2007 was Casey Affleck's moment. With revelatory performances in GONE BABY GONE and THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor), it was the year that established him as one of the most gifted actors of his generation. I couldn't wait to see what he did next.
This made the next three years particularly excruciating. Rather than build on the momentum created by those two films, Affleck decided to direct a mockumentary with his brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix. It was a very public process that positioned Phoenix as an addled actor-turned-rapper. The whole thing was clearly an Andy Kaufman-esque stunt, but Phoenix wouldn't break character and Affleck insisted it was genuine, so people inexplicably grew very angry about the whole endeavor. When I attended the press day for James Gray's TWO LOVERS, a disheveled Phoenix stumbled into the roundtable with a tumbler of whiskey and a cigarette. Affleck was there filming the interview (which did not make the final cut of the film), and while I personally enjoyed the experience, I found myself wondering when I'd get to see the guy behind the camera doing his thing in front of it again.
Affleck returned to acting in 2010, but it wasn't until this year that the guy who knocked me out in 2007 was back on the big screen. Earlier this year, Affleck gave a great performance in David Lowery's AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS, and now he's followed it up with a searing portrayal of a psychologically scarred Iraq War veteran in Scott Cooper's OUT OF THE FURNACE. Affleck plays Rodney Baze Jr., a rough-and-tumble product of the Rust Belt who turns to bare-knuckle fighting as a way to supplement his income. When he disappears after running afoul of a ruthless Appalachian drug lord (Woody Harrelson), Rodney's brother Russell (Christian Bale) goes looking for him. The film captures the pride and desperation of a dying steel town as realistically as any I can remember - which is impressive when the cast is populated by so many instantly identifiable actors. And it's Affleck's performance that gives the film its bruised, defiant soul. The promise of six years ago has been realized and then some.
When I chatted with Affleck at the film's press junket, I knew I had to bring up our previous encounter (and the resulting film, I'M STILL HERE, which I quite enjoyed). It was worth it. As I sat down, we made small talk about how he was holding up at the end of a very long day of interviews. Let's pick it up there...
Casey Affleck: When I had children my tolerance for things skyrocketed. This is a day at the beach. It feels great. Sit here and talk to grownups, no one's hitting me with anything, shouting, screaming, crapping their diaper... it's great.
Mr. Beaks: That's too bad. I had a completely different approach planned for this interview.
Affleck: You want me to change your diaper?
Beaks: I do.
Affleck: (Laughs) Okay.
Beaks: You know, the last time I saw you, you were behind a camera.
Affleck: I was behind a camera? (Thinks on it for a second) Oh, no way!
Beaks: Yes. I was talking to Joaquin at a roundtable.
Affleck: In New York?
Beaks: L.A. actually. That was interesting.
Affleck: (Shaking his head) Well, what did you think?
Beaks: You came in after and explained it wasn't a hoax.
Affleck: Oh shit.
Beaks: You said, "We're not joking." The whole experience was odd. I didn't want to play along, so I only asked real questions. It was a really fascinating experience, and I was really glad not to turn up in the film.
Affleck: (Laughs) I can understand that. It was such a bomb, who would want to be in it?
Beaks: It's not that. I was just mortified of being in the movie. How do you look back on that experience?
Affleck: With complicated feelings. (Pauses) For one thing, being able to watch an actor as good as Joaquin work through the lens of a camera and to have directorial conversations with him - me being an actor, him being an actor - I learned an enormous amount about acting. I think he's uniquely talented.
I could go on all day, so let me be selective here. Coming up on movies, the conversations that were always most effective for me with a director were ones where we tried to make it as real as possible. [The director] would tell you, "That other guy in the scene, he fucking hates you! You've got to believe that." You're trying to make it as real as you possibly can, with all of the producers and the lights and video village, so I thought, "How can we make a movie without all of that stuff? So we can make it feel really real." So when I came into the roundtable and prepped all of you guys, I'm basically giving you the same spiel every director had ever given me. "This is real. You've got to believe this." I had no idea that people were going to feel lied to. Honestly. It just goes to show you how oblivious I can be, I guess. I was thinking, "No one really thought this was real, right?" It was so obviously a satire. It's such a broad comedy. The performance is so brilliant, but it's so broad no one is going to think it's real real. I'm just trying to convince them that it's movie real. Then the movie comes out, and everyone is basically furious. They feel lied to. They feel shouted at - because the character was very abusive. They feel abused, shouted at, deceived, and I feel absolutely destroyed and horrible and guilty for a year. I never had that much negative junk directed at me, and I was mortified. But I got to do certain things that I'll probably never get to do with a movie again. We got to do whatever we wanted. It was a liberating creative experience.
Beaks: Like I said, it was fascinating, but it was also fun to be a part of.
Affleck: I'm so glad you're not mad at me.
Beaks: Not at all. If I was bummed about anything, it was that you were behind the camera. I was like, "This is cool, but I miss watching this guy act."
Affleck: That's very kind of you.
Beaks: I know that you can be selective with the roles that you take. What is it you're looking for? Could you work more often than you do?
Affleck: I would love to work more often. Basically, I'm really selective, and then I'll go broke and have to do a movie. And those movies that I have to do, well, of course they're going to be terrible because I'm doing whatever's available. If you look at my career, you can see that it's pockmarked with those kinds of movies. And then every now and then there'll be something good, and those are the ones I grab as soon as they come along.
I love acting. There was a period where I'd done THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSEE JAMES [BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD] and GONE, BABY, GONE. I was having a great time being an actor, but I wasn't being smart; I wasn't being a careerist about it. I thought, "Oh, now I'll go direct a movie for two years." People in this town, in two years they forget about you. So when I started acting again, I was sort of starting from square one. There are a lot of great actors out there, but there aren't a lot of great scripts - and those scripts go to those actors. If those scripts came along more often, I would work constantly. Christian [Bale] probably gets one good script after another, and that's why he does: he works quite a lot. For a period, that was true about Matt Damon: he just did movie after movie, and it was always a great script and a great director. I feel like a lot of great actors, they get one chunk in their life where that's true. Like with Pacino, you can see it. There are four classics right in a row. I haven't had that. I always had to wait three years before a good movie came around. And that's okay! I'm grateful for the opportunity to have one done movie I'm super proud of. I've actually done a couple, but, boy, I wish they came around more often.
When I started this movie, honestly, there was a part of me that was burned out on the waiting around. I was like, "I've got to do other stuff because I don't want to sit around and be frustrated creatively. Time is going by, and I want to work, or I'll find something else to do that's creatively satisfying." And that first day with Christian, it was literally like that moment in RATATOUILLE, where the critic is served the ratatouille. He's such a bitter and sour guy. He's forgotten everything about why he even loved food in the first place. He's been this nasty, mean old dude, but when he takes that bite he flashes back to being a kid and his mom serving him ratatouille. It really was like that with Christian. It was like, "This is what I love about acting in the first place. This is what I wanted to do." It just made me more positive, and it really reinvigorated me. So I'm dying to work more. I'm champing at the bit. I've just got to find the right things.
Beaks: Would you write and direct it yourself?
Affleck: I would write it for myself, but I feel that people who direct themselves it tends to not be their best performance. I would feel safe acting with someone I really trust, and I don't know if I trust myself that much. When I'm acting in a movie, I'm going to be as bad as I can be, make tons of mistakes and do all kinds of stupid shit because I trust that this director is going to cut out the bad shit, leave in the good shit, and it's going to work out. I wouldn't trust myself to make those decisions.
(Getting the wrap-it-up sign from the publicist.)
Beaks: You know, if they ever remake FREEBIE AND THE BEAN, they should do it with you and Scott Caan.
Affleck: What's FREEBIE AND THE BEAN?
Beaks: This crazy, knockabout buddy-cop comedy from the '70s with Alan Arkin and James Caan.
Affleck: Huh. Never heard of it.
Beaks: It's just that I like what you guys do so much in the OCEAN'S films that I'd like to see you try to take it long-form.
Affleck: That would be fun. I like him, and I like working with him. He's a laugh. Boy, we had to work hard to amuse ourselves on that set. You could spend a whole day fifty feet from the camera while George and Brad are talking in the foreground. You're just 100 miles away doing some ridiculous background action. But we got along well, and I'd love to find something to do with him. I guess he's going to have to get off of HAWAII FIVE-O.
Beaks: It was a pleasure talking to you, man.
Affleck: So wait, you write for Ain't It Cool. How many of you guys are there?
Beaks: Quite a few. Most of them are in Austin. I'm the West Coast editor.
Affleck: It used to be that you guys always had the break on movies. You always snuck into shit, and no one knew how you did it. Test screenings. Do you guys do that anymore?
Beaks: It's really hard to get away with it now.
Affleck: You're more respectable.
Beaks: I mean, I used to write up test screenings all the time.
Affleck: That was you?
Beaks: I did a lot of them, yeah. But then they figured out who I was.
Affleck: You're like a card counter in Vegas. They caught onto you.
Beaks: If only I had that kind of genius. This was just walking into a movie and hoping they didn't bust you.
Affleck: (Laughs) That's great.
OUT OF THE FURNACE opens in limited release today, and goes wide on December 6th.