Chris Eigeman ’87 is an accomplished actor, director and screenwriter known for starring in Whit Stillman films, such as “Metropolitan” (1990) and “The Last Days of Disco” (1998), as well as Noah Baumbach films, such as “Kicking and Screaming” (1995) and “Highball” (1997). He has also acted in television as Jason Stiles in Gilmore Girls and as Lionel Herkabe in Malcolm in the Middle. He directed and wrote “Turn the River” in 2007. Eigeman ’87 visited his alma mater last Friday to present his new horror-sci-fi film, “Seven in Heaven,” which is available to watch on Netflix.
Fresh out of Kenyon, you landed a role in 1990 as Nick Smith in Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan.” How did you land such a great first role, and how did you first meet Stillman?
That was just happenstance; I auditioned for him. This idea that me and Whit Stillman were friends, or buddies, or that we knew each other from before is not really true at all. I got the role of Nick Smith simply through auditioning. I had been in plays and other small things before, but this was the first movie role that I was in. And I just happened to be lucky that “Metropolitan” would go on to become such a huge hit … I didn’t think anybody would ever see it! It was just luck that we got it to go to Cannes [Film Festival]. In fact, I was happy that this would be my first role because I didn’t think anybody would see it.
Another of your frequent collaborators is Noah Baumbauch. You collaborated on “Kicking and Screaming,” followed by “Mr. Jealousy” and “Highball.” How did you maintain relationships with such talented directors throughout your career? How did you land such unique roles after Kenyon?
I got lucky. I think both Whit Stillman and Noah Baumbach were kind of outwardly rejecting this sort of mercenary-actor idea, where actors parachute into one movie and then that’s it. They were both interested in working with the same people over and over again, which is a method I also prefer. But it was also a very different time in the film industry, especially in the independent film industry. It was the ’90s, and it was a little bit easier to get movies made. I mean, who would think that a movie about a bunch of overly well-dressed, young, privileged intellectual kids who talk about the perceived demise of society would ever capture the attention of a film executive today? What I mean is that it was a really unique time, where art and commerce were transacting in interesting ways. It was easier to get humbler films made that had smaller budgets.
You went from acting in independent films about intellectual socialites in the 1990s to directing a horror/sci-fi film released by Netflix, “Seven in Heaven.” Why this switch? What compelled you to start directing instead of acting, and why a horror film?
Well, it was a long process. I directed my first film, “Turn The River,” 10 years ago, and it did nicely. So that went well, and I was cemented as an actor-turned-director. Then I tried to set up my second film, which was bigger, and it was a period piece and it had movie stars in it, and it took a long time to get it up the hill. But then it ultimately collapsed four weeks before principal photography. After that project I had to re-trench. And I tend to go to horror films all the time, and then I started having ideas for this film, so I guess that’s how it came about. Horror films are great because you can talk about all sorts of [serious] things within the fenced-in area of genre.
You graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English and Drama. How has your Kenyon education influenced your work as an actor and director?
Coming out of Kenyon, particularly the English and drama departments, it made me an absolute Jesuit about structure. Those are two programs that really focus really deeply on how structure has evolved, particularly in drama from the beginning and what you must have in drama to qualify as drama. Kenyon made me question what some of the most important building blocks in drama are. That helped me a lot when it came to writing. It also starts to define your tastes, what you like and what you don’t like. You get out of college, and you’re basically already a sponge by that point, but Kenyon made me realize what, structurally, I respond really well to. So it helps a lot with writing, it helps a lot with directing. There are also Kenyon traditions that really stick with you. I took baby drama my freshman year, and the green book [Aristotle’s poetics, now referred to as the white book] that we get is still sitting in my office. I still go back to that book. It is 200 pages of received wisdom about playwriting and the theatre.
What piece of advice would you give to current Kenyon students who want to have careers in film, whether it be acting or directing? How can they get started?
If you really love making stuff, then find a way to make stuff so that you can keep making it your career. Anyone who leaves Kenyon to become an actor is dropping into the largest pool possible, and that has an advantage, because it will only get easier as the other flies start dropping. I mean, I parked cars for three years before auditioning for “Metropolitan.” I was part of a valet parking mafia, and I lived off of one-dollar bills for two or three years. There is no piece of magic advice I can really give you other than to keep on fighting and working the hardest you can – and I think that’s something Kenyon really instills in us.
This article has been edited for length and clarity.