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“It was a slog and it seemed impossible to get made,” Casey Affleck says of Kenneth Lonergan‘s Manchester by the Sea, for which he currently is generating considerable best actor Oscar buzz, as we sit down to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast at the Empire Hotel during the New York Film Festival. “And not only did it get made, but now it’s a success [on the festival circuit]. And that also sends a message: that people will go see a ‘small drama’ with no pyrotechnics, or pyrotechnic-like movie stars. And that’s good because it means that other movies like that will get a shot, too.”
(Click above to listen to this episode now or here to access all of our 90+ episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Kristen Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Jane Fonda, J.J. Abrams, Kate Winslet and Michael Moore.)
Affleck, 41, isn’t accustomed to being the center of attention. The kid brother of Ben Affleck, he became a character actor, whereas Ben became a star, and, unlike his older brother who sometimes became a magnet for the tabloids, he has almost always flown under the radar. But even if your average moviegoer can’t quite place him — something with which he’s more than comfortable — people in the business have been impressed by his chops for more than two decades.
Born in the Boston-area to a janitor and a teacher, Affleck grew up hanging out and causing trouble with his big bro and their neighbor/mutual close friend Matt Damon. When they all were barely out of diapers, Patty Collins, a college classmate of Affleck’s mother who became a local casting director, began placing them in extra roles in area productions. But true passion for acting came only after they began taking a high school drama class taught by Gerry Speca, “an inspirational guy” whose belief in the younger Affleck served as encouragement enough for him to move out to Los Angeles, upon graduation, to try his luck.
Once out West, Affleck spent a year crashing with Damon and auditioning for parts, promising himself he would give it all up after a year if he didn’t land something major. He beat out the clock when Gus Vant Sant cast him and Joaquin Phoenix as troubled teenagers opposite Nicole Kidman in To Die For, which he now describes as “the best possible first experience.” He and Van Sant would work together again often and he and Phoenix became, and remain to this day, best friends. Oh, and one other thing: Affleck passed along to Van Sant a script that Matt and Ben had co-written, in the hope that Van Sant would direct it. The script was Good Will Hunting, Van Sant did and the resulting film, released in 1997 (and featuring Affleck in a small part), made Matt and Ben into household names.
“I didn’t even want to do Good Will Hunting because I was gonna have to leave school,” says Affleck, who had enrolled in college after To Die For and would do so again, briefly, after Good Will Hunting. But “opportunities kept presenting themselves that were hard for me to turn down,” he says, so he dropped out once and for all. Meanwhile, after doing a few films of which he wasn’t particularly proud, he changed his outlook. He explains: “I eventually developed a new kind of philosophy: One ought to only do things that they feel like they’re really connected to in some way, that kind of speaks to them.” That led him to his first collaboration with Lonergan, on the 2002 London stage production of This Is Our Youth, and to him and Damon not only starring in Van Sant’s 2003 indie Gerry, but also co-writing it with him.
This independent spirit most visibly manifested itself in 2007, when Affleck appeared in two tremendously acclaimed dramas: Andrew Dominik‘s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a tale of the Old West — and subtextually a cautionary tale about celebrity — in which he played Ford opposite Brad Pitt‘s James, and for which he went on to receive a best supporting Oscar nomination; and Gone Baby Gone, Ben’s directorial debut, in which he played the lead, a Boston-area detective trying to locate a missing child. Few believed his brother could direct before seeing the film, but he did: “Ben’s a very smart guy and a really good director, and I felt like I knew him better than anyone else did, especially in the industry. And where people had an opinion of him as being an actor in kind of lousy movies, I had the advantage of knowing that he was actually a very, very, very smart, talented dude.”
In the aftermath of those two films, when Affleck arguably was as in-demand as he’s ever been, he opted not to cash in or fight for another plum part, but rather to spend the next two years making a mockumentary, I’m Still Here, in which Phoenix appeared to be losing his mind in public. “You can’t always make the right decision,” he says with a chuckle. “That was the result of a kind of impulsive mind to resist doing what I’m told I should do and do things that interest me.” The film was met with angry reactions, many from people who resented being fooled into worrying for Phoenix’s well-being. Affleck’s response? “If people were so concerned, why were people at the Oscars dressing up like Joaquin Phoenix and mocking him? Ben Stiller came out and presented an Oscar in costume as him. If people actually thought this was a man struggling with addiction or mental illness, this is not how you want the community to support one another.”
Affleck says of the film’s reception, “It was demoralizing,” adding wryly, “but I have developed, over the years, a pretty thick skin, and also this ability to bounce back from crushing demoralization.” For the next few years he did minimal work — “My interests had taken on a different focus, I guess, and I just wasn’t into it,” he says — but he ultimately replenished his love of acting by reuniting with Lonergan on a theatrical production and then working closely, on the gritty drama Out of the Furnace, with Christian Bale. “He’s so committed and so great,” Affleck says of his co-star, “and it just sort of ignited something in me, I guess, and I remembered: ‘Oh, right, you can do all of this as an actor, there are all of these things that you can do, these things that he’s doing that are more than hitting your mark and saying your lines to get through a scene.”
This all set the scene for Manchester by the Sea, a passion project for Lonergan in which Damon originally was set to star, but ultimately withdrew (remaining as a producer), paving the way for Affleck. The actor was going through a difficult time in his personal life, having just separated from his wife of 10 years, only to be thrust into the skin of a largely non-verbal character overflowing with sadness and self-hatred, which he had to inhabit for months in the freezing cold Northeast. “I think back on that period as being a very depressing and sad time in my life,” Affleck acknowledges — but he realizes that without that confluence of circumstances, his performance wouldn’t have been what it was. Affleck feels he can always count on something like that with Lonergan: “It’ll always be a ‘yes’ with Kenny because I have a unique relationship with him whereby I know that I will be better than I would be if I were left to my own devices.”
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