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Casey Affleck’s Career-Spanning Q&A: How Lessons from Gus Van Sant, Joaquin Phoenix and More Led To ‘Manchester’

As the star of "Manchester By the Sea" heads into awards season with a tribute in Telluride, he reflects on the curious trajectory of his career to date.

Casey Affleck

At 41, Casey Affleck still has the air of a young man, but he’s hardly a newcomer. Once primarily known as the younger brother of movie star Ben, the Massachusetts native has paved his own path. With prominent roles in idiosyncratic American indies ranging from Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry” to “Lonesome Jim,” Affleck carved out a niche with his fragile, unassuming screen presence and the flashes of intensity that occasionally broke through. Those attributes have served him well in roles as diverse as his unsettling psychopathic turn in Michael Winterbottom’s “The Killer Inside Me” to Andrew Dominik’s poetic western “The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford,”  which landed Affleck his first Oscar nomination.

Now he’s back on the awards circuit with “Manchester By the Sea,” another delicate tale of a troubled young man. Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, the film stars Affleck as Lee Chandler, an alienated figure who returns to his small town after his brother’s sudden death to confront his dark past. After its premiere at Sundance in January, Amazon Studios paid a shocking $10 million for the film, which immediately generated awards buzz around Affleck’s performance. As the film resurfaces for the fall season, the Telluride Film Festival will give one of its venerated tribute slots to Affleck, a surefire indicator of the ongoing buzz surrounding his turn.

Even as Affleck continues to expand his profile, his filmography reflects a very distinctive path. With no starring roles in massive blockbusters in his roster, Affleck has instead gravitated toward edgier, unorthodox projects (including his own quixotic venture in the filmmaking process with the controversial quasi-documentary “I’m Still Here”). Unsurprisingly, he strikes a careful, measured tone when asked about his career. In preparation for his Telluride appearances, Affleck answered questions via e-mail for the festival’s newsletter, which published a shorter version of the following exchanges earlier this week. Affleck will participate in two tributes at the festival, on Friday night and Saturday morning, with the latter conversation moderated by yours truly.

When did you know you wanted to be an actor?

There was no one moment when I decided I would spend my life acting.  I am not certain that I will.  Acting has never been a consistent passion.  I have done it since I was young — so I have been acting for 30 years — but intermittently. I always had other jobs, joys and creative outlets.

Your first prominent film role was in Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For,” which was over 20 years ago and not the most conventional of projects. What sort of an impression did that experience leave on you?

I didn’t walk away feeling like a better actor because I had little understanding of what was happening around me. I was 18 and a lot of the process was new to me. I was trying to give the director what he wanted and not embarrass myself.  Now, 20 years later, I see how lucky I was to have had that experience early in my career.  What I learned on “To Die For,” I learned over the years that followed, when some memory from the shoot would bubble up to the surface of my mind and I could see it from a new perspective.  I would usually cringe when that happened.  Most of my acting jobs have resulted in a series of mortifying revelations spread over years and years following the shoot.

casey affleck to die for

Casey Affleck in “To Die For”

Walking down the street, thousands of miles and a decade removed from the set, I might suddenly understand some note a director gave me. The brain is working in its own mysterious way. “To Die For,” being my first movie of a certain kind, was full of those types of moments and their brutal lessons. But on the set, Gus tolerated me patiently. He let me say stupid things and make mistakes and never corrected me or contained me.  All the learning happened with distance and on my own, without any shame. Joaquin [Phoenix] and I felt like we could do anything in those scenes. Gus allowed for that sense of inclusion and freedom. And when it was all done, he would cull through the footage and pluck the one or two decent moments and use them expertly and artistically.

Gus is a gentle, intuitive filmmaker; he is sensitive to the input of every person on set yet he is also full of his own great ideas which he shares clearly and humbly. I loved working with him on “To Die For” and subsequently on three or four other movies. Things are changing now, but Gus defined, as much as anyone, the spirit of the American independent movie that came to be in the late 1980’s.

I think back on that set and remember how people like Buck Henry and Nicole Kidman and Gus Van Sant and other talented and smart people would look at me.  At the time, I thought they looked impressed, but now I understand that they were looking at me like a bored person at a zoo looks at some animal in his enclosure as it climbs a fake tree up and down, over and over. People have said many things about time: it flies, it is money, it heals all wounds — but more than anything, time really just makes you realize what an idiot you have been.

“The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford” was considered a major breakout moment for you, but it wasn’t a huge success. Now, it’s being rediscovered. What do you make of that film’s unique journey and what did you get out of the experience?

The experience of shooting a film is really the experience of whatever relationship you form with the director. Even in films in which I have played someone who falls in love with an actress or raises a child or something, the most profound relationship is always with the director. You idolize them or hate them or fall in love with them or they become a parent figure or whatever. Or all of it.  The best experiences I have had — and by best, I mean the ones that were the most challenging and fulfilling, the ones where I learned the most — were the ones with the most charged and intimate relationship with the director.

Andrew Dominik is a uniquely talented film director.  Making that movie was in part learning to give over entirely to a director.  That doesn’t mean becoming a puppet, it means bringing as much as you possibly can to the role and preparing as well as you can and having as many ideas as you can for every scene and line, and feeling as connected emotionally as you can be to every moment…and then letting it all go and trusting everything the director says. You want to sculpt at home and be putty on the set. That’s not a great metaphor, but it’ll do for now. Andrew demands that and earns it.

casey affleck jesse james

“The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford”

I have been lucky enough to work with people who inspire me, who I admire and respect and who have made films — before working with me — that I continually return to over the years because they are so good. I have been very lucky to work with these people. I can’t explain it. But many of these people are great directors and something else — a painter, a playwright, a musician. Andrew is a pure film director. He is just a film director. He really found his calling and I wish he would make more. Without a lot of experience he seemed to know more than anyone. He pushed everyone. He made everyone better. He had brilliant ideas for actors and for costumers and set designers and on and on — especially for me. He was hard to please and I knew that if he didn’t think something was working he was probably right.

In the post-production period of the film, there were people who didn’t have the same relationship I had with Andrew.  They had expectations for the film, and hadn’t learned to trust Andrew and see past his unusual style. They ultimately let him release something close to the film he wanted, but not completely. It was a painful process. The film was released without a lot of enthusiasm and was met with even less. However, there were a few people who loved it.  The number of people who liked it grew — from five to 10. And now it has been in “found”, I guess.

Telluride would be a great place to screen Andrew’s cut someday. What happens in the last 15 minutes of the film in Creed Colorado is so beautiful. There are ruins of mining towns all around here, in these mountains and valleys, that are brought to life so well by Andrew and [cinematographer] Roger Deakins and [costume designer] Patty Norris and everyone involved, down to the guy hiding in a ditch, manning the smoke machine, 1,000 feet from the camera, in minus-20 degree weather. When I visit this area, I think about that piece of the movie and how it brings a period of history to life.

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