Oh brother, where art thou? - Casey Affleck interview

Casey Affleck talks to Siobhan Synnot about finally stepping out of his sibling's shadow with the lead in a new film that for the first time leaves Ben behind the cameras

CASEY Affleck has never saved the world in a mask and red tights. He hasn't dated Gwyneth Paltrow or the diamond-encrusted J-Lo. And he didn't take his mother along to watch him accept an Oscar. That would be the Other Affleck.

There's no question who is the best-known Affleck brother for now, yet in the past six months Ben Affleck's little brother has found his own spotlight. Last winter he provided Oscar-nominated support for Brad Pitt in The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford and this summer, he will carry the lead in Ben's long-delayed directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone.

The name Affleck was in danger of becoming synonymous with bad cinema, thanks to such box-office busts as Gigli, Bounce and Jersey Girl. But Ben became more choosy about his movie projects, and right now his 32-year-old brother is packing enough heat that a movie is being released now on the strength of the Other Affleck's name.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't like it," says Affleck of his rise to attention. "It's great. And of course it's nice to have people respond positively because in the past I've sure experienced the opposite. I haven't done many movies that I've been proud of. The ones I've loved, other people haven't responded to."

Ben and Casey Affleck have been actors since they were children, brought up largely by Chris, their mother, in a working-class Boston neighbourhood after their parents divorced. Affleck was five when he started going to auditions with his big brother. "We would get to be an extra," he recalls. "You can find us in Field Of Dreams, and in The Good Mother. We'd get 20 bucks, and get to eat doughnuts all day."

Back then, Casey was more engaged by the quick money and access to free food. But Ben and his neighbour Matt Damon were already planning how to turn their pocket money jobs into careers.

At 35, Ben Affleck has been a star for almost a decade. Casey on the other hand has worked steadily but without fanfare. Most recently, he could be found doing laps of the art house circuit in movies such as Gus Van Sant's Gerry, or buried about 10 actors deep in the Ocean's Eleven series.

Lonesome Jim was Casey's first starring role, made four years ago between stints on Ocean's 12 and 13.

Unlike his brother's lantern-jawed heroes, Affleck's recent work is located some distance from the moral high ground. It was Buscemi, himself a poet of the maladjusted both in front of and behind the camera, who first spotted Affleck as a fellow traveller with a gift for compelling alienation.

"Maybe because Steve has bad teeth, people cast him as the child molester in their films," notes Affleck. "He makes those characters more complicated than most people would. He's not just a guy who puts his partner in a wood chipper in Fargo, he brings a sense of humanity to these characters."

In his way, Casey is just as distinctive yet unassuming as Buscemi. Soft-featured and quietly spoken, he never commits grand larceny of a scene, but proved exceptional in his Oscar-nominated portrait of a needy outsider with a girlish crush on Jesse James, who mutates into an unholy creep who craves fame, or infamy, for himself. "I think Casey understands what it's like to be in somebody's shadow," said Andrew Dominik, director and screenwriter of Jesse James.

The younger Affleck is accustomed to denying any sibling rivalry: "You get to where you have had enough failures and you realise that you've got one brother. You are going to ruin the relationship by being competitive over who gets to be in a movie? Are you kidding me?"

He also points out that rivals rarely work together and the Afflecks have appeared together in three pictures; 200 Cigarettes, Chasing Amy and, of course, Good Will Hunting. Aged 20, Casey even used his proceeds from a small role in the film To Die For to buy the computer Ben used to write the script for which he and Matt Damon won that Oscar.

Now his brother seems to have returned the favour by choosing him to star in his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone – except that originally Ben Affleck bought Dennis (Mystic River) Lehane's novel as a vehicle for himself. Only when he started adapting it did he realise that directing and starring would be too big a task and started looking for another leading man to play the knight-errant gumshoe whose search for a missing child turns out to be a wrenching morality tale rather than a crowd-pleasing entertainment.

But having decided to give the role to Casey by default, and used Casey's performance in Jesse James to convince financiers that he had the heft to carry the lead, ironically, it was his younger brother refused to be railroaded into accepting the part.

"I said I would read the script and I would love to work with him, but I wanted to make sure that I was right for it. I didn't want to screw it up. I know that casting is so important in directing a first movie, and a lot is at stake. If you don't pull it off the first time, then you rarely get a second shot. So I wanted to be very careful about the decision. We talked a lot, we disagreed about everything, and then I said: 'I'm in.'"

"You don't get many chances if the first movie's not that good, so I knew how important this was for Ben and I didn't want to take the part and then not know what I was doing, or not bring to the movie what's needed."

Amusingly, each brother gives a different account of how they worked together on set. Ben Affleck claims there was little familial informality. "You have to treat Casey as you would treat any actor in the movie, which meant trying to swallow the urge to strangle him, or to be really curt with him and just say: 'Because I say do it that way, that's why!'" he contends.

"Instead, I had to listen more and say: 'Well, OK, that's interesting. I hear you. Let's process what you're talking about.' So it was an exercise in self-discipline for me. But the thing that's really rewarding is that my brother is a really, really good actor."

"Well, first of all, he rarely swallowed the urge to strangle me," retorts his younger brother when his elder brother's remarks are relayed to him. "If he felt that urge, he usually went for it. And what's more, I don't think I ever heard him say: 'I hear you, and let me process that.' But no feelings were hurt because I know that he's looking out for me and I'm looking out for him. On set, we'd have big fights but five minutes later be working really well. It was like when we were kids, yelling: 'That's my Stormtrooper,' and five minutes later it's like nothing ever happened.

"I do remember a couple weeks into the movie, Ben would tell me to do something and I'd say: 'That's terrible.' So he'd say: 'Well, I think what you're doing is terrible.' And while we were yelling at each other, I saw Michelle Monaghan just sitting in the chair. The look on her face was: 'What have I gotten myself into? This is like a dysfunctional family.'"

Gone Baby Gone opened in the US last year, but the similarities between this fictional story of an abducted four-year-old named Amanda and the true-life drama surrounding the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in Portugal, forced Miramax to delay the film's British release. The missing child, played by blonde actress Madeline O'Brien, not only has the same first name but the plot had other similarities, notably that the child also appears to have been snatched from her bed.

"It was a wise and compassionate choice because it's a real case, a real little girl, a real family – and this is just a movie," says Affleck. "If it were to interfere with the investigation in any way, there's just no question. You delay it."

The brothers' film finally opens here in June, although it's uncertain whether the premiere will be accompanied by one or both Afflecks, both of whom are based in LA and have young children. Casey's wife Summer Phoenix, herself no stranger to sibling actors as the youngest sister of Joaquin and the late River Phoenix, recently gave birth to their second child, which may mean he stays away from the spotlight a little longer. Watching his brother's early career rise and fall while his pal Matt Damon became the bigger star has given him an insiders' view of modern celebrity, and he's concluded that a personal life can be achieved, provided you don't taunt the tabloids with six-carat engagements to blue collar divas.

"You can be as big a movie star as there is and retain some sense of privacy," confirms Affleck. "I walk down the street with Matt Damon and the paparazzi don't follow him around. I don't worry too much about it. And if I get to the point in my life where there's something out of control with the way things are going, I can always take my family and disappear."

• Lonesome Jim opens April 11. Gone Baby Gone opens in June

• www.apple.com/trailers/independent/lonesomejim/trailer and www.apple.com/trailers/miramax/gonebabygone/