If the buzz about Hulu's exceptional original series Catch-22 made you feel even the faintest bit of shame for not finishing the book as part of your required reading in school, give yourself a break: Even Christopher Abbott, who plays the existentially tormented protagonist, Capt. John Yossarian, in the six-episode series, hadn't read it before taking on the role.
"I wasn't a particularly great student," Abbott told TV Guide via phone. "But it worked out for the better, because I got to read it as an adult with a certain energy knowing I was going to do this piece." As Yossarian, a B-25 bombardier in World War II desperately trying to get out of his war missions, Abbott spends the season toggling between despair, befuddlement, anger, terror in combat, and then, at his breaking point, borderline insanity, as he protests his unfortunate lot by refusing to wear clothes and strutting around the base nude.
Catch-22's writers, along with executive producers Grant Heslov and George Clooney, do a strong job of adapting Heller's satirical, esoteric, and at times meandering novel into a clear, easy-to-follow linear story. And Abbott, in one of the most notable performances of the season, does a splendid job at bringing Yossarian's intellectual dread out of his head and onto the screen. Catch-22 is a period drama that lives in a lush, heightened world where nearly everyone around Yossarian accepts the absurd contradictions of military life as sacrosanct, and the actors shot scenes out of order, so Abbott faced plenty of daunting challenges in portraying the classic character. Fortunately for him, he had one the finest leading men in the business, George Clooney, to offer occasional guidance — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity many actors (and Clooney's fans, to be sure) would kill for.
"He's a very inspiring guy," Abbott said of Clooney, who directed two episodes and also plays Scheisskopf on screen. "As long as he's been in the business, as a director he's very excited when a scene is going well. He's got such a nice energy as an actor to feed off, and he's very much a director too. It's admirable how he wears so many hats; he's very sensitive of what it's like being on set, because he's done it so long. And of course, he's one of most well known people on planet, but he does an amazing job of making everyone forget about that."
On top of it all, the actor spent a good chunk of the final episode in the buff, requiring both vulnerability and a mindset steely enough to literally lay himself completely bare as an actor. "It was in the script; it's a big part of the book. It's a protest, a reaction to the horrors he'd been through. For me, it couldn't be more justified," Abbott said. Still, he admitted, "It's always strange walking out on a tarmac [nude] in front 150 Italian extras."
Catch-22 is now streaming on Hulu.