This Casey Affleck story first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
Questions. There were always questions.
With “Manchester by the Sea,” writer-director Kenneth Lonergan had written a shattering drama about a Boston janitor unable to escape a tragedy in his past. With Casey Affleck as the janitor, Michelle Williams as his ex-wife and Lucas Hedges as a teenage nephew whose custody unexpectedly goes to the Affleck character, he had assembled a cast that was capable of illuminating every moment of humor and wrenching emotion in the richly nuanced script.
In many cases, the performances — particularly Affleck’s — started with questions. “Casey is great to work with, because he’s very demanding about all the right things,” Lonergan said of his leading man. “He really wants to know specifically why something is happening, when it’s happening, why something else isn’t happening, why his manner is like this with one person but not another person. Exploring all those subtleties and specifics with an actor is really fun. Plus we like to yell at each other.”
Added producer Kimberly Steward, “Casey and Kenny have a witty rapport, which was great because it kept the spirits up. But they talked for hours on end.”
Affleck was a last-minute substitute for Matt Damon, who produced the film and was going to star in it until other commitments got in the way. “It was the best role I’d ever seen for a man, and I’ve seen a lot,” Damon said. “And I wasn’t going to give it away to just anybody–but I thought, if we could get it made with Casey, that’s something I can live with. That’s a movie I’d want to see.
“And when I look at that movie now, I can’t help but believe that every movie gets the actor it deserves. He’s a phenomenal actor, inventive and dynamic and believable.”
“Manchester” is easily one of the year’s best films, as suggested by its critics’ awards and its six Oscar nominations, all in major categories. It is not only a comeback of sorts for playwright-turned-director Lonergan after the tortured postproduction process of his last film, 2011’s “Margaret,” but it made Hedges the year’s youngest Oscar nominee at 20, gave Williams her fourth nomination in the last 12 years and brought Affleck the second nomination of his career, after the 2007 nod for “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”
It made him the odds-on favorite to win the Oscar, at least until Denzel Washington’s SAG win tightened that race considerably. And it put him on an awards circuit that is neither familiar nor entirely comfortable to him.
“It’s definitely nothing I have gone through before,” Affleck said, on a late-January Monday that began and ended in Vancouver, where he is in preproduction on “Light of My Life,” a film he’s writing, directing and starring in, but included a quick trip to Los Angeles for a Q&A screening.
“I was nominated for ‘Jesse James,’ but I don’t remember doing anything but showing up at a few awards ceremonies, losing, going to a party, having a blast and going home. It may be that they didn’t think I had a chance, so they said, ‘You don’t have to do these screenings.’ I don’t know.”
He shrugged. “Despite my cynicism from my younger years, I would say that it’s a nice thing to do for the community. There may be too much backslapping, too much self-congratulatory pomp and circumstance to it all, but it’s also a nice way of recognizing the other people that have done good work, celebrating the arts and all that stuff.
“I know there’s some grossness about it, but I’ve been doing this for 23 years, and I get to run into friends, and even people I don’t know, where I can say, ‘Man, I’ve been watching you in movies since I was in high school, I think you’re amazing.'”
The answer is typical of Affleck, who always seems uncomfortable with awards-season schmoozing but open and honest about his discomfort. He can be an evasive interview subject, but not in a mean way, or even deliberately — it’s just that he’d rather have a conversation than sell a product or a performance.
So you can ask questions about “Manchester,” and he’s perfectly happy to answer them, but he’d rather talk about movies he hasn’t seen, or actors, like Michael Keaton, whom he loves. And if he finds out you used to work at Rolling Stone, watch out — he’d definitely rather quote a U2 lyric from “The Playboy Mansion,” discuss how he’s desperate to secure the movie rights to an obscure Bruce Springsteen song or ask about Hunter S. Thompson than delve into the subtleties of his Oscar-nominated performance.
So again, it’s about the questions. “What I learned from Casey,” Hedges said, “is how to truly dedicate yourself to the role, to be there for every single second of the movie being made, and ask every question you possibly can about every moment.”
In “Manchester,” though, one thing dominates almost every moment that Affleck’s character, Lee, is on screen. Lee isn’t trying to recover from a tragedy as much as he is trying to endure in its aftermath, which makes every conversation and every encounter a burden. “The things that this character is carrying, they are 99 percent of who he is,” Affleck said. “You have to feel that there’s no present moment without all that luggage that he’s bringing to an exchange with anyone. A doctor who he has three lines with, the person whose toilet he’s fixing–those little conversations are underscored by the past, and his tragedy, mostly in that he just wants to keep everybody at arm’s length.
“He’s not going to have a personal conversation with anyone. He doesn’t want to deal with their feelings, because dealing with their feelings is too human of an exchange. The doctor says, ‘I’m so sorry for your loss,’ and he doesn’t respond with the conventional niceties–‘Thank you very much, I appreciate that, yes, we’re all very sad about this, he was a great man, it’s a terrible loss’–those sorts of things that you expect to hear from people in those situations. Not because he’s not feeling anything, but because he’s feeling too much. And if he were to take on even the tiniest bit more, it would be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“He just can’t allow anyone to feel bad for him, because he’s not going to feel bad for himself. And he’s not going to feel for anyone else, because he doesn’t want to feel too much.”
The burden Lee is carrying hangs over every scene in which Affleck appears; even the lighter moments have an understated, pained feel to them. “I cried on set the first take,” said Steward. “Our first day on set was the lawyer scene where Lee finds out he might have to take responsibility for his nephew. You could feel the emotion and know how the audience was going to react.”
Not that Affleck himself could always feel it. “At the end of a scene, I sometimes think, ‘I think we got that,'” he said. “And invariably, those are the worst scenes ever. And the times when I think, ‘What happened? I don’t think we got anything. We can’t stop now’–those are the times when something was happening, and I was just sort of unaware.
“But the thing with Kenny is that the material is just so good that it’s very evocative just reading it. So sometimes I would think, ‘We got what was on the page, and what was on the page worked really well. Maybe that’ll work when you fit it all together.'”
Affleck will now have the chance to fit it all together himself with “Light of My Life,” a survival drama about a father and his daughter trapped in the woods. “I wrote it a couple of years ago, when I couldn’t really find a job,” he said. “It was before ‘Manchester’ — I could get work, but I wasn’t excited by things I could be a part of. I had an old script that was more genre, and I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll make this.’ It’s a two-person movie, very contained, and I thought I could manage it. There’s a bigger conceptual premise to it, but it’s really just about being a parent, which is kind of how I spend 99 percent of my time.
“I always thought that people who directed and acted in movies were doing too much, that they couldn’t give enough of themselves to either. But I thought, ‘This is basically four speaking roles in the movie. I can handle that.'”
He laughed. “Hubris. It was hubris. And now I’m just underwater.”
As if on cue, his publicist stuck her head in the door. “What up?” he asked.
“You gotta go to the airport.”
He frowned and turned to me. “I monopolized your time by asking questions about Hunter Thompson. Did you get enough?”
And so it ended, appropriately enough, on another question.