Editor’s note: Congrats to Casey Affleck, who just won the Best Actor Oscar! We could think of no better time to resurface the thoughts he shared with us late last year. Enjoy.
His older brother Ben might be the bigger celebrity, but Casey Affleck is the actor on everyone’s It List this year, winning raves and quite likely an Academy Award nomination for his work in Kenneth Lonergan’s critically acclaimed new film, Manchester by the Sea.
Affleck, 41, known for his roles in Interstellar, the Ocean’s trilogy, and an Oscar-nominated turn in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, has been lauded for his portrayal of Lee Chandler, an angry, damaged man who returns to his hometown to care for his nephew after his brother dies.
In a Q&A after a Variety Screening Series showing of the film, Affleck weighed in on the role, his career, and how being a father—he has two boys, 12 and 8—has changed his perspective.
“I like feeling a little bit scared, that I’m not quite up to it because then I know that I’ll either fail or I’ll succeed and I’ll have grown quite a bit.”
The movie was a big hit at Sundance a year ago and has won many honors since. Were you surprised by the glowing reception?
It was a little surprising. So often you work on things and as much as you love them and work hard on them, they don’t connect with a big audience. This does. It’s really nice to be honored. I’ve experienced the opposite so often that it’s a nice surprise when people love it. The truth is, no matter how positive the reaction to a movie there’s always this wave of negative online noise. It’s embarrassing when people say nice things about you and it’s painful when they say mean things about you so there’s not a big comfort zone in there. But I’ll definitely take the former over the latter.
At one time Matt Damon was going to direct with John Krasinki starring. How did you get involved?
I’ve known Kenneth [Lonergan] for 15 years or so. I did a play with him years ago. He sent it to me and asked me to read it. I loved it. At the time he was the writer, not the director. When he came on as the director he asked me to do it. It was very exciting and very scary all at once.
How did you approach the role?
I put my energy into working with the script and navigating how much of the sorrow that Lee’s carrying around he’s showing and not showing, and when he’s doing it and not. He’s very direct and blunt. He comes across as a quiet person and so terse but there’s a lot of dialogue in there.
Was it daunting for you?
For sure, but I get off on the fear a little bit. I like feeling a little bit scared, that I’m not quite up to it because then I know that I’ll either fail or I’ll succeed and I’ll have grown quite a bit. I like the challenge. I knew that there were things in the script that would be hard to do and that coming to work every day and embodying and holding onto the emotions of the character would be hard, sad and heavy. But if you want to be an actor, that’s the kind of thing you want to do. And it also can help you with some of your own stuff. It can be very therapeutic.
What was your first acting job? Did you do commercials?
Yeah, some of that—modeling and extras in the background. My mother’s friend was a casting director in Boston, and she would bring us in for things. We’d get a day off from school. The first time I ever thought about being an actor was when I’d graduated high school. I’d moved out to L.A. with a friend when I was 18 and didn’t know anyone who’d had much success in the business. I got an agent and went on like 100,000 auditions, and finally got an audition for Gus Van Zant’s To Die For. He cast me in that and I had such a fantastic experience, the best first impression possible. I knew I could spend my life doing this. Had I known how bad I was at the time I might not have felt that way.
Do you think you could have played this character 10 years ago? Were age and experience an advantage?
I don’t know if it’s age, but having children… if I didn’t have children I don’t think I would have been able to do this, not knowing what that was like. It changes how you see everything in the world, especially a story like this. When I look at stuff I did ten years ago, I think. ‘It would be good to remake that.’ One of the great things about being able to work over the years is there’s a marker of where you were and what you thought was important and what you were interested in, like looking back at a family scrapbook of yourself at different ages. If I’m fortunate to keep working for the next 10 or so years, maybe I will see this time in that way too.
Do you watch your films?
No. I try not to watch because I feel like I’ve learned everything I’m going to learn from the experience. Especially if it’s a good experience I don’t want to contaminate the memory with the actual finished product, which you sometimes don’t love. Also it creates bad habits. As actors get older sometimes they start repeating themselves, doing certain things, and watching and studying yourself, you become self-conscious.
Do your kids show any interest in acting? Would you approve if they did?
They like doing it in school, which is great, but they have not expressed interest in being a professional actor. It would be OK if they really loved doing it. Unfortunately, a lot of what we see about professional actors is about other stuff—celebrity—which has nothing to do with the life of a working actor. I’d tell them, ‘If you love doing it you should, you definitely learn a lot about yourself and other people. But don’t think it’s all about flying places and the perks you get.’ Most actors do the work and you never hear about them or learn their names. There are very few who become celebrities.
Did playing this role teach you anything about overcoming obstacles?
Sometimes things pop up and I find myself complaining, and then I think about the things that happen in this character’s life. You just have to count your blessings.