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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

A lot of actors turn to directing at some point, but “I’m Still Here” was a pretty unorthodox project. People weren’t sure what was and wasn’t real in the film. How do you feel about the way audiences reacted to it?

I feel fine about it. Fine. Just fine, OK!?!?  Actually, I do.

"I'm Still Here"

“I’m Still Here”

I wanted to do something that looked like a documentary made by amateurs (talk about playing to your strengths). I wanted it to feel as real as possible. There was some stuff in there that was so funny I would watch it over and over and laugh, but I took it out because it tipped the scale. That might have been a mistake. Maybe I should have put in all the goofy, really broad stuff. We wanted to make a funny movie. We thought it was a comedy. A satire. We never thought people would actually think it was real. I just thought it would be funnier if it was all played very straight.

Then we showed it to people and they thought it was real.  That was a surprise. Perhaps, in hindsight, we should have had a press junket and done talk shows and said how it was a “mockumentary” or something. But that seemed like it would be an insult to people’s intelligence. Of course it wasn’t real. Do we have to go out and say that? Anyway, once we understood that we had to explain that, it was a little late.

It took a couple years of my life and I learned a lot about making movies. I have forgotten it all now, so I should probably make the sequel.   My career is marked by a series of films that people “find later.”  Wait, has anyone “found” “I’m Still Here”?  Maybe it is still lost.

That same year, you appeared in “The Killer Inside Me,” which was a terrific showcase for you in a movie that made a lot of people uncomfortable. What was it like to play such an unsettling character — and how did it impact your relationship to that sort of material?

I hate that kind of violence. I don’t like watching it or doing it. Michael Winterbottom told me before we started that he wanted the violence to be horrifying and upsetting so that people understood the reality of a situation like that.  He referenced “Irreversible.”  He said otherwise it’s movie violence that gives people the wrong message. Better this, he said, than a movie with hundreds of faceless people being shot down by aliens or whatever. I went for it. I would rather not do much like that anymore.

And then you did a much gentler film, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” which was similar to “Jesse James” in certain ways. But it also showed your interest in working with a younger filmmaker, David Lowery. 

David is a very talented writer and director.  When I met him he talked about he material in a way that made me want to work with him instantly.  I would do anything with him if I had the time.

In “Manchester By the Sea,” you play a man reeling from a terrible tragedy that changed his life years earlier. What were some of the challenges of getting inside this man’s head?

"Manchester By the Sea"

“Manchester By the Sea”

Just the obvious one of coming to work and making yourself feel really terrible everyday.

Even though the film contains a lot of darker, dramatic material, it’s quite funny in parts. How did you relate to these shifts in tone?

I had faith in Kenny [Lonergan] and the material. There isn’t a word in the script he hadn’t chosen very carefully.  And Kenny never writes without some humor. He is funny. He sees the humor in situations. It doesn’t undermine the drama. It might make the tragedy felt even more. I don’t know. But he is a funny man and writes funny stuff. I consider Kenny a family member who I love and feel very close to.  I felt that way sort of before the movie but way more so now. He is very sensitive and compassionate, but never loses his sense of humor.

Did you get any sense for how his background in theater impacts his filmmaking?

I acted in one of his plays.  He was there quite a bit, doing most of the directing. I had also done a few readings with him of some of this other work. I was familiar enough with his writing to know that I would never improve on it. Whatever suggestions I made had better be about the acting only. The words were perfect. It sounds silly to say that, but really they are. They are perfect for what Kenny is making. And nobody understands the intricate complexities of his writing as well as he does. He trusts his actors but is firm in where the scene should go, how the dialogue works best. He’s brilliant; he guided my performance with patience and sensitivity. Nobody could have helped me as much as he did.

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