Affleck: When 'Company Men' Lose A Firm Footing

Tommy Lee Jones and Ben Affleck i i

Tommy Lee Jones (left) and Ben Affleck play corporate executives who have to deal with losing their jobs in The Company Men. Folger/The Weinstein Co. hide caption

itoggle caption Folger/The Weinstein Co.
Tommy Lee Jones and Ben Affleck

Tommy Lee Jones (left) and Ben Affleck play corporate executives who have to deal with losing their jobs in The Company Men.

Folger/The Weinstein Co.

In his latest movie, Ben Affleck plays a man who comes home early one day with some news — news he tries to deliver calmly to his wife, played by Rosemarie DeWitt: "They fired me," he says. "Something about redundancies."

The movie, The Company Men, features many stars, including Tommy Lee Jones, Maria Bello, Chris Cooper and Kevin Costner, yet Affleck says it was hard to find financing.

"There's some nervousness about making a movie about people who have lost their jobs, because the knee-jerk reaction is, 'Oh, well, nobody wants to see that,'" Affleck tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "I think the subject matter was a tremendous stumbling block. Some people likened it to Iraq War movies. When Iraq was the thing in the national consciousness that was the most painful, a lot of people wanted to avert their gaze. And people thought, 'Well, this is going to be the same kind of thing.' And so there were a lot of concerns."

"If it had been about an asteroid crashing into the planet, I think they would have had a much easier time," he jokes.

Affleck's character is one of three guys who worked for a shipbuilding company that's coming apart — three guys who are driven out, one by one. He and Cooper and Jones all play these roles in a pretty restrained manner — a choice, Affleck says, that had to do with how people deal with pain and uncertainty and fear.

"When the sands shift under you that much, the only thing that many people I talked to in researching have to hold them together is just their own composure," Affleck says. "They feel like if they kind of let it go, if they show their own insecurity, everything would fall apart."

Finding people to talk to was depressingly easy, the actor says.

"I wish I could say it was a hard movie to research," Affleck says. "But I didn't have to look any further than guys I grew up with — [guys] I went to grade school with and high school with — and who had really, you know, decent, reasonable, sometimes really good jobs, and boom, were all of a sudden out of work."

Ben Affleck i i

Affleck, shown Sept. 7, 2010 at the Venice Film Festival, says his new movie is about grappling with a changing American identity as well as hard economic times. Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images
Ben Affleck

Affleck, shown Sept. 7, 2010 at the Venice Film Festival, says his new movie is about grappling with a changing American identity as well as hard economic times.

Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

In one scene, Affleck's character Bobby breaks down: "I'm a 37-year-old, unemployed loser who can't support his family," he tells his wife. It's a feeling plenty of audience members can probably relate to this year.

"And the thing that was interesting to me was how common it was to feel like not just, 'Oh, I lost my job or need money or I need to find another job' — the practical concerns — but the way it undermined people's whole sense of identity," Affleck says. "You know, 'I've become a worthless person. I've become someone that I can't look in the eye. I don't want to look in the mirror.'"

This identity crisis makes the movie part of a story that's larger than the current rate of unemployment. Comparing The Company Men to the 1946 post-war drama The Best Years of Our Lives, Affleck notes that each is "a movie about, you know, the American sense of self and having to redefine that."

"It's about this experience that completely disrupted their identities and changed them — and also [the knowledge] that America is changing," he notes. "It is a story about dealing with a certain kind of trauma and losing something, and also feeling alienated from one's own society."

In The Company Men, Tommy Lee Jones' character is in the room when the company's decision-makers are deciding who to fire. Nearly all the workers who are losing their jobs are older, it becomes clear, and that could be construed as being illegal. When one character assures the rest that the plan will survive legal scrutiny, Jones' character responds that he "always thought we aimed for a little higher standard than that."

"That speaks so perfectly to people's feelings about our country," Affleck says. "It's like it's just about getting by, or people can let people go if they can get away with it, that there's no deeper sense of right or wrong. The banks shouldn't — people shouldn't make such a giant profit off just moving money back and forth. And CEOs' pay shouldn't be 200 times the average worker. It used to be nine times. OK, maybe it's legal and maybe it passes muster with shareholders. But there's something about us that fundamentally feels it isn't right."

He's noticed, he believes, that these feelings are pretty widely shared.

"I think that's the frustration that you feel on people speaking out from the left. I think it's the same frustration you hear from Tea Party activists. And that tells you that it's common to the entire spectrum of American people."

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