It's unsettling to see Chris Noth playing a sleazy guy. Let's just get that out there. But the Golden Globe nominee's performance in Elizabeth Wood's White Girl, out now in limited release, is so good and so surprising that it's worth the mixed emotions you're left with after the film ends. Noth plays George Fratelli, a lawyer who, for a price, is willing to help main character Leah (Morgan Saylor), an over-her-head college student, defend her boyfriend so he avoids prison time. The 61-year-old actor came to InStyle's office last week to talk about the role, living as an actor in New York and why he claims to hate "99.9 percent" of his past TV work.
Your character kind of stares at the main character Leah in a somewhat perplexed fashion when she first comes into your office ...
Well, that's how I chose to play it. Sandy Meisner, my great acting teacher, used to talk to us in class about the magic use of "as if" so if I'm doing a straight-ahead scene, in my head I may be thinking, "I'm talking to this woman as if she's absolutely insane." But that character in the movie is just yet another person who's using someone for their own purposes, and yet he's supposed to be helping her. And he does help her in the end, but it's after he gets what he wants. But you don't necessarily think that's going to happen when you first meet him and the event that happens kind of tips her to then reevaluate what she's doing with herself.
There's a lot of the idea of "people using other people" in the film.
Everyone in the movie wants different things, whether it's experience or sex or drugs. That's one part of the fabric of it. Even the young girls in the movie, they want to have an experience in the city. And to get that, you're going to have to pay the price. But when you're young, you don't always think you have to pay the price. And there's an unconscious courage where you don't always look at the danger in certain situations. So when Leah goes across the street in the beginning of the movie to score grass, she doesn't even think about it. It's an unconscious thing. I can relate to it because I think there's something about New York City that gives you that.
If you've never been to the city and you want to get out of a certain school or family or small town—there's something about the city that just hits you in the face and you can get lost in it. It's very freeing. I think there are a lot of different things going on in the movie and it's elicited a lot of conversation, which I like. It's a very visceral film. It's hard to talk about. You really have to see it.
How did you feel when you saw the film?
I was happy with it. I have to say, I think the choices in the editing and the cinematography were great. I'm usually 99.9 percent unhappy with my TV work, except in Sex & the City. I can barely watch it.
Yeah! And except for the early Law & Orders too. We were using film, as was Sex & the City. But to be honest, it's really hard for me to watch The Good Wife. I'm not crazy about my work in it. I'm not criticizing the show because I think it's a really, really good show. I just have a hard time looking at myself in it without going blauugh.
I always felt like with TV they would leave things out, so some of the nuance and character work was cut out because they only have 42 minutes. So I really was very happy with White Girl and how it was put together and the scene, the painful scene, was actually shot beautifully. Painful because it was so ugly—because it was a rape. There was a lot of discussion in the media that "well, this would never happen with women, the sexuality of the film, maybe with men." I don't know where they're getting that opinion from.
Do you think it's harder to be a young person in New York now, compared to 20 to 30 years ago?
I was just talking to Bradley Whitford about that because we were just on Live with Kelly! He graduated from Juilliard and I graduated from Yale School of Drama at the same time. And I said "remember back in the '80s, there wasn't a hell of a lot going on in New York, film and TV-wise?" Because when I got Law & Order I felt like the luckiest actor. Now, some people feel like there are more New York TV and film acting opportunities than L.A. New York is a mecca!
So on the one hand, it feels like to me ... we used to compete for bartending jobs. It was dog eat dog. I think now it's just as tough but for different reasons. Back then we could still live in Manhattan. I had a studio apartment on Downing Street for $400 a month. You could find deals. You could find a way to live in Manhattan and survive without making huge amounts of money. An artist could make it. Now, let's face it. Manhattan has calcified to the one percent.
So you've talked about some of your other well-known characters, Mike Logan from Law & Order, Mr. Big from Sex & the City, and Peter Florrick from The Good Wife. If you imagine them right now, today, what do you think they're doing?
It's fun to think about that. Well, we did do a Law & Order movie called Exiled in 1998. In the fifth season, my character hit a council guy and I got shipped off to Staten Island and that's how I left the show. But Exiled was Logan fighting his way back to Manhattan, so there was that. Peter Florrick, I'd suppose ends up just as he began: "I'm innocent!" [laughs]. And, well, Mr. Big, he's living the good life, I suppose, the one percent. Hopefully, he's not voting for Trump.