When Gus Van Sant was preparing to make 1995’s To Die For, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon were both vying for the role of Russel Hines, which Van Sant gave to Affleck’s younger brother Casey, marking his feature film debut. In the almost two decades since, Casey Affleck’s varied career has included multiple films with Van Sant, three Oceans Eleven movies, two American Pie movies, his remarkable lead turn in Gone Baby Gone, and an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. After taking two years off from acting to direct the brilliant yet polarizing I’m Still Here starring Joaquin Phoenix, Casey is back on the big screen in this year’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Out of the Furnace.
In Out of the Furnace, Casey plays Rodney Baze, returning to civilian life in Braddock, Pennsylvania after serving four tours of duty in Iraq. The area has become so economically depressed, that Rodney’s only hope of survival includes becoming involved in a crime ring and the world of underground, bareknuckle boxing. Out of the Furnace opens on Friday, December 6th. In anticipation, I recently had a remarkably honest and revealing chat with Casey about the film and his career. Here’s what Casey shared with me about getting back into acting after a hiatus, his response to the reaction for I’m Still Here, and building his character in Out of the Furnace.
Jackson Truax: In 2008 you received an Oscar nomination for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. What impact did the Oscar nomination have on your life or career?
Casey Affleck: At the risk of sounding very cheesy, it was really an honor… I do like the people in movies… One of the great things about being an actor, or on a crew, or a critic, or a producer – it’s a pretty good community. Sometimes people can be snarky and mean. And sometimes people are like tyrants. Or directors are awful or whatever. But by and large, it’s a bunch of creative people who like movies, and that’s cool… It’s kind of oddly touching to have people recognize you.
JT: That year you were also in Gone Baby Gone. Your performance burned with a lot of intensity, but it was very smartly underplayed and understated. That comes across in a lot of your work. Is that something you strive for, and where do you think that quality comes from?
Affleck: I don’t know. I don’t strive for it intentionally. What I strive for is just to do something that’s not pretending… Just to find some truth and do something that’s risky, that feels a little bit scary or vulnerable…. But always just to try and find something that actually feels real. After Jesse James and I was nominated, and I did that movie Gone Baby Gone, I did spend two years directing something. A very unconventional movie that took a lot of my time. And I think people just sort of write you off. So it’s been hard to get back and start getting good scripts and getting good opportunities again as an actor. Also, I think, for some weird reason, people got mad at that movie. There was a lot of really negative energy and kind of backlash at the movie that we made… So it was ugly for a minute there. And I wasn’t acting. So now I feel really good that I’m acting and doing stuff. I had the opportunity to do this…independent movie called Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. And then to do this. I’ve just finally felt kind of happy again.
JT: Regardless of how people interpret I’m Still Here, it’s an incredibly intelligent deconstruction of creativity and celebrity. Were those themes you consciously wanted to explore as a filmmaker? Or were you more documenting what Joaquin Phoenix wanted to explore in his life?
Affleck: Very consciously trying to go after some of those ideas… Desperately trying to a find a way to go after them in an original way. Because other brilliant people have tackled those ideas before, or tried to. I felt, “What would be the point of doing it, unless you could find a way to do it well?” Or…to refresh it in some way. Also, I liked the idea of doing something that sort of felt like really visceral and very real. Also, the only way that we could afford to make a movie on our own was to have it be done in certain situations, to use the real world, so to speak. We couldn’t hire a thousand extras to watch him and rent out a concert space to have a concert. So we had to just book him in a show. And let him really go up on-stage… Also, I thought that it was a kind of broad comedy. That it was a satire of stuff. And I thought, “There’s no way in the world people will think this is real. Because it’s so absurd.” But some people were confused by it.
JT: You mentioned Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which played well this summer at the Los Angeles Film Festival before being released. As you were getting back into acting, what attracted you to that project?
Affleck: The director [David Lowery]. I just sat and talked to him. And after the first ten minutes I knew that…I just liked him. I liked how he talked about movies. I liked how he was very deliberate. And he had thought about what he was saying. And he had written a great script. Obviously, that movie, it’s in danger of being derivative of this or that or the other thing. It brings to mind so many movies right away, from Bonnie and Clyde, and Badlands, and different things. And yet, it managed to feel authentic and fresh. I liked it.
JT: You came up though making a lot of movies with Gus Van Sant. Was there anything you learned on his films that you’ve consciously taken with you to other projects?
Affleck: He asked me to edit while they were shooting Finding Forrester. It was before anybody knew about Final Cut Pro. They were experimenting with the program. So I had a little set-up, on the stage. As they shot, I would cut it together as quickly as I could. So they could see. He and [cinematographer] Harris Savides would look at it and say, “Oh, we don’t need this shot.” Or, “Those two shots cut together well.” Can you imagine a better film school that that? I didn’t go to film school. But I would just sit and listen to these guys. Two…real, actual masters talk about what they were trying to do. I learned things that I couldn’t even articulate. Things that were just sort of ingrained in me. I also learned very specific things that I remind myself of that Gus would say. Like on Gerry, Matt [Damon] and I would always say, “What is this about?” And he would say… “Sometimes you have to just let the themes find themselves. You don’t have to know what it’s about and go and try to do that. You just want to do what you’re doing. And maybe you won’t even know until ten years later. Oh, that movie’s about this.” Gus is not only somebody who I love a lot. But is also who has taught me, maybe more than anybody else in film.
JT: You had no formal acting training. Does that have an affect on your work at all, or influence how you approach characters or scenes?
Affleck: It must, I guess. I think that it would be really mean and cynical to say, “All acting training gives you bad habits.” Because I know, obviously from [Marlon] Brando to whoever, Oscar Isaacs, there are people with very formal training that are great. However, maybe it’s been an asset of mine that I haven’t been trained and don’t have any bad habits. I don’t really know.
JT: You’ve done a number of films that feel steeped in a gritty, blue-collar, often urban realism. Gone Baby Gone, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and now Out of the Furnace. What attracts you to these kinds of stories and characters?
Affleck: I think that I’m just attracted to…characters who are complicated and maybe who, you can see that they are both heroic and villainous… That they’re sort of flawed and human. Maybe because I feel that way. And they’re capable of doing good things. And capable of doing things that I would be ashamed of or regret. I feel some closeness to those characters… But I’m not making Shakespeare. People don’t try to cast me as that. I love it, obviously. But no one has ever really said, “We’re doing Hamlet again, let’s get Casey.” I think that having come from, and having grown up, in an inner-city, and really spending almost no time outside of that urban environment as a kid; I do feel connected to it.
JT: You have a long history of working with a lot of really talented, visionary directors. What is it about Scott Cooper that makes working with him unique?
Affleck: Scott is a unique person, for one thing. He has a confidence, a self-confidence, that I think is liberating for him. He’s so confident that it makes him willing to experiment. Or to let other people experiment. Because he’s certain that he’s going to make something good. I think that he also has a real, this sounds so hokey. He has a very pure passion for a specific kind of movie. He’s not worried about “So-and-so is making this kind of movie. And so-and-so is making that kind of movie. And where do I fit into all of this?” I think he just says, “I like these movies. I don’t care that they’re classics. I don’t care that it’s a cliché. These are the movies I love. And I want to make one just like it.”
JT: You and Christian Bale manage to be believable as brothers, and convey a very real sense of shared family history. How did you build that when preparing to film these scenes?
Affleck: I’ve got to say, we did very little bonding or sort-of chemistry creating. There was no alchemy happening. I think that what happened was that Christian happens to be one of our greatest actors. I think he creates a reality in all things that he does. He just brings himself in a way that is easy to connect to… He just drops roots in every scene. He’s not going to stray from something that feels real. It just makes everybody good… When I started to do those first scenes with Christian… I remembered what it was that I loved about acting. I remembered what it was that I wanted to do as an actor. Because he was doing it right in front of me. He definitely made me better. But more than that, sort of inspired me.
JT: Your character in the film has just served four tours of duty in Iraq and is feeling the emotional, mental, and physical ramifications of that. Did you do any research into things like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or the overall veteran experience?
Affleck: I did everything. From the easy stuff of watching documentaries, like War Torn, which is a great one… I did talk to some veterans. Guys from Vietnam, guys from Desert Storm, guys from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars… A picture emerged, that was made out of common experience. And it was of depression, and anxiety, and restlessness, and anger, and feelings of betrayal. And feelings of isolation and loneliness. That they can’t talk about things that they did and things that they saw. That was what I tried to bring to that character.
JT: You did a very specific sort of bare-knuckle boxing in the film. How did you train for that? What were the challenges in figuring out how this character would fight given his specific experiences?
Affleck: I had remembered someone that had very, very bad Tourette’s syndrome said that they only time that they were comfortable was when they were on a galloping horse. When there was so much stimulation, it soothed them. Other than it, they were terrible… So I decided that it was in moments of danger, and when the adrenaline was pumping that he actually suddenly feels sort of calmed and comfortable. In those fights, that’s the feeling that he wants. It’s sort of like an addiction, a craving, to return to those feelings… I watched these fights. They’re not professional boxers. They don’t look great. It’s not Bruce Lee shit. These guys are doing their sloppy, messy, angry, violent, brutal fights. It looks like a terrible street fight. So I didn’t want to train… I just wanted to look like somebody who was very tightly wound. And had to fight that way too.
JT: The main thing you have coming up is Christopher Nolan’s next film, Interstellar, which is being kept tightly under wraps. But aside from that, what do you see yourself doing in the near future?
Affleck: I really want to act again. I’m just trying to find a script that I really love. And a part that I feel like I want to do. So if you come across any, let me know. I’m desperately looking for that. I’ve been turned on, reignited, a little bit. I’m really enjoying it. That’s what I want to do.
JT: Have you considered trying to write a great role for yourself?
Affleck: I find it hard… I wrote a great role for someone else. I wrote a script… But it’s hard to just say, “Okay, this is who I’ll play. I’ll write that.” But maybe I’ll have to. Or maybe you could.