AUSTIN -- There are so many worthy films at South by Southwest that a feature like Burma -- a small, intense family drama about three siblings from upstate New York who are revisited by the father who abandoned them -- could easily get lost in the shuffle. But a special jury prize awarded to its acting ensemble has given Burma a crucial profile boost, and with it the promise of a life beyond the SXSW bubble.
Christopher Abbott, 27, best known as playing the cute-but-wimpy Charlie on HBO's Girls, headlines here as Christian, a frustrated novelist who numbs his grief over his mother's death and absent dad (Chris McCann) with a self-prescribed regimen of booze, cocaine and one-night stands.
His younger brother, Win (Dan Bittner, an original cast member of Broadway's Farragut North), is also a writer, but with a flourishing career -- a bitter pill for Christian to swallow. Finally, there's Susan, played with conviction by Gaby Hoffman -- back on Hollywood's radar since her standout work on the most recent season of FX's Louie -- as the eldest of the three, and the only one to start a family of her own.
Lounging on a sunny Austin hotel balcony, Abbott -- who, puffing on a cigarette in a black T-shirt with rolled-up sleeves and Wayfarers, easily recalls a young Marlon Brando -- says he and first-time feature director Carlos Puga were introduced by their mutual friend, Brady Corbet, another indie darling with whom Abbott had struck up a friendship on the set of Martha Marcy May Marlene.
"I’ve spent most of these last two years working with friends and people that I know very well," Abbott tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I definitely liked the script when I read it, and being able to have that open table collaboration with Carlos -- he’s very unpretentious and open to ideas -- I was ready to collaborate."
Particularly in the early scenes of Burma, Abbott is called upon to spend long stretches in front of the camera alone and in total silence --a task that would render most actors terrified. But Abbott is more than up to it, infusing Christian in those quiet takes with the complex inner-life of an artist weighed down by years of cumulative self-loathing and simmering resentment.
"I’m not a very Method-y actor at all, even if that is something," Abbott says when asked to break down his craft. "I kind of share this quality with Brady, in that we look at the whole piece. I like the idea of looking at this film, taking the scene, thinking of the edit ahead of time. But when I’m actually in the scenes acting, I know I’m doing a film, but I do try to put myself in that world as much as I can. You do get lost in that world."
Abbott was also drawn to how openly flawed Christian was. His favorite line comes when Christian admits to his father that if he could, he would press a button to take back his brother's writing award.
"It’s actually not that mean, it’s just honest," Abbott says. "You can’t deny that these are things that cross your mind. In different situations in my life, I have thought this negatively about things sometimes."
Luckily, for the cast of Burma, award-erasing buttons don't exist.