do believe it.
And yet, Minghella also worries about the future of film as he feels it all shrinking. He’s convinced that in his lifetime, the theatrical experience will become “archaic, almost like opera or poetry”. Yet, he’ll continue to make movies because it’s not that he needs a large audience as much as something that he has to get out of his system. To “feel the relief of it being completely outside of you. If it has a life beyond that, and other people watch it, great, but it’s sort of irrelevant to my own psychology. I just need this out of my body.”
As we near the end of our conversation, I ask: “What advice would you have for young men coming up behind you?”
“Don’t fall on my back.”
It’s these moments of wit and charm that make it so surprising to learn that he sees himself as charmless. I’ve spent the day watching him interact with countless people, some he has years of history with, others he’s only just met, but everyone gets his time, energy and hugs.
Yet, to hear him tell it: “I would like to be better with people and more personable. I mean, I think a big reason I work with Jamie [Bell] is to balance that out. Jaime’s a very likable, charismatic person. It’s a helpful thing when we’re together. And this is not me being self-deprecating, you can literally ask anybody I work with. My producer’s constantly on phones going, ‘Don’t have Max alone. We need Jamie because people don’t like Max when he’s on his own.’ He has an ease about himself that I don’t feel like I possess. Maybe that’s why I feel more comfortable directing because I don’t have to talk to people in the same way. It’s a quieter job.”
Fred Berger, his producer, responds with an empathic: “Not true! One of the attributes that makes Max such a gifted filmmaker is his humility. His collaborativeness coupled with his ambition, passion and work ethic make him a rare and brilliant filmmaker. Not to mention a great friend.” Then adds: “It also happens to be true that Jamie brings out the best in him.”
Days after our interview, I email Minghella with the one question about his fantasy movie league I’d been kicking myself for not asking: was he able to ‘buy’ Teen Spirit or did another player nab it from him? He wrote back, with a smiley face: “Unfortunately, ‘what happens in shadow league, stays in shadow league’.”
Words by Alisha Brophy
Photographs by Michael Schwartz
Styling by Sarah Schussheim
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