Max Minghella is sitting in his backyard in the L.A. sunshine, his T-shirt an homage to the French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Love, his adopted shepherd mix, Rhye, excited by the approach of a package courier.
“You OK, sweetheart?” he asks — the dog, not me — tenderly.
Minghella, who at 35 has dozens of screen credits to his name, is best known as The Handmaid’s Tale’s cunning chauffeur Nick Blaine, a character who it’s difficult to imagine saying sweetheart. In airless Gilead, of course, a cautious hand graze with Elisabeth Moss’ June can pass for a big romantic gesture. In a Season 1 episode featuring child separation and hospital infant abduction, Nick’s major contribution is to trade stolen glances with a sex slave while “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” pumps discordantly along. I ask Minghella about playing the series’ closest approximation to a dreamy male lead against the show’s dark narrative of female subjugation.
“I know this is not the answer you want to hear,” Minghella says with none of Nick’s hesitation. “But I like that stuff, right? In the pilot, I think Nick only had a handful of lines. It wasn't clear that this is what the character would turn into. And it's quite fortunate for me personally, because I'm not a massively sort of intellectual person in my real life. I love Fifty Shades of Grey. That's like my Star Wars. It suits me to play a character like him.”
Minghella surmises that this enduring romanticism is an outcome of nurture. His father, the late British director Anthony Minghella, made grand romantic dramas like Cold Mountain and The English Patient. And there was the young, cinema-mad Max sitting on the living room sofa, absorbing everything. “It’s taken me a long time to understand this,” he says of his prolonged childhood exposure to love stories. “My dad made The English Patient when I was 10. So it was two years of watching the dailies to that movie and then watching 50 cuts of it. And then [The Talented Mr.] Ripley he made when I was 13, and it was the same thing.” These were an adolescent Max Minghella’s alternative to reruns. “I think they did shape my perspective on the world in a lot of ways, specifically The English Patient. That was a complicated love story, and I wonder sometimes how much it's affected my psychology.”
Some sons rebel; others resemble. Minghella’s co-star O-T Fagbenle, who plays June’s other lover from before the time of Gilead, got his first job acting in Anthony Minghella’s romantic crime film Breaking and Entering. “Anthony is one the kindest, most beautiful men that I've ever had the privilege of working with before,” Fagbenle says. “And Max has his gorgeous, sensitive, open-minded soul.”
Though Minghella spent his childhood on the set of The Talented Mr. Ripley, playing an uncredited Confederate soldier role in Cold Mountain, and tooling around with a Super-8 camera Matt Damon gave him, he insists his upbringing was normal. He grew up in South Hill Park overlooking Hampstead Heath in London with his father and mother, the choreographer Carolyn Choa. (Minghella also has a half-sister, Hannah Minghella, who is now a film executive.) Yes, technically, it was London, but that’s not how it seemed. “I feel like I grew up in a very small town. Every school I went to was in Hampstead. I was born in Hampstead,” Minghella says of the small map dot of his life before university. “When I went to New York, I felt I was going to the big city.”
Despite his illustrious surname, movie-watching was far from restricted to the classics. “Beverly Hills Cop is definitely the movie I remember having an unhealthy obsession with. I think I saw it when I was 5 for the first time, and I'd watch it just two or three times a day for years. I'm just obsessed with it.”
Plenty of actors can trace their love of movies back to a love of stories, but for Minghella the relationship seems to flow in reverse. When he left for Columbia University, Minghella opted to study history for its connection, through storytelling, to film. It was during the summers between his years of college that he started taking acting more seriously. Before his graduation, he’d already appeared in Syriana, starring Damon and George Clooney. Soon, he’d make a splash as Divya Narendra in The Social Network in 2010 and be cast in Clooney’s Ides of March. As all young actors eventually must, Minghella moved to Los Angeles.
It’s been over a decade since he last lived on the Heath, but, perhaps unusually for a person who’s chosen his profession, Minghella is adamantly not a “shapeshifter,” in his words. Home for Christmas this year, he started sifting through old journals stored at his mother’s house, “just like scraps of writing from when I was extremely young up through my teenage years,” before coming to America. “It was hilarious to me,” Minghella says of staring at his childhood reflection. “My review of a movie at 7 years old is pretty much what my review of a movie at 35 will be. My taste hasn't changed much. And when I sort of love something, I do tend to continue to love it.”
Which brings us back to his enduring love of romance, born of his bloodline, which is all over Minghella’s own 2018 directorial debut. Teen Spirit is a hazily lit film about a teenage girl from the Isle of Wight — the remote British island where Max’s father, Anthony, was born — who enters a local X-Factor-style singing competition. (It stars Minghella’s rumored girlfriend of several years, Elle Fanning.) The story is small, but its crescendos are epic.
Minghella calls the movie — an ode to the power of the pop anthem — “embarrassingly Max.” Max loves a good music-driven movie trailer — he’s watched the one for Top Gun: Maverick “many” times. And Max loves the rhythmic beats of sports movies like Friday Night Lights. Max loves movies with excesses of female energy, like Spring Breakers. He likens Teen Spirit to an experiment, his answer to the question “Can I take all these things that I love and find a structure that can hold them?” The result is a touching “hodgepodge” of Minghella’s fascinations, inspired by the songs from another thing he loves: Robyn’s 2010 album Body Talk (itself a dance-pop meditation on love).
Minghella hasn’t directed any films since, but he sees now how making movies fits his personality — organized, impatient — more organically than starring in them does. Directing also helped him to appreciate that acting is “much harder than I was giving it credit for,” which, in turn, has made him like it more. Besides The Handmaid’s Tale currently airing on Hulu, Minghella appears in Spiral, the ninth installment in the Saw horror franchise and, from where I’m sitting, at least, a departure.
“I do like horror movies, but the thing that was really kind of magical is that I was feeling so nostalgic, right? We talked about Beverly Hills Cop earlier. I was just missing a certain kind of movie,” Minghella explains of his new role as Chris Rock’s detective partner. He was yearning for simple story-telling, like in the buddy-cop movies of his youth, especially 48 Hours. It almost goes without saying that a buddy-cop movie is another kind of love story. “And then I read the script and it was very much in that vein.” He clarifies: “I mean, it's also extremely Saw. It's very much a horror movie.”
His renewed excitement for acting translated onto The Handmaid’s Tale set, too. Veteran Hollywood producer Warren Littlefield describes casting Minghella in the role of Nick as an effortless choice: “Sometimes you agonize over things. [Casting Minghella] was instantly clear to me, and everyone agreed.” Now in its fourth season, the tone of the Hulu hit is graver than ever. Gilead is more desperate to maintain its rule, and so more audacious in its violence. Perhaps it’s fitting that the show’s romantic gestures finally match that scale.
In one particularly soaring moment, Elisabeth Moss’ June and Minghella’s Nick meet at the center of a bridge and crush into a long kiss. It’s been two seasons since they held their newborn daughter together, and it’s hard to see how this isn’t their last goodbye. Littlefield, like Minghella, is here for the romance among the rubble. “It's spectacular when they come together. In the middle of all of the trauma is this epic love story,” he says. “Max is just magnificent in the role.”
For Minghella, the satisfaction is more personal. He works with good people, he likes his scenes, and he thinks Nick is a complex character. Minghella read The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time in college in 2005. Like all the things Minghella has ever liked, he still likes it. He’s as proud of this most recent season as he is the show’s first. And he watched Nick and June race recklessly back to each other across the expanse of the screen exactly how you might expect. “I watched it like a fan girl.”