Interview: Casey Affleck on his Golden Globe-winning role in Manchester by the Sea

Casey Affleck's performance in Manchester by the Sea has landed him a Golden Globe award and plenty of Oscar talk. Yet the role of his career only came his way courtesy of his childhood friend Matt Damon
Casey Affleck in Manchester by The SeaCasey Affleck in Manchester by The Sea
Casey Affleck in Manchester by The Sea

Casey Affleck is pacing around, whistling and unwrapping the cellophane from various boxes of tea dotted around his London hotel suite. Hair long, beard scraggily, suit hanging off his narrow frame, he looks a little feral: like an animal that’s suddenly found itself trapped in a zoo. As it happens, the hair and beard are in preparation for a wilderness movie he’s getting ready to direct and star in (it’s called Light of My Life). The restlessness seems more to do with the fact he’s currently on the promotional trail for one of this year’s most heavily fancied Oscar contenders, Manchester by the Sea.

Affleck has been here before of course. A decade ago he was tipped to join his infinitely more famous older brother, Ben Affleck, on the A-list: there was an Oscar-nominated performance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and also an acclaimed starring role in his brother’s excellent directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone. But aside from a few indie films, a minor recurring role in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven movies and a supporting role in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, his CV in the years since is not that of an especially career-minded actor, comprised as it is of films he says he either loved or movies that he did because he had to make money. “There’s probably more of the latter than the former,” he admits with a smile.

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Manchester by the Sea definitely falls into the former category. He plays Lee Chandler, a man who has fled his old life in tragic circumstances, but who is soon forced to return to his eponymous hometown to reluctantly serve as guardian to his newly fatherless teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges). It’s a devastating film about grief and loss and the complex bonds of family, featuring standout performances not just from Affleck, but also Michelle Williams, who plays his ex-wife. Yet belying such heavy subject matter, it’s also funnier than you might imagine, beautifully capturing the many unexpected ways ordinary people respond to life, even at its most unendurable.

Affleck attributes part of the film’s success in this respect to writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, the acclaimed filmmaker and playwright behind You Can Count on Me and Margaret.

“It was really dense and complex and layered writing,” he says, still pacing around the room. “The characters seemed both relatable and mysterious the first time reading it, which was just a good indication that there would be discoveries to be made over the course of the rehearsal and filming.

“And I’d known Kenny for years,” he adds, finally taking a seat. “Had I not read the script and he called me to do a movie, I would have just said ‘yes’ and cleared the decks.”

His relationship with Lonergan actually goes back to 2002, when he starred opposite Matt Damon – and his own (now ex-) wife Summer Phoenix – in the first London run of Lonergan’s play, This is Our Youth. “The process was pretty much the same,” he says of working with Lonergan all these years later. “It’s not the kind of slap-dash writing you get so often in screenplays. He took three years to do it and there’s not a line in it that he hasn’t thought a lot about. That makes for a really challenging experience as an actor because there’s a lot of meaning there and it’s carefully assembled and if you ask him a question he has an answer. But at the same time, that answer is not the end of the conversation: it’s the beginning of the conversation.”

As much as he can thank Lonergan for the part, though, he also owes Damon, who has famously been a close friend since childhood, having lived a few streets away from Casey and Ben in the Boston suburb of Cambridge where they all grew up together. “Matt was going to direct it,” confirms Affleck.

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Indeed, Damon and fellow actor John Krasinksi initially developed Manchester by the Sea for themselves, but when everyone’s schedules changed and Lonergan stepped in to direct as well as write it, Damon insisted that Affleck was the only other actor he trusted to play the lead.That trust is paying off. It’s by far the best thing Affleck has done, his scenes with Williams – especially towards the end of the movie – proving particularly heartbreaking. “I don’t have any cool, tricky tools for doing those scenes,” he says. “I just imagine those conversations and I think about them over and over and when you start saying them with someone like Michelle, who’s very committed and present and really seems like the character, they suddenly become real.”

The end results have already made him a frontrunner for the Golden Globes [the day after this story appeared in The Scotsman, Affleck won in the Best Actor category] and a second Academy Award nod later this month seems likely. Still, he can’t help but squirm a little as the talk turns to Oscar campaigns.

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“I try not to care too much about it and I try not to care to little about it either,” he says. “I don’t want to be cynical about it. It’s easy to be cynical about it so I try to keep the perspective that it’s nothing any more special or important than the people who you work with recognising what you’ve done and being nice about it… But I would rather be working than doing press for awards.” ■

*Manchester by the Sea is on general release from Friday