Christopher Abbott on Why Sanctuary Is Not What You Think It Is

The Girls actor plays a submissive opposite Margaret Qualley in the erotic thriller.

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Christopher Abbott
Treatment by Ashley Peña, images courtesy of Getty

“There’s a weird confidence in being willing to play the submissive,” Christopher Abbott says while sitting across from me inside Soho Grand Hotel, his arms and legs both outstretched as he casually leans back into a couch. The actor is describing Hal, his character in Zachary Wigon’s new film, Sanctuary, who regularly hires an escort, Rebecca (played by a sparkling Margaret Qualley), to dominate him. But he could just as easily be talking about himself. After all, whether it’s the lovelorn Charlie, who Marnie once accused of not being manly enough in HBO’s seminal Girls, or the depressed Kevin, who agrees to a suicide pact with his best friend in On the Count of Three, Abbott has never shied away from playing the soft, sensitive guy.

Hal adds a new wrinkle to the formula. A wealthy hotel chain heir, he has the ability to project dominance through his pecuniary power. And yet, if Rebecca is to be believed, Hal would be nothing if he didn’t have her to put him in his place—which is why she’s demanding a slice of his hotel fortune. An erotic thriller-cum-undercover love story that takes place nearly entirely in a hotel room, Sanctuary is a nimble two-hander about power and control where no one has the upper-hand for too long. Abbott brilliantly encapsulates Hal’s inscrutability, sliding from compliant to sinister using the subtlest shifts of tone and temperament. But when all is said and done, he wants Sanctuary to go down easily. “[It’s] meant to be a popcorn movie,” he stresses. “A fun, rom-com, popcorn movie!”

What was it particularly about Sanctuary that worked?

I liked [director] Zach Wigon’s first movie, Heart Machine, so I trusted him. Margaret and I had been friends for years and had been looking for something to do together. There were a few projects we almost did, but this felt like the right one. And for obvious egotistical reasons, it’s just two people in the movie—so great, perfect, it’s just us! [laughs] We wanted to be open and be free to experiment.

Every aspect of this film is great, but I think Sanctuary really does start on the page. Micah Bloomberg’s screenplay!

It’s very much like a play. It moves like that. I do plays pretty often, but at that time, I hadn’t done a play or a movie in a little while. So it really felt like the perfect opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.

Aggression doesn’t seem to come naturally to Hal—he seems rather soft. And yet, because of his financial capital, he’s still able to project this feigned sense of power.

Both characters are sort of “playing parts” themselves. What makes [Hal] tick is this submissive thing, right? On the surface, he wants to be dominated or told what to do. But it’s interesting the way the power dynamics shift around between the characters. He writes for her to do that [stuff] to him. It’s odd. It’s nuanced and layered the way that works. Ultimately, it’s a love story. I think it’s a rom-com. But I feel like, as the audience, you’re not really sure what the characters’ intentions are, and I think, neither are they as things unfold and unravel.

As an actor, how did you find that balance between dominance and submission?

I think he is confident in playing the submissive. That’s where he is actually comfortable. He’s not confident, at least at first, when he feels that [Rebecca] is starting to break their arrangement. That’s where he starts to lose himself. But there’s a weird confidence in being willing to play the submissive.

Several years ago, you starred in a film called Piercing, which is coincidentally also about a quasi-BDSM dynamic, where you similarly find yourself losing the upper-hand, in a sense. What keeps pulling you towards these stories?

I have no idea. I didn’t even really notice [the similarities] at first. I noticed while we were shooting. There’s a scene in Sanctuary where I’m pulling Margaret away from the elevator back to the room, and when I was doing that, I was like, I feel like I’ve done this before.

Déjà vu?

Exactly. But I really don’t think about it. It’s so easy for me to move on when I’m done with a job, so I genuinely forgot. There’s a similar setup, but they’re very different films.

Well, Piercing ends up being about mommy issues. Sanctuary is about daddy issues.

That’s very right. I think I’m done with this genre now. [laughs] I’ve done it all. That’s enough!

You joked about being drawn to Sanctuary for egotistical reasons because it was a two-hander. Piercing isn’t exactly that, but it’s largely just you and Mia Wasikowska. Same could be said of On the Count of Three, which is very centered on you and Jerrod Carmichael. How do these more one-on-one stories compare to larger ensembles?

I guess, simply, it’s more focused. On the Count of Three, for example, is about these two best friends, and Jerrod is one of my dear friends. It’s just easier. I can focus on this one dynamic between two people. I can focus on this one character, whether it’s a best friend, a lover, a dom, or whatever. It makes a [character] arc easier to shape. When you’re dealing with an ensemble, and you have different relationships with different characters, you have to work a little harder to track it. That’s really the only difference.

Thinking about the ending, what do you think the film is trying to say about the ability to find common ground beyond class distinctions?

Well, it’s just that. We treated it as a love story from the get-go, and whatever class distinction they inherently have is secondary compared to whatever love that they have for each other. I think that superseded [everything else].

What about the distribution of power between sexes?

I don’t really think it’s saying anything about it. I’m not by any means dodging that [question]. I just think that it’s really about these two people who are essentially both weirdos, and they’re in love with each other and they don’t even know it. I think this movie’s meant to be a popcorn movie—a fun, rom-com, popcorn movie. In a good way!

What was the most fun part of the filming for you?

There was a really nice routine. We basically shot in sequence. We did six-day weeks, so it was a marathon, but there was something nice about just going in, starting the story, and the next day, picking back up where we left off. It’s like we got to live through the movie via the schedule of shooting it. I don’t always look forward to work, but I genuinely did. It felt easy.

Later this year, you have The Crowded Room on Apple TV+, Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things, and Marvel’s Kraven the Hunter—not to mention other projects that have been announced for the future. You said you don’t always look forward to work, but do you ever actually stop?

100%. I love not working. I love working, but I really love not working. [laughs] It’s sort of the nature of movies. Some of these movies I shot a long time ago. It just depends when they come out. Sometimes, when things come out all at once, it feels like I’ve done a shitload. But, you know, Yorgos’ movie, I shot not last year but in the fall of the year before that. I stagger my work when I work, but sometimes, it’s the nature of the beast that they come out all at the same time.

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