Chris Diamantopoulos: ‘I Am So Engaged in Playing, I Don’t Think to Be Afraid’

Whether playing Mickey Mouse or a dastardly villain in new Netflix blockbuster ‘Red Notice’, or simply having fun with his family, Chris Diamantopoulos is all in.

Words by Pete Samson
Photography by Austin Hargrave

Chris Diamantopoulos greets us into his home, a 1905 former hunting lodge he is lovingly restoring in Beachwood Canyon, Los Angeles, with a warm welcome his Greek ancestors would be proud of.

Along with his wife, the actress Becki Newton, and their three children, he moved back to LA from New York last year to find a safer place to shelter from the pandemic. And they now seem settled and snug within the sprawling yet homely property, in the heart of Hollywood yet tucked away from the hubbub, with the gated walls of their new sanctuary enclosing the family in a protective embrace.

Chris and Becki are one of those lovely, natural couples who immediately put you at ease in their company. They share affection that isn’t too sweet, and teasing that isn’t too sharp, and everyone feels at home. And they seem to have found their happily ever after place, which is a fitting home for Chris, who has been the voice for Mickey Mouse (perhaps the happiest role on earth!) for a decade.

Chris Diamantopoulos // 📸: Austin Hargrave // Chris wears his own shirt by Ralph Lauren

Yet despite being one of life’s good guys, Chris is also now one of Hollywood’s most in demand villains. His role as arrogant billionaire Russ Hanneman in HBO sitcom ‘Silicon Valley’ established him as one of the best comedic character actors on TV. And he will this month star in two of Netflix’s biggest releases of the year. In the blockbuster action caper ‘Red Notice’, the streaming giant’s most expensive movie to date with a budget of more than $200 million, he stars as a comically evil arms dealer alongside Ryan Reynolds, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Gal Gadot; while in gangster series ‘True Story’, he plays a darker villain, without the laughs this time, opposite Kevin Hart and Wesley Snipes.

It has been a consistent and deserved rise, after earning his stripes in musical theater on Broadway before heading to Hollywood two decades ago. And at 46, his professional and personal growth continues. He is just as comfortable entertaining Mickey Mouse’s young fan club as he is repulsing older viewers as the wonderfully unpleasant entrepreneur Hanneman, who became a viral anti-hero for his boasts about being a member of the Three Comma Club for billionaires. Meanwhile at home, he revels in his role as a husband and father to the couple’s three kids, aged 11, eight and two. And when asked about the thread connecting his success in these varied roles, Chris puts it down to a love of playing, that he continues to commit to wholeheartedly amid the responsibilities adulthood brings.

Chris Diamantopoulos // 📸: Austin Hargrave // Chris wears his own knitwear by Tom Ford

“I knew from a very early age that all I wanted to do was play act,” he says. “And I look at what I do now as such a blessing, because it’s just an extension of childhood play. This playful approach to my work has been with me my entire life, and is what has allowed me to do it. I didn’t really know if I could sing or not when I was a young man. I would just sing in the mirror and embrace the joy of the play rather than the nerves or the self-consciousness. That got me my first audition, and very quickly thereafter, I found myself on Broadway. I had no place being there, I wasn’t a trained singer. But I played, and in playing, I wasn’t afraid to crack or croak or whatever the hell it was. So there’s an inadvertent fearlessness. I am so engaged in playing that I don’t think to be afraid.

“What can happen in an actor’s career, is we can get so focused on: Is this going to work? Is someone going to buy this? Is it going to be good? Will it be reviewed well? And with that, you forget the whole f***ing point of all of this. Which is, aside from the audience being entertained, you’ve got to be having fun. Even when it’s something dark, even when it’s something horrific, somewhere in there, there has to be a kid having fun.”

Chris’ playful approach to his work, and life, should not be exclusive to performers. The importance of playfulness has been a much-promoted topic by psychologists in recent years. Self-help guru Dr Brené Brown, who counts Prince Harry and Oprah Winfrey among her many high-profile followers, is one of those to encourage adults from all walks of life to embrace doing things we enjoy that make us let go of our self-consciousness, even if they seem silly or frivolous, to create the space where ideas and creativity are born.

Chris Diamantopoulos // 📸: Austin Hargrave // Chris wears his own shirt by Ralph Lauren

Chris has been lucky enough to turn his goofing around into a successful career. And his playfulness shines through across all his roles, whether starring as a murderous villain or in a children’s cartoon. He has established himself as one of Hollywood’s leading voice actors, starring in a host of animation projects alongside his iconic Mickey Mouse role, which he landed in 2013 after being identified as the man who could return the character closer to the phrasing and rhythm used by Walt Disney himself in the mouse’s early years of the 1930s and 1940s. He credits his family with helping his animation career, and broader creativity, flourish. Because while his loose and pliable face and voice are an asset for his comedy and animation work, he also describes a fastidious side that being a father is helping him to knock the sharp edges off, by embracing his children’s unusual, improvised baking recipes and imaginative artistic creations. “They create such wonderful things, with ingredients that should never be mixed together, and I have to stop myself from stepping in,” he says. “I credit my wife for reminding me. Because I’m such a perfection guy. But what do they say? Perfection is the enemy of invention.” The animation roles have particularly sustained him during the pandemic, during which he worked on a new Netflix adult animated comedy called ‘Inside Job’. He’s also a regular on a children’s musical cartoon on the streaming giant, called ‘Centaurworld’, doing a a unique animated drama called ‘Pantheon’ for AMC, and he’s also the voice of Fran Heffley in the upcoming Disney+ ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ movie.

“My eight-year-old and my 11-year-old have been really instrumental in my animation career,” he adds. “I model a lot on them, and I run a lot by them. They are brutally honest, and say, ‘No dad. That’s too cartoonish,’ or whatever. But they love Mickey, and there are these great Halloween and Christmas specials that I did, and it has become a family tradition to watch them together. I feared at first it might be self-indulgent, but the kids really love it. So I thought, ‘F*** it!’ It’s a weird part of their history so let’s enjoy it.”

Chris Diamantopoulos // 📸: Austin Hargrave // Chris wears his own shirt by Tom Ford

Alongside his professional and personal triumphs, Chris is also a man in the prime of his life physically. He jokes that this is “his time” because he is growing into his looks, having “looked 46 since he was 26.” He and Becki, now a successful actress who has starred in several huge TV hits including ‘Ugly Betty’ and ‘How I Met Your Mother’, fondly reminisce about how she asked to see his ID to prove his age after they met on a New York subway more than 20 years ago, and then after they moved to LA to try and make it in Hollywood, he would drive her to auditions and she would be told to leave her dad at home next time.

Chris credits his healthy physique with high-intensity strength training he’s been taught by his brother Gus, who runs a fitness facility called The Strength Room in Toronto, the home city of his Greek Canadian family. Just once a week he does an intense session of chin-ups, push-ups and dips, but does each movement exceptionally slowly, aiming for 30 to 60 second reps. “Gus has created this strength training protocol that is second to none in terms of getting your body into the best possible shape, while also limiting the amount of time that you need to train,” he says. “I try to keep my exercise to a minimum, but I work out until my body can’t go any further, usually 20 to 25 minutes, and it basically taxes the body to the point where you need the week to rest.” He also began experimenting with the ‘power breathing’ techniques of Wim Hof, AKA The Iceman, in lockdown. “It’s like controlled hyperventilation, a meditative breathing technique, whereby you are hyper-breathing to the point where you oxygenate your body, and gradually increase levels of breath retention, which is supposed to massively reduce body inflammation. It gives you this euphoric feeling. It’s fascinating.”

These techniques could both be exercises in trying to control his abundant energy. Chris is the kind of actor whose enthusiasm bursts through the screen, whether it’s via his expressive voice or face. But he’s working on embracing his calmer side when he’s not working, aiming to be “like a lion in the prairie, chilling out until it’s time to strike.” He explains, “My nature is I have an excessive amount of energy. So what I’ve been doing over the last 10 years is trying to marry the idea that all the energy is good, but it’s just where to put it and when to use it. And who am I when I’m not using it? My wife has been really wonderful in helping me find my calm. And I’ve been reading a lot of Marcus Aurelius during the pandemic too, and stoic philosophy has also had a calming effect.” He says his role as the egotistical Hanneman in ‘Silicon Valley’ also had a positive impact on his personality, as well as the obvious boost to his professional world. “That show really shifted the direction of my career, certainly within the comedy sphere. But what I learned about myself on that show was that all of the vanity that I might have had when I was a younger man, I just don’t have the f**ing energy for it. And it was great playing a deeply insecure and ugly human, but trying to remember that even deeply insecure, ugly human beings aren’t fully broken. There’s something in there. There was something really lovely about finding something, anything that could make him redemptive. Then lo and behold, he became a really beloved, hated but beloved, character.”

Chris Diamantopoulos // 📸: Austin Hargrave // Chris wears his own knitwear by Tom Ford

Another tool Chris uses to shift his mood is his wardrobe. He’s a fan of fashion, tailoring and shopping (and enjoyed that our photoshoot gave him an opportunity to showcase some new items he bought just before lockdown, then hasn’t had the chance to wear!) He says, “When I became an actor, I learned very early on you only have a few little tools and tricks that you can play with to shift yourself around. One of the big ones for me has been voice, but the very next one is clothes. What I’m wearing will greatly affect how I play a role, and how I feel. Before the pandemic, I spent a great deal of my time procuring work, having meetings and auditions and the like, and how I was dressed would greatly affect how I walked into a room, or even how I walked out of the house. And I have a very meticulous nature, so there’s something I really admire about tailoring, and how you can affect something with the slightest shift. The right outfit can be like wearing a suit of armor, and you can feel fortified. It can also help to define who you are. For someone like me, an actor who prides himself on being a chameleon, that’s necessary. So I love clothes.”

His latest role is the global crime action comedy ‘Red Notice’, which begins streaming on Netflix on Friday. It’s the streamer’s most expensive movie of all time, uniting ‘Deadpool’ star Reynolds, wrestler-turned-actor The Rock, and ‘Wonderwoman’ Gadot, who get the chance to flex her comedic muscles. The budget, north of $200 million, makes it inevitable that hawkish critics will circle, but this review captures its intentions by calling it “big, dumb and lots of fun.”

Chris Diamantopoulos // 📸: Austin Hargrave // Chris wears his own shirt by Ralph Lauren

Chris says, “It’s sort of following in the vein of those action movies from the 90s, like ‘True Lies’ or Tango & Cash’. Because not every movie is meant to push some kind of literary needle, although it is important that some movies do that. But this movie was made specifically to put these three supernova movie stars together, and create an opportunity for people to sit down with some pizza or a box of popcorn, and laugh and cheer. And that’s important too. It’s a bit like with your children. There’s a time for teaching a lesson, and trying to instill some kind of rule to live by, that may help carry them through. But sometimes you just want to be stupid, and show them how funny life is.

“Whatever show it is, you have an opportunity to affect somebody. When I was a child, I wasn’t watching Brecht, I was watching whatever the f*** was on. I watched ‘Family Ties’ growing up, and that was a sitcom, but there were some beautiful stories there, and some great acting actually, and I gleaned something from that show.

“And you know what? You’re going to do things that people think terribly of, and it’s not going to connect with them. Which is why after all these years, you still don’t know if it’s going to be good. If there was a formula it would work every time. You can have the perfect screenwriter, a great director, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to work. But that doesn’t mean you should stop. And it doesn’t mean you should be concerned with whether it’s going to work or not.

“All of this is an exercise in futility. We are actively decaying and there’s nothing we can do about it. So we have to have a bit of fun while we’re here. Because otherwise, what the f*** is there?”

Chris Diamantopoulos // 📸: Austin Hargrave // Chris wears his own knitwear by Tom Ford

Pete began his career on Fleet Street more than two decades ago, and has worked for some of the world’s biggest news, entertainment, and wellness companies as a writer, editor, and media executive. He co-founded Mr Feelgood to help demystify the world of personal development, and to encourage men to discuss and improve their mental health, by sharing the wisdom and lessons learned of inspiring artists and leaders.

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