Casey Affleck: ‘It’s no fun being a giant movie star’
An Oscar for ‘Manchester by the Sea’ would bring Ben’s younger brother the fame he’s been avoiding
You know Casey Affleck. He plays taciturn mopers who conceal awful secrets. His older brother Ben, broad of jaw, is the chiselled hero. Casey is more of the Montgomery Clift school. He was surly as the titular chicken in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He was the tormented cop in Ben’s Gone Baby Gone. As we speak, he is favourite to take the best actor Oscar for his turn as another introverted soul in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea. This will be like pulling teeth, I assume.
“Oh, Ireland. Yeah, I went there for Christmas once when my girlfriend was shooting in the Isle of Man,” he says. “We took the ferry back and that was a bumpy ferry. But I’d rather vomit than go down in a plane. Love that part of the world. Windy. Wet. Suits me.”
So he wasn’t actually working there?
“No. The best time to visit a set is when someone else is working. They have to get up early and get in costume. You can sleep in until nine and then go for a walk around the island. Ha ha!”
So, no. Casey Affleck isn’t what you’d expect. He is at home to intensity, but he’s an enthusiastic talker who peppers his analysis with much self-deprecating humour. Obviously I assume that, raised in Boston, he must be deeply Irish. That’s the law there. Right?
“The name is actually Scottish,” he says. “There is a castle called Affleck Castle. I looked it up and there’s this plaque beside a small pile of rubble. Typical. That’s our heritage. There was a poet called James Affleck. He wasn’t as famous as Robert Burns, but he was the second-best poet around then.”
That will do well enough.
It’s hard to get a handle on the Afflecks’ childhood. Their mother, raised in a prosperous part of Manhattan, attended Harvard and worked as a teacher. But Dad, a serious drinker, bounced from job to job: bookie, bartender, electrician. Casey’s parents split when he was nine and he ended up living with his mother.
Does he think of himself as coming from a working-class background?
“Yeah. I would.”
Was it what we would call a “tough childhood”?
“I don’t know. I don’t know if you know the difference as a child. It’s just your childhood. There are happy times and there are sad times.”
Casey suggests that old James Affleck may be the only artist in the family.
His mother’s best friend, a casting director in the Boston area, secured Ben and Casey work as extras in commercials and TV shows. Both discovered an aptitude for the business and soon found themselves making respectable livings. As long ago as 1995, Casey appeared alongside Nicole Kidman in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For. Two years later, Ben surged ahead when he won an Oscar for writing the same director’s Good Will Hunting with Matt Damon.
A decade intervened before Casey achieved serious renown. Meanwhile, his brother was dragged across the supermarket tabloids. Damon, a mutual pal, became Jason Bourne. Casey married Summer Phoenix and watched Joaquin Phoenix, her brother, become one his era’s most acclaimed actors.
“Other people see your life in a very reductive way,” he says. “When I did To Die For, I knew nobody who was famous. I was just interested in the work. I had a very strange life, in that a lot of people I knew ended up in the same business. If you lived in a town where everyone worked in the steel mill, it would maybe be like that. But I got a glimpse at other people’s careers from the inside out. Some people go down a path and don’t know what’s at the end. I sort of knew what was there.”
So what did his friends’ experience teach him? The lessons can’t have been too dreadful. He kept travelling down that road.
“I learned that it is no fun to be a giant movie star,” he says. “The only upside is that you get to work on better scripts. But the fame isn’t fun. I don’t want that. I don’t want the burden. I don’t want the attention. But you get the opportunity to work with great people.”
In 2010, Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix addressed the pressures of fame in an extraordinary mock documentary called I’m Still Here. Phoenix, who claimed to be leaving acting for hip-hop, walked through the publicity circuit in a state of apparent meltdown. A disturbed appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman was much discussed. Affleck, credited as director, now expresses surprise that anybody failed to spot the hoax.
“It was a full satire of this business,” he says. “But we were making fun of ourselves as much as anything else. I didn’t even think it was that much of a secret. It was so absurd I thought it was obvious we were spoofing. The behaviour was so big and comedic.”
In the aftermath of I’m Still Here, two female crew members sued Affleck for $2 million, detailing “uninvited and unwelcome sexual advances”. The case was settled out of court, but the story continues to hang around as Affleck continues his Oscar campaign for Manchester by the Sea. Actors have seen their challenges wither for less serious controversies.
Affleck plays a blue-collar Massachusetts man struggling to forge a life in the years after a personal tragedy. The role could hardly be better suited to his hooded introspection.
“There are men in the film who are open and expressive. So I don’t think it’s making any sort of statement about gender,” he says. “It’s about this one guy and how he tries to cope with his own grief. He’s not going to forgive himself, though others might.”
Whatever happens at the Oscar ceremony next month, Manchester by the Sea looks to have consolidated Affleck’s position in this precarious business. He may even be a movie star.
“I’ve ended up in the ideal situation,” he says. “I get to work with people I love on good material. And then sometimes I have to work on things I don’t like so much – for the scratch.”
And he won’t say which those projects are?
“No. No, I won’t. Ha ha!”