Casey Affleck Interview: Star Of Manchester By The Sea Talks About Being An Extra, Acting, Family Growing up, a family friend was a casting director who would sometimes use Affleck as an extra. Now, years later, he's transitioned to leading man. His latest film is Manchester by the Sea.
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Casey Affleck: At First, Acting Was 'Nothing More Than A Day Off From School'

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Casey Affleck: At First, Acting Was 'Nothing More Than A Day Off From School'

Casey Affleck: At First, Acting Was 'Nothing More Than A Day Off From School'

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Casey Affleck, a great actor who many people, including me, think hasn't yet gotten the wider recognition he deserves. But that may be about to change with his starring role in the new film "Manchester By The Sea" which was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Affleck also gave great starring performances in "Gone Baby Gone" which was directed by his brother Ben Affleck, and "The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford" for which he was nominated for an Oscar. He was first noticed on screen in the comedy "To Die For," which was directed by Gus Van Sant.

Let's start with a scene from "Manchester By The Sea." When the movie opens, Affleck's character, Lee Chandler, is living in a basement apartment in a Boston neighborhood working as a janitor and maintenance man. He keeps to himself, and we don't yet know why. Then his brother dies, so Lee travels to his hometown Manchester-by-the-Sea in Massachusetts, where his brother lived with his teenage son Patrick.

Lee is taking care of funeral arrangements. And in this scene, he's meeting with his brother's lawyer, who is handling the will. The lawyer informs Lee that his brother named him as Patrick's guardian. Lee is shocked.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MANCHESTER BY THE SEA")

CASEY AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) I don't understand.

JOSH HAMILTON: (As lawyer) Which part are you having trouble with?

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) Well, I can't be his guardian.

HAMILTON: (As lawyer) Well...

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) I mean, I can't.

HAMILTON: (As lawyer) Well, naturally, I assumed Joe had discussed all this with you.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) No, he didn't. No.

HAMILTON: (As lawyer) I have to say, I'm somewhat taken aback.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) He can't live with me. I live in one room.

HAMILTON: (As lawyer) Well, but Joe has provided for Patrick's upkeep - food, clothes, et cetera. And the house and the boat are owned outright.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) I can't commute from Boston every day until he turns 18.

HAMILTON: (As lawyer) I think the idea was that you would relocate.

AFFLECK: Relocate to where?

HAMILTON: (As lawyer) Well, if you look...

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) Here?

HAMILTON: (As character) ...It's - well, as you can see, your brother worked everything out extremely carefully.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) But he can't have...

HAMILTON: (As lawyer) Yes.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) Can't have meant that.

GROSS: Casey Affleck, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love the new movie. And you play a character who can't really express emotion. He can no longer allow himself to feel emotion, and he isn't very talkative either. So can you talk a little about getting into that kind of character where your acting is about - more about holding things in with occasional explosions of anger?

AFFLECK: First of all, thanks - thanks for having me. And I'm glad you liked the movie. So I think that there's - he comes across for some reason, it's been said to me before that he's a man of few words, that he's not very expressive, that he doesn't say much, stuff like that. And it's been said that he's sort of shut down or doesn't feel anything, which is another reaction that I was surprised by it because I felt like the character was really boiling over with strong feelings in every scene.

And I guess what made it kind of a tricky wicket of a part was that it demanded some really strong feelings, a lot of emotion but also a lot of restraint. And Kenny also wanted to make sure that it didn't veer into melodrama, you know, that we kept a nice balance and created tension with the emotion that the character was feeling. And one of the ways that that was done, you know, Kenny very wisely kept great distance with the camera.

You know, there's a scene in which I go and - to the morgue and I have to identify my brother's body. And they pull him out of the little steel box on the shelf and there he is. And I have to say goodbye to him. And I didn't know what was going to happen. And it was one of the most surprising moments in my career because I knew Kenny - it wasn't scripted to be a very emotional scene. He wanted it to be kind of a surprise that the character identifies the body and he - just that's it.

However, when I entered into the scene and I walked up to the body, I was really moved in talking about it. It's very emotional for some reason, and I was visibly upset. I was crying, and I kissed Kyle Chandler, who's playing the part laying on the slab there. And - but Kenny's camera, you know, he's put it at a distance as many of the shots in the movie are these kind of wide shots, these master shots and a lot of distance from what's happening and the characters and especially with my character.

GROSS: So - but when you had this emotional reaction in the morgue scene, why do you think you had such emotional - an emotional reaction more than was called for in the script? Were you reacting to the moment and in character? Were you thinking of something from your own life?

AFFLECK: I was not thinking from something in my own life. And that moment was, you know, just saying goodbye to my brother and holding him for the last time. And it was emotional in the way that I think is natural for probably someone - for anyone who has been through something like that.

And so - and it was a private moment, which is different than a lot of those scenes in this movie where he has a lot of feelings. But he's in the presence of other people and he doesn't want to deal with other people, their emotions. And he doesn't want to share his emotions with them.

So, for example, the scene with the doctor when I - when they tell me that he's - my brother is dead, you know, I don't show anything there and I'm very, very controlling. I'm controlling the whole scene. I'm controlling everybody there. I don't let them express emotion. I don't let them talk about anything other than the logistics. I want to know where's the body, and I want to know what happens with the body next. How am I going to get the body to the next place to go to?

He's sort of disabled himself emotionally because to be - to be turned on and to allow himself to feel anything, it would be too much. So all of those feelings, they're flooding inside of him. And he just keeps his hand firmly on the lid but not because he is - has no feeling. It's because he has too much feeling.

GROSS: How did you know you wanted to act? And how old were you when you figured that out.

AFFLECK: Boy, I'm still trying to figure it out. My first exposure to TV, film, theater, the idea of what acting was is I was a little kid and my mom's best friend was a local casting director in Cambridge, Mass. Her name was Patty Collinge. And there wasn't a lot of work in Cambridge, Mass.

But every now and again, they'd do a local weather commercial or a movie would come to town and they would need extras. And so me and my friends and - we would - you know, she'd bring us in and we'd get a day off from school and we'd get to be an extra in a movie, which to us meant nothing more than a day off from school. And at the end of the day, they gave you 20 bucks and then your mom took 15 of it and put it away and you got $5. And that was it. That was a real treat.

And so when I got into high school, you know, I started acting because I was well on my way to being a professional baseball player. And I was...

GROSS: Wait, wait, are you serious or kidding (laughter)?

AFFLECK: I - well, and I was deadly serious about it. And I think it probably would have come to pass, but - that my professional baseball career was derailed when the person who directed the plays at my high school came to me and said we're doing a musical. We have 19 girls and we need one male at the very least to play the the male lead. And I considered another summer of baseball or a summer in the basement of the theater department with 19 girls who otherwise would never have spoken to me. And so thus began my career as an actor.

GROSS: What was it - wait...

AFFLECK: And then I fell in love with it.

GROSS: What was the play?

AFFLECK: It was a musical version of "The Madwoman Of Chaillot."

GROSS: A musical version...

AFFLECK: It was called "Dear World." I have no idea. I'm not a musical person. And in fact, I'm tone deaf, as it was revealed in the second rehearsal. The musical director played two notes on the piano and asked me which one was higher, and I said the second one. And he said, OK, you're tone deaf, which was a blow to the company.

And so I mouthed - I was asked to not make a peep on stage. And so I mouthed the words of the - in the chorus section. And then they had a - they had to have a grown-up male who was a friend of the musical director come in and play - play the lead. And I said that's the last time that'll ever happen.

GROSS: Wait a minute. Now, how come this wasn't a completely discouraging experience? You were chosen (laughter) to be the guy in this musical and once they had you, they thought, like, wow, that was a big mistake. He's tone deaf. So how come you stuck around for more and didn't just kind of leave and think, like, I'm no good, and they don't want me?

AFFLECK: Because I've got grit. That's why, Terry.

GROSS: (Laughter).

AFFLECK: I really love doing it. And I was already taking an acting class. I sort of fell in love with it when I was in high school doing theater. And so as sometimes happens when kids - they graduate high school and people turn to them and say so what are you going to do with your life? I thought, well, I like being onstage. I like being an actor. I guess that's what I'll do. And I drove out to LA with a good friend of mine from Boston, and I didn't really know anyone who had any success. I - took me a few months to find an agent, and it took me a year to get an audition for anything that I wanted to do. So I got a job that year and a movie called "To Die For." And then I fell in love with making movies. It was totally different than anything that I'd known. Being a kid who liked to do theater...

GROSS: Do you think you're lucky that your first film was - it's a really good film "To Die For," and you play - if I can say, a very obnoxious high school kid who's always making really crude comments. And so your first film experience was with Gus Van Sant who, you know, is a very, I think, individualistic filmmaker. He has his own vision, and he's not - even though this was, you know, a relatively commercial film, he's not, like, a big commercial filmmaker. I'm wondering do you feel, like, lucky that that was your first experience?

AFFLECK: Very lucky. I don't know what would have happened had that not been my first experience because it gave me the idea that movies were going to be always that wonderful. You know, that was my first impression of being on the set was with a director who's very, very gentle, very inclusive, very patient, who would take things that you did and make them work in the movie instead of trying to, you know, beat an actor into doing it the way that it's scripted and - or the way that he had envisioned it. He sort of takes what has been given to him and places it into context in a way that makes it work.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Casey Affleck, and he's starring in the new movie "Manchester By The Sea." We're going to take a short break and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Casey Affleck. He stars in the new movie "Manchester By The Sea." Some of his other starring roles were in the films "Gone Baby Gone" and "The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford." Your parents separated when you were young and your father had a drinking problem that sounds like it was pretty serious. He later went to rehab and became, I think, a social worker and then ended up working with people who have drinking problems. Were you aware of his drinking when you were young?

AFFLECK: Yeah. I was aware of his drinking. I was aware that he had - that he was an alcoholic and that he behaved badly that he wasn't in good shape and - in the way that a kid is aware of those kinds of things. He was a bartender also for some for some time and so when my mom was working, you know, my brother and I would just sit around the bar. We'd just go to work with him sitting at the bar. So in some ways it was also just - it was normal, too. I was - became more aware of it, I guess, as I got older and his problem got worse. And, ultimately, he wound up in - and getting sober and pull himself together and we have a great relationship. And he has been sober since I was 14 years old.

GROSS: That's great. So when you were hanging out at the bar because that's where your father worked, what kind of bar was it and what were you exposed to there that you otherwise wouldn't have seen?

AFFLECK: It was next to a post office, and so it was mostly just postal workers. It was a kind of dark bar, you know, no windows. And there's like a jar of, you know, hard boiled eggs on the bar, and it was just a drinkers bar. It was not a - there were - no one was socializing. There were people sitting there alone drinking.

GROSS: So watching your father, after having become an alcoholic, go to rehab and then becoming a counselor or social worker, did that give you the sense that, like, well, people can change?

AFFLECK: Yeah. I was 14 years old when my dad, you know, went into rehab. And he stayed there for a long time - I don't know, 10, 12 years maybe. He first was there as a resident or someone trying to get sober, and it took a long time. And then he stayed on helping people, counsel them towards rehabilitation and sobriety but also helping them get an education and get a diploma so that they could begin to pull their lives together.

He really did make a Herculean effort and has stayed sober for a long, long, long time. I directed a very (laughter) deliberately unconventional movie called "I'm Still Here" some years ago. And he plays - I had my dad play Joaquin - the father of Joaquin's character, who's also named Joaquin, in the movie. And it was a scene that was supposed to be in Costa Rica.

The - Joaquin's character was supposed to go down to Central America to see his father and - as a way of escaping this disaster that he's made of his life back home in Hollywood and trying to disappear. And he goes down and he has a scene with his dad and - where they're sitting at this little Central American outdoor bar. And we shot that in my backyard in Los Angeles. And I had my dad be his dad, and I put a beer in front of my dad.

And I was not intending for him to drink the beer. I just wanted him to be - both of the characters just to be sitting there in silence, sort of uncomfortable silence between father and son. And my dad looked at me and he said, I can't drink this. I said I know you can't, dad. You don't - I don't want you to drink - for God's sake, don't drink. And that's probably the only time we talked about his recovery and sobriety since - since he got sober.

You know, he doesn't talk about it much. But he is a lovable guy, and I have a great relationship with him. He's really very, very smart. And it's been - you know, I got to know a whole new person when I was a teenager because the man I knew before that was just completely different. So in some ways, I kind of began my relationship with the father I know now when I was a teenager.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Casey Affleck. And he stars in the new film "Manchester By The Sea." We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Casey Affleck. He stars in the new film "Manchester By The Sea." You starred the film "Gone Baby Gone," which is adapted from a novel by Dennis Lehane, who's a Boston-based crime writer. You play a private detective in it who takes on a case to, like, kind of supplement what the police are doing to find a missing child.

I want to play the opening monologue from the movie. This is, like, a voiceover monologue. We're seeing a montage of the neighborhood. It's set in a Boston neighborhood, and we're hearing this voiceover.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GONE BABY GONE")

AFFLECK: (As Patrick Kenzie) I always believed it was the things you don't choose that makes you who you are - your city, your neighborhood, your family. People here take pride in these things, like it was something they'd accomplished. The bodies around their souls, the cities wrapped around those.

I lived on this block my whole life. Most of these people have. When your job is to find people who are missing, it helps to know where they started. I find the people who started in the cracks and then fell through. The city can be hard.

When I was young, I asked my priest how you could get to heaven and still protect yourself from all the evil in the world. He told me what God said to his children. You are sheep among wolves. Be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves.

GROSS: That's a beautiful piece of writing and acting. And I know in your first acting role you - you learned you couldn't sing. This probably comes as close (laughter), you know, as you can without actually singing because it's - it has such beautiful music scored behind you. When you read this part, did you know what the music behind you was going to be? Did you do it with the music so that it could have that sense of almost song?

AFFLECK: There was temp music behind it that was very, very similar.

GROSS: Did that help you?

AFFLECK: Yeah, I think it helped. That was Harry Gregson-Williams, the composer and it's beautiful. It's really nice. I don't remember what music was there, but I - listening to it, I do think that I kind of have a voice for silent film. And...

GROSS: (Laughter)...

AFFLECK: I don't - I have a few notes for the director. I'm not sure why it is paced that slowly. I fell asleep during that little piece there. But it is a really nice piece of writing. And the director did a fantastic job with the movie.

GROSS: You know, it's funny when you said you have some notes for the director, I should point out that the director is your brother, Ben Affleck. You've said that most roles that you've gotten, you've gotten because the first choice dropped out. Was that the case with this movie? Did your brother have somebody else in mind (laughter) before...

AFFLECK: He did.

GROSS: ...He cast you - seriously?

AFFLECK: He did. He tried to get - in fact, he asked me to call up a couple of actors who he knew I knew to help him cast the parts. Would you mind calling so-and-so and see if you can - if he'd be willing to read the script?

At the time, I don't think anyone - people only knew Ben from certain movies he was doing as an actor. And they didn't think that he could direct. I think a lot of people passed on the part and - or enough people passed on it that while I was shooting "The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford" in Canada, he showed up. He came up to Calgary, and he said, all right, look, you don't have to call anybody else.

And I really didn't have to think about that either because, A, I knew that he was very, very bright, super-smart guy and would make a great director. And we have similar taste in movies and in acting styles. And we have a shared language that makes it really easy to work together. And we are brothers and sort of grew up sort of looking after each other.

And so, you know, the kinds of - the sort of getting-to-know-you period that wastes the first few weeks of any movie in the relationship between an actor and a director - being polite and trying to understand what the person saying - we didn't have to go through that, you know? We just sort of jumped right into it.

GROSS: Were the actors who you called on to ask to be in the film, the ones who declined to be in the film, were they physically different types than you?

AFFLECK: Not physically different types, maybe slightly better looking. But they were, you know, probably more established actors. I hadn't been a lead in a studio movie at that time. And it's one of those kind of chicken-and-egg things that people talk about. They say, like, oh, he's not a - he's not the lead of a studio movie. And there's no way to - you know, because he hasn't done it. And there's no way to do it until someone gives you your shot.

And once Andrew Dominik saw me audition and gave me the chance to be the lead of a movie that, you know, ironically that Brad Pitt was kind of an - almost a supporting part in...

GROSS: Because he played Jesse James and you played the guy who shot him...

AFFLECK: He played Jesse James.

GROSS: ...Yeah.

AFFLECK: And it was a, you know, very expensive, big Warner Brothers movie. I think Ben thought, oh, OK, well, maybe - maybe I can just cast Casey. Look, someone else has. And that's how that came to be.

GROSS: Casey Affleck, thank you so much for talking with us.

AFFLECK: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Casey Affleck stars in the new movie "Manchester By The Sea." I'm planning to interview the writer and director of the film, Kenneth Lonergan, in a couple of weeks. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like Dave Davies interview with Evan Osnos about what it would take for President Trump to deliver on his campaign promises, or my interview with Francis Ford Coppola about the making of his masterpiece "The Godfather," check out our podcast. You'll find those and other FRESH AIR interviews.

We've been closing the show this week with music by Leonard Cohen, who died last week. We're rebroadcasting my interview with him on the day after Thanksgiving. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M YOUR MAN")

LEONARD COHEN: (Singing) If you want a lover, I'll do anything you ask me to. And if you want another kind of love, I'll wear a mask for you. If you want a partner, take my hand or if you want to strike me down in anger, here I stand. I'm your man. If you want a boxer, I will step into the ring for you. And if you want a doctor...

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