NEW YORK — Tom O’Brien is hoping for a successful career as movie director and actor, but he may not have what it takes.
It’s true, his fresh-faced good looks and athletic build won’t hold him back. Nor will his determination and work ethic, which drove him to co-write, direct, and star in “Fairhaven,” his first feature film, which opens Friday at the Somerville Theatre.
Still, big-time Hollywood types often come with big-time egos and, while talking over breakfast at a Greenwich Village cafe, O’Brien shows no sign of self-importance or arrogance.
The film is set in the town of Fairhaven, near New Bedford. O’Brien plays an ex-high school football player who has become disillusioned with his small-time existence. His crisis is exacerbated when a friend, played by Chris Messina, returns home for his father’s funeral.
Messina, who collaborated on the script, has been close friends with O’Brien since they worked together in a New York theater group about 10 years ago. The two started writing together back then, always harboring plans to make a film together.
“We really wanted to do this,” says O’Brien. “He basically co-directed the film when we were on the set. So if I was acting, and he wasn’t, he would put on the headphones and go to the monitor.”
While many directors might have bristled at the idea of someone else taking over, particularly a more seasoned and better-known actor, O’Brien says he was grateful.
“I was OK with it, but the crew was confused,” he says between bites of eggs and bacon. “And finally they realized we were such good friends, it was OK for him to do it. And it was essential for me because I had taken so much on — I had never been the lead in a film before. In fact, I’d never been on a set for more than week. Chris really helped me get through it,” he adds. “So people will ask me, ‘What’s it like to direct yourself?’ and I’ll say, ‘I don’t know, Chris directed me.’ ”
According to O’Brien and Messina, the two of them worked on the script, usually by e-mail, for six or seven years. The longer it took to complete, the more determined they were to get it done.
“We had worked on it for so long and, after all that time, I was really committed to making it happen,” says Messina in a telephone conversation from Los Angeles.
Messina adds that, despite his input, O’Brien’s direction is what made the movie work.
“Tom did a great thing in that he really made the actors make their characters their own, which gave the performances a genuine quality,” Messina says. “He did a great thing as a director — he didn’t claim to know the answers and let the actors find it on the day [of shooting]. Because of that, the performances are really organic and truthful.”
Without a doubt, O’Brien was looking to make a film that felt genuine and unfettered. He was first inspired when he visited his mother, who lived in Fairhaven at the time. O’Brien, who grew up in Medford, was struck by the town’s unpretentious atmosphere and thought it would be a good starting point for a movie about introspection and friendship.
“The town definitely has its rough spots, but that’s what I loved about it — that it was so pure and working class, as opposed to all those cutesy, tourist towns on Cape Cod, which is so close by,” he says.
Perhaps the rawness of the town appealed to O’Brien because he started working on the script during a time in his life where he felt a keen sense of alienation, as if he were caught between the life he was supposed to live and the one he was actually inhabiting.
To that point, the character he plays in the film works on a fishing boat, but plans to quit to pursue a writing career. And, throughout the film, he seems plagued by a quote from Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, given during a 2007 “60 Minutes” interview. When asked about his success, Brady indicates that, despite achieving all his goals, he hoped life had “something more than this” in store, because otherwise, it would seem empty.
O’Brien’s character discusses his existential angst with others, including his therapist, who is played by O’Brien’s mother, a psychotherapist in New Bedford. (His father, a stage actor, plays the boat captain his character works for.)
“I was in flux at that moment and I latched on to the idea of trying to figure out what it’s all about,” O’Brien says.
The film won the Audience Award in the Narrative Feature category at the Boston Independent Film Festival last year and played at the Provincetown International Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival.
But some local moviegoers seemed a little put off by the film, according to O’Brien. Even though the cast and crew had been a welcome presence in Fairhaven during the filming — using many residents as extras — the final result came as a surprise to some when it premiered in New Bedford.
“A lot of older folks who went thought it was going to be about the history of the town, so they were surprised and offended by the drugs and sex in the film,” he says. “We ruffled some feathers up there.”
The ease of filming in Fairhaven was underscored when O’Brien began filming his new movie, “Manhattan Romance,” which he also wrote, directed, and stars in. The film, in which Messina has a cameo role and also stars Katherine Waterston, was shot in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
“It was such a different experience — like night and day,” he says. “In Fairhaven we felt like we were making a big-budget movie — the cops would shut the streets for us because we were the only deal in town. And then we tried it in New York, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, buzz off, buddy.’ ”