casey affleck variety feature yu tsai
Yu Tsai for Variety

The last person who’d ever want to watch a Casey Affleck movie is Casey Affleck. “I don’t like it, in the way you don’t like hearing your own voice on the machine,” Affleck says over a long lunch in a vegan restaurant in West Hollywood. The conversation starts with routine chitchat but twists at this revelation: Affleck hasn’t seen many of his big-screen appearances, including “The Finest Hours” (in which he plays the engineer of a sinking ship), “Triple 9” (a cop), “The Killer Inside Me” (a sociopath), the Eddie Murphy comedy “Tower Heist” (a concierge), or even Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” (the brother). “It’s a bummer,” Affleck says, “because I like Nolan, and I love science fiction. But I didn’t want to watch that.”

On a Saturday afternoon last January, Affleck broke his own rule when he quietly slid into an aisle seat at the Sundance Film Festival for the premiere of “Manchester by the Sea.” The Kenneth Lonergan-directed drama features a rare lead role for Affleck, as a lonely janitor coming to terms with a family tragedy. “There was some stranger sitting next to me who kept looking at me after every scene,” Affleck recalls. “The expression on her face was, ‘What did you think of that?’ And she’d lean in. Movie seats are pretty close as it is.”

Yu Tsai for Variety

All of Hollywood is going to want to get a good look at Affleck this awards season because of his sublime performance in “Manchester by the Sea,” which sparked a bidding war after its Sundance debut. (Amazon Studios snatched up the rights for a massive $10 million.) After months of deafening buzz and standing ovations at film festivals like Telluride, Toronto, and London, Affleck is the early favorite to win the Oscar for best actor. Don’t scoff: For once, the category isn’t stacked, with only a handful of serious contenders, including previous winners like Tom Hanks (“Sully”) and Denzel Washington (“Fences”).

The stakes aren’t high just for Affleck. “Manchester by the Sea” is a big gamble for Amazon, which is trying to establish itself as a player in the indie film business. And it will also be an important litmus test for Hollywood to see if audiences are still interested in dramas targeted to adults at a time when other popular Park City festival offerings like “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” “Sing Street,” and “The Birth of a Nation” have struggled at the box office.

Unlike Netflix, which simultaneously debuted “Beasts of No Nation” in select theaters and on TV screens last year, Amazon is relying on a traditional rollout strategy. “Manchester by the Sea” opens on four screens on Nov. 18 (as a co-release with Roadside Attractions) and will continue to expand to hundreds of theaters throughout the winter, before streaming on Amazon Prime in early 2017. “That’s the best way to release the film in terms of awards voters and audience,” says Bob Berney, Amazon Studios’ head of movie marketing and distribution, who believes that the quiet drama will “really benefit from word of mouth.” Amazon plans to spend competitively to get the film in front of Oscar voters. “We’re doing a solid awards campaign,” Berney says.

Affleck was on the cusp of stardom once before, earning an Oscar nomination for 2007’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” That same year, he appeared in his brother Ben’s directorial debut, “Gone Baby Gone,” to rave reviews. “I was told things were going to change,” Affleck says, “and I would get more opportunities. And the opportunities never arrived. I feel like whenever I do a movie, people think, ‘Well, that’s good, but that’s probably the best he’ll do.’ I sort of bang and bang and kick in a door, and people say, ‘Now a million doors will open for you.’ And they don’t. I’m 41, and it’s been many years of banging and kicking.”

Matt Damon, a longtime friend and producer of “Manchester by the Sea,” thought Affleck’s career would change after “Jesse James,” too. “He didn’t work for a few years,” Damon says. “In his defense, if you look at the movies he was offered, I don’t think he passed on anything he should have done. The period of him being hot lapsed.”

It’s not that Hollywood hasn’t noticed Affleck’s talents. “I don’t think that he’s underappreciated,” says David Lowery, director of the independent drama “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” “If you talk about Casey Affleck to anybody in the industry, their eyes light up. I think there’s the perception that he marches to the beat of his own drum.”

Affleck is partly to blame for that perception — he followed up his previous successes by directing the 2010 Joaquin Phoenix mockumentary “I’m Still Here,” which was a critical dud. He has had a career trajectory that’s hard to categorize. For years, magazine writers have rested on the cliché of comparing him with his older brother — a 2004 profile in Boston magazine was titled “The Other Affleck.” As Ben carried big-budget tentpoles like “Armageddon,” Casey toiled in character parts in smaller pictures like “Gerry,” which he wrote with Damon, or “Out of the Furnace.” He has avoided franchises, with the exception of “Ocean’s Eleven,” in which he played a minor part as a wisecracking mechanic. “Brad Pitt would be in front of the camera, and I would literally be on the other side of the airplane hangar, blurry in the background, stacking poker chips for six hours,” Affleck says.

Yu Tsai for Variety

Affleck’s acting path started with Gus Van Sant’s 1995 cult classic “To Die For,” but he never nailed a rhythm for choosing follow-up projects. “How often do you see a movie and love it?” Affleck asks. “I don’t get to be in those. A lot of the times, I end up having to do jobs to sort of pay the bills.” Prior to “Manchester by the Sea,” he was restless — a familiar feeling for him. “I wouldn’t say I lost faith,” Affleck says. “I just found myself in the usual ‘Is this it?’ doldrums.”

He speaks honestly about living in the shadows of fame. He goes unrecognized in the restaurant, as he nibbles on a salad. “I have so many close friends and family who are not only talented, but very successful,” he says. “It just so happens the person I married” — Summer Phoenix (they are divorced and have two sons, ages 12 and 8) — “was a super-talented actress. And her brother, Joaquin, happened to be incredibly talented. My brother is Ben. I grew up a block away from Matt Damon. It’s just a tight circle of people who have had some success.”

But he’s put off by surface comparisons. “When other people say, ‘Oh you’re so-and-so’s friend, brother, or husband,’ it’s reductive to the point of being white noise,” Affleck says. “At times, it’s made things harder. At times, it’s made things easier. So it all evens out. I look at my career compared to the other people I grew up with, and I feel like we’re all different.” He offers another comparison of being put in a box. “I’ve run into people who say, ‘I know what you’re like: You’re a Boston guy.’ That’s so weird. This person who doesn’t know anything about me thinks they know a lot because of the city I grew up in, which to me is a meaningless label. There are all kinds of people from Boston.”

Affleck grew up in Cambridge, before it became gentrified. His mom was a schoolteacher. His dad, who juggled odd jobs from janitor to bartender, separated from the family when Affleck was 7. “I went to some pretty shitty inner-city public schools,” he says. “Remembering my childhood, it feels like ‘Lord of the Flies.’ I don’t remember adults. I just remember roaming the city.” He’d spend afternoons with Ben, unsupervised, and they’d often get into fights. “All the time,” he says. “Brutally. Like my kids fight now. No holds barred. Weapons. Anything. Things flying across the room.”

At 8, Affleck sold newspapers on a street corner. In the seventh grade, he worked as a concessionaire at Fenway Park, staying out until 11 p.m. (“I saw hundreds of fucking baseball games,” he says.) Then in high school, he took a drama class in which he learned he couldn’t carry a tune. All these years later, his bad singing still haunts him. “I met the Coen brothers for ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’” he says, about auditioning for the star-making role that eventually went to Oscar Isaac. “In the back of my head, I was having flashbacks of being in the musical director’s room in high school. I knew I couldn’t, but I sang for them anyway. That was the end of that.”

Van Sant recalls spotting Affleck in pre-production meetings for “Good Will Hunting,” but the young man wasn’t there for a role — he wanted to direct a documentary about the making of the movie. “That somehow got pushed aside,” Van Sant says. When his brother, Damon, and Van Sant tried to convince Affleck to appear in the film, he refused because he didn’t want to play the townie character. “It was up to us to beg him,” Van Sant says.

In person, Affleck can come across like an aloof graduate student, peppering a conversation with his own questions. “Who is your editor?” he wants to know. Asked if he’d make a comic-book movie, he responds: “I haven’t seen any I like,” momentarily oblivious to how this sounds, given his brother’s credits. He corrects himself, in an endearingly goofy way. “I saw ‘Batman.’” Beat. “I did like that.” Affleck is more animated over the thought of watching the first presidential debate later that night, and he predicts that Hillary Clinton will win the election in a landslide. “There’s a few loudmouth idiots who make a lot of noise to make it seem like Trump has supporters,” Affleck says. “I think most people look at him and can tell he’s a dangerous fool.”

Affleck’s interests are much broader than acting. He has completed several screenplays — among them a tale of wife-swapping Yankees pitchers set in 1973, and an action film about the race to the South Pole — which have yet to be made. “I used to like writing,” he says. “It’s so lonely, though.” After the Sept. 11 attacks (which he witnessed, living in downtown New York), he entered a contest to design the World Trade Center memorial, and was proud of his rough sketches. He shares a story about how he spent years trying to launch a museum “about visions of the future,” even going to Dubai to pitch the idea and setting up a board of directors. But in the end, he says, local officials proceeded without him. “I felt so robbed. But you’re powerless unless you want to get embroiled in litigation.”

“I sort of bang and bang and kick in a door, and people say, ‘Now a million doors will open for you.’ And they don’t. I’m 41, and it’s been many years of banging and kicking.”
Casey Affleck

He has also toyed with opening a chain of fast-food vegan restaurants and inventing an iPhone app for lost dogs. “I kind of got bored,” he says. “It was too complicated.”

His curiosity led him to the Joaquin Phoenix documentary, which he concedes may have stalled his career. “In general, people were irritated by it,” Affleck says of his attempts to convince the press that the premise — Phoenix quits acting — was real. “They thought we were trying to pull the wool over their eyes.” But he doesn’t regret making the film. “I laughed at it when we watched it,” Affleck says. “And I remember when we showed it in Venice, there was one other person in the theater laughing, which was Joaquin.”

The documentary tarnished his public persona in another way. In 2010, the movie’s female producer and the cinematographer filed lawsuits, accusing Affleck and members of the crew of sexual harassment during the shoot. Affleck later settled out of court. “People say whatever they want,” he says about the charges. “Sometimes it doesn’t matter how you respond.” A few minutes later, he adds: “I guess people think if you’re well-known, it’s perfectly fine to say anything you want. I don’t know why that is. But it shouldn’t be, because everybody has families and lives.”

The Making of ‘Manchester’ 

“Manchester by the Sea” had a long road to the big screen, but it wasn’t supposed to star Casey Affleck. Around 2011, Damon and John Krasinski approached Lonergan with the idea for a family saga in the tradition of Eugene O’Neill, about a Massachusetts man named Lee who takes over the care of his brother’s teenaged son. They asked Lonergan to write the script for Damon to direct and Krasinski to star. But things kept shifting over the three years that Lonergan toiled on drafts. “John’s schedule changed,” Lonergan recalls. “Matt was going to be in it and direct it. Matt asked me to direct it. Matt’s schedule changed.”

Lonergan — who, like Affleck, couldn’t be placed in a box by Hollywood after the failure of his last movie, “Margaret” — had shared an early script of “Manchester by the Sea” with Affleck. The two were friends from when Affleck starred in the 2002 London staging of Lonergan’s “This Is Our Youth.” Ironically, on his way to see the Broadway debut of the same play in 2014, Affleck grumbled to a friend about how he wished he could be in “Manchester by the Sea.” He later gave minor notes on the script to Lonergan, suggesting more scenes between Lee and his nephew, Patrick (played by breakout actor Lucas Hedges). “Largely because of that, I enhanced the Patrick character,” Lonergan says. “I tried to get more humor — not to provide comic relief, but to provide a counterpart.”

When Damon couldn’t be in “Manchester by the Sea” due to commitments shooting “The Martian,” he told Lonergan he’d give up the role for only one actor: Casey. “I wasn’t interested in producing it for another actor, unless it was someone I grew up with and loved dearly,” Damon says. “I knew he would be able to do it in a way where I wouldn’t regret giving it to him. He’s one of the best actors I’ve ever met.”

Affleck, who was supposed to appear in Lowery’s live-action “Pete’s Dragon” (in a supporting role that later went to Wes Bentley), cleared his schedule. But there was a problem: The movie had financial backers when Damon was attached. When Affleck signed on, the financing fell out. Nobody wanted to put up more than a couple million dollars for the dark drama.

Yu Tsai for Variety

“The question was, would anybody have the courage to do it with Casey?” Damon says. “It’s very different than it was when I was starting out. In today’s marketplace, it’s hard for people to commit that kind of money. You’re competing with these behemoth movies,” he says, alluding to $100 million studio tentpoles. “It takes sophisticated tastes.”

Enter upstart production company K Period Media, run by Kimberly Steward — the daughter of billionaire businessman David L. Steward — who ponied up $8 million for the project based on the power of Lonergan’s screenplay. “It was a human story that sent a message that could resonate,” Steward says. “Once we read the script, it was a movie we had to do.”

Before the cameras rolled, Lonergan spent two weeks on the screenplay with his cast. “We were rehearsing in a funny space where people were singing opera and tap dancing,” says Michelle Williams, who is generating Oscar buzz for playing Lee’s ex-wife. “It was one of those rental situations in New York with super-thin walls.”

Lonergan saw a kindred spirit in Affleck, and they had many long discussions about the character. “They were always communicating with each other,” Steward says. “I called them ‘Siskel and Ebert’ on set.” Perhaps their most contentious debate was over how Lee would sound. “He had this crazy idea that no one had this accent anymore,” says Lonergan. “I had a really good time pointing out to him every person under 40 who had a strong North Shore accent.”

Adds Williams: “I showed up and said, ‘Are we not doing accents?’ Hold on. I’m going to sound stupid if we’re married and you sound like you, and I sound like this.” Affleck’s accent eventually kicked into high gear. “Kenny pushed and pushed, and he was right,” Affleck says.

The 2015 shoot was rushed: 11-hour days, with the cast bundled up in the frigid Massachusetts weather. “The movie had 100 speaking roles, 55 locations, and we had seven weeks,” Affleck says. “We didn’t have enough time. Some days, we just didn’t finish what we were doing.” But he was still able to channel the character through Lonergan’s words. “When I read Kenny’s writing, everyone seems real,” Affleck says. “You stop assessing what you’re reading in terms of, ‘Does this make sense?’ It’s more like a memory, as if you remember something from your life.”

The press-shy Affleck isn’t sure what to make of the awards buzz. He wonders if Oscar campaigning even works. “It’s complicated, because I like doing Q&As,” he says. “I never get out of those.” He has traditionally kept a low profile when it has come to talking about himself. “I’ve always done the minimum to feel like I’m supporting the movie and done my job,” he says.

On the promotional tour for “Manchester by the Sea,” he has appeared sporting long hair and a scraggly beard for his next project, “Light of My Life,” a survival drama set in the woods, which he wrote and will star in and direct. But he doesn’t want a full-time career as a director. Instead, he hopes “Manchester by the Sea” opens doors for him to collaborate with other filmmakers who challenge him.

Over lunch, he still marvels at a standing ovation he witnessed at a recent screening. “I never experienced anything like that,” Affleck says, fidgeting in his own modesty. “I’m more familiar with other kinds of reactions — lukewarm to politely disgusted. When you walk in and see a movie and people applaud … I was like, ‘Wow.’ I’m still holding on to that feeling.”

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