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Gus Van Sant on Making ‘To Die For’ and ‘Good Will Hunting’ With Casey Affleck

Director Gus Van Sant gave Casey Affleck his first acting job at 19—as one of the high school students Nicole Kidman seduces in “To Die For”—and they later became friends that collaborated on “Good Will Hunting” and “Gerry.” For this week’s cover story on Affleck and his performance in “Manchester by the Sea,” Van Sant talked to Variety about working with the actor, now 41, over the years.

“To Die For” (1995): “It was set in New Hampshire, and the Boston accent was semi-accurate to the area. It was actually Matt Damon who had come in for an interview about the role of Jimmy [later played by Joaquin Phoenix], and he said that we should meet. Casey just seemed really great for the character of Russel. There were a couple things about not casting Matt. He was older. The character was 16, and Matt was 23. And also, Matt was very all-American looking and the character Jimmy was supposed to be damaged by his life. Casey was quite young compared to Matt. Even though he seemed like a regular guy, he had a history of a lot of different things, because his dad worked in a famous theater group. He had been in and out of workshops and plays. I guess all that was paying off.”

“Good Will Hunting” (1997): “Mark Tusk at Miramax brought me ‘Good Will Hunting.’ We were talking about Boston in the ‘70s, which led to this South Boston story. I had just read the script, and I called Casey to get in touch with Ben. Casey was going to school. I got him in his dorm room and he gave me Ben’s number. Everyone was a big fan of Casey’s, and Casey was around when we were working on it. Casey wanted to make a film about making ‘Good Will Hunting.’ He was going to make a documentary. Somehow that got pushed aside. We just assumed that he would play this character [one of the townies, Morgan O’Mally], because he was that guy. He was always part of any raucous discussion. He was a natural, but he said he didn’t want to play the character. It was kind of up to us to beg him. He also didn’t have an agent, which was funny. He didn’t see why he needed one. We had to go directly to him to persuade him.”

“Gerry” (2002): “I was looking for a place to live in New York, and he was living in New York. He knew of a place next door. It was empty, and I rented it. While I was there, the upstairs space became for sale. I bought that and moved to New York. I was his neighbor for two or three years. I was always going out to breakfast or dinner with him and his friends. Matt had come over and had the idea of getting two guys lost in the desert. And ‘Gerry’ was born from one of those dinners we had.”

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