Interview - Ben Affleck, 'The Company Men' And What Happens When Their Firm Footing Goes In his latest film, the actor plays an executive who's laid off from a shipbuilding firm. He tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that the movie's real-life subject matter meant it was hard to finance -- but it makes it emotionally resonant for audience members.
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Affleck: When 'Company Men' Lose A Firm Footing

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Affleck: When 'Company Men' Lose A Firm Footing

Affleck: When 'Company Men' Lose A Firm Footing

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In his latest movie, Ben Affleck plays a man who comes home early one day. He's got some news, which he tries to deliver calmly to his wife, played by Rosemarie DeWitt.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Company Men")

Mr. BEN AFFLECK (Actor): (as Bobby Walker) They fired me.

Ms. ROSEMARIE DEWITT (Actor): (as Maggie Walker) What?

Mr. AFFLECK: (as Bobby Walker) They fired me today. Sally Wilcox.

Ms. DEWITT: (as Maggie Walker) Why?

Mr. AFFLECK: (as Bobby Walker) Something about redundancies.

INSKEEP: Affleck's character worked for a company that's coming apart. The movie "The Company Men" features many stars, including Tommy Lee Jones, Maria Bello, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner. Yet Affleck told us it was hard to find financing.

Mr. AFFLECK: 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. And 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.

Now, I still did get it financed, but it wasn't - you know, if it had been about an asteroid crashing into the planet, I think they would have had a much easier time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: We should mention your character is one of three guys who worked for a shipbuilding company, and they're driven out, one by one. And it's interesting to see the way that all three of you - you, Chris Cooper and Tommy Lee Jones -play those roles. Because is it fair to say that each one of you is quite restrained? The characters seem to be holding something in all the time?

Mr. AFFLECK: Yeah, I think the restrained quality is that sort of pain one feels and that lack of surety about, you know, losing one's identity. You know, 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. You know, and if they feel like if they kind of let it go, if they show their own insecurity, everything would fall apart.

INSKEEP: Did you say you researched this by talking to people who'd - what? Been out of work?

Mr. AFFLECK: Sure. I mean, I wish I could say it was a hard movie to research. But I didn't have to look any further than guys I grew up with - 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.

INSKEEP: Well, let's listen to one part of "The Company Men" where your character lets go a little bit, says a little bit of what he's feeling and thinking in a conversation with his wife in the driveway.

Let's listen.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Company Men")

Mr. AFFLECK: (as Bobby Walker) I've been to everybody we know and a lot of people I don't. And I have begged. I (bleeping) begged for a lead - anything. There's thousands of new MBAs out there - no mortgage, no kids, work 90-hour workweeks for nothing. You want to understand, Maggie? I'm a 37-year-old, unemployed loser who can't support his family.

INSKEEP: There's going to be somebody in the audience who thinks he's exactly that person.

Mr. AFFLECK: Yeah. Unfortunately, there's a lot of that going on. 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 hold sense of identity. 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.

INSKEEP: Can I mention and old movie that came to mind as I was watching this? I'm just curious if it was on anybody's mind as they were putting together "Company Men." The movie is "The Best Years of Our Lives."

Mr. AFFLECK: Yeah, that's a wonderful movie. I mean...

INSKEEP: Let's describe it. It's from 1946. This, like your movie, is about three men. But in their case, in 1946, what they're doing is coming home from World War Two and finding their lives very difficult to reassemble. Is there some parallel here?

Mr. AFFLECK: I think there is. You know, those - it's also a movie about, you know, the American sense of self and having to redefine that. And in that case, it's about this experience that completely disrupted their identities and changed them, and also that America is changing.

Obviously, this isn't a story about men who went off and fought the Second World War, which was quite a profound trauma in many cases. But it is a story about dealing with a certain kind of trauma and losing something, and also feeling alienated from one's own society.

INSKEEP: I'm even thinking of a particular scene at the end of "The Best Years of Our Lives," where one of the veterans is at an airfield and walking past hundreds and hundreds of abandoned warplanes, like one that he flew in.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Best Years of Our Lives")

Mr. DANA ANDREWS (Actor): (as Fred Derry) I used to work in one of those.

Mr. PAT FLAHERTY (Actor): (as Salvage Foreman) Reviving old memories, huh?

Mr. ANDREWS: (as Fred Derry) Yeah. Or maybe getting some of them out of my system.

Mr. FLAHERTY: (as Salvage Foreman) Well, you can take your last look at these crates. We're breaking them up.

Mr. ANDREWS: (as Fred Derry) Yeah, I know. You're the junkman. You get everything sooner or later.

Mr. FLAHERTY: (as Salvage Foreman) This is no junk. We're using this material for building prefabricated houses.

Mr. ANDREWS: (as Fred Derry) You don't need any help, do you?

Mr. FLAHERTY: (as Salvage Foreman) Out of a job?

Mr. ANDREWS: (as Fred Derry) That's it.

INSKEEP: I thought of that scene when looking at the scenes in "Company Men," where two of the characters are walking through the wreckage of an old shipyard where they used to build ships.

Mr. AFFLECK: Yeah. The sort of husks of their former life represented by these giant, metal crafts. It's true. They're very similar. The irony is that the spending on those kinds of your airplanes in the Second World War was ultimately what kind of kick-started the age of American prosperity in the '50s and '60s and into a little bit of the '70s. Whereas the relics of the ships in this movie indicate a trend downward of something being left behind that can't be recovered.

INSKEEP: There's a line in "Company Men" that's staying with me. Tommy Lee Jones as at a corporate conference table. Someone else at the conference table is discussing their plans to lay off a bunch of workers. And nearly all the workers being laid off are older, which could be construed as being wrong or illegal. Someone at the table says: Oh, no. This is going to pass legal scrutiny. And Jones responds: I always thought we aimed for a little higher standard than that.

Mr. AFFLECK: That speaks so perfectly to people's feelings about our country. It's like it's just about getting by, or people can like 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.

Okay, maybe it's legal and maybe it passes muster with shareholders. But there's something about us that fundamentally feels it isn't right. And 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.

We have a deep sense that what's happening is wrong and unethical and that we are in decline because we've lost our moral compass.

INSKEEP: Well, Ben Affleck, it's been a pleasure speaking with you.

Mr. AFFLECK: It's been my real pleasure. This was a lovely conversation, and I'm really grateful that you had me on the show.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Ben Affleck stars inn "The Company Men," open now in New York and L.A., and opening nationwide next month.

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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