Casey Affleck has been steadily working in Hollywood for a little over two decades now, along the way demonstrating vast range both in drama and comedy and even a knack for directing. But it's in the last decade that he's really stretched himself as a performer, starting with his Academy Award-nominated turn in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and culminating in his devastating performance in the acclaimed Kenneth Lonergan drama Manchester by the Sea, a part for which he won a Golden Globe and is widely expected to be nominated for an Oscar that, some say, he'll likely take home. Though he typically doesn't watch his own films, Manchester was an exception. "I’d been through something kind of profound experience with Kenny, and I wanted to have some closure on it," he said. "I really felt very, very close to it."
What was the first thing you ever auditioned for?
The first thing that I remember auditioning for was a weather commercial in Boston, and I got the job. The idea of the commercial was that you ought to watch the weather in the morning so that you know what’s gonna come later in the day. So there were a bunch of kids all in their different homes who were watching the weather and they knew to bring an umbrella to school that day because on the way home it would be rainy. I was a kid who didn’t watch TV in the morning and so he went off to school without an umbrella and shorts and a T-shirt and on the way home he got soaking wet.
And then you got the bug?
I didn’t even really know that that was acting. I didn’t know what that was. The only reason I was there was because my mom’s friend was a local casting director in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and so she would bring us in for things like that because we were just kids that she knew. And if she was casting for kids, she would ring the bell. So I didn’t ever think about acting really as a way of spending your life or as a way of expressing yourself or as a way of making a living until I was in my late teens. Then I moved to Los Angeles after I graduated from high school and did what everyone else does, which is look for an agent, badger them for auditions, and complain when you don’t get any.
And was To Die For the first big thing?
That was the first good audition I ever had, and that was the first job that I got. Gus Van Sant’s performances are always good in his movies. I think he has got a great eye. We became great friends, and you know I attribute to him a lot of the opportunities that I’ve had in my life and also partly the joy that I get out of making movies, because he made a strong positive first impression on me.
So, tell me the history of Manchester By the Sea. Was it Matt Damon or Kenneth Lonergan who approached you about doing the movie?
It was Kenneth Lonergan. He had sent me the script to Manchester by the Sea while I was in Atlanta shooting another movie; this was over two years ago, almost three years ago. And he said, 'I’ve written something for somebody else to direct and I just wanted you to have a read, and let me know what you think.' And so I read it immediately because I’ve loved everything that he’s written, and I’ve read his plays multiple times and seen his movies several times. Then I called him back and told him how much I loved it and gave him some other feedback. And then six months later or eight months later he called and said, 'I’m gonna direct it. Do you wanna be in it?' And I said yes.
As a kid, had you been to Manchester already?I had never been up to that part of Massachusetts. When I was a kid we didn’t really leave Cambridge, which was the town where I grew up in. We almost never really went anywhere, and definitely never up there, so I didn’t know what it was like. And the first thing that we did was start talking about the part and then I started talking about how to get the movie made. He said, 'I don't know if we’ll be able to get it made, but you know let’s try.' And so we went out and tried to recruit other people to help us you know find a financier and so forth, and then he put together an incredible cast. He’s as good at casting as any director I’ve ever worked with; he just really knows who’s gonna be right for the parts. And I sat in on a few auditions with him for the young man who would play my nephew [Lucas Hedges], and it was a real education watching him work with actors.
Did you read with him or you just watched the audition?
I read with him. It was an opportunity for me to rehearse a little bit, and then once he cast the part we had a few weeks of rehearsal. Then we started shooting the movie, and as you know those kind of movies, little independent movies, it’s a race against the clock, so once you start, there’s no stopping; there’s no slowing down. And so all of that rehearsal time, all the time we put in, months and months talking about it all it really paid off for me.
Have you actually watched it?
Sometimes I don’t like watching movies, especially if I’ve had such a great experience. I don’t really want the memory sort of tainted by seeing some version of what you remember that’s totally different or it’s not quite right. And let’s be honest, you know that not every movie turns out well. You can start with a great director and great actors and have a great script and it still just doesn’t work. It’s kind of a mystery how that happens. On this one, though, you know I really felt very, very close to it, and I felt like I’d been through something kind of profound experience with Kenny, and I wanted to have some closure on it. I didn’t want to not see the movie. I wanted to know where he wound up with it, and I sat and watched it.
It must’ve been hard.
Well, it’s a lot because movies are such a collaborative endeavor. It’s not just your work that’s up there. You know there were scenes that I did where I didn't know exactly what I was doing. And sometimes there’s scenes where I go 'Wow, that was exactly what I was doing.' And both are kind of a surprise. But that’s the nature of the beast. It’s what’s challenging about watching the finished thing. It’s like, you know, painting a painting with someone else; they’re painting over stuff that you did and you think you’re crazy.