Entertainment

12.02.13

Casey Affleck, Star of ‘Out of the Furnace,’ on His Hollywood Struggles

The younger Affleck brother was seemingly on top of the world, with starring roles and an Oscar nod. Then he put his acting career on hold for two years to make a gonzo mockumentary with his brother-in-law, Joaquin Phoenix. Now he’s back in the new film Out of the Furnace. He sat down with Marlow Stern to discuss his turn as a troubled war vet.

Casey Affleck seems nervous.

We’re seated across from each other at a nondescript wine bar in Tribeca—an area of Lower Manhattan that, for over a decade, he called home—and the 38-year-old actor is nibbling on a mezze platter of hummus and baba ghanoush (he’s vegan). Affleck’s in town to promote his latest film, Out of the Furnace, in which he stars as Rodney Baze Jr., an Iraq War veteran who returns to his depressed Rust Belt town and reconnects with his older brother Russell, played by Christian Bale. With his employment options limited, and the specter of war still haunting him, Rodney turns to bareknuckle boxing for money and cathartic release. It’s a stunning turn by Affleck, who conveys the horrors of war in his hardened visage and soft, broken voice, prone to fits of rage. It’s also a testament to his mutability as an actor, given his stoic turn earlier this year as an escaped convict on the run in the somber Western Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.

Despite these standout performances, as well as an upcoming role in Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi flick Interstellar, Affleck’s not sure the whole acting thing will pan out.

“I’m still not totally convinced,” says Affleck of his acting career. “It’s tough. There are way harder ways to make a living, and I’m grateful to have a career in movies, but there’s no security. If you’re not saving money, you’re living hand-to-mouth. And I don’t want to just have to do bad movies. I haven’t managed to get over that hump where you’re set, and you’ll be able to always work, and you’ve made enough money to do stuff. I’m just going movie to movie.”

It shouldn’t be that way. Affleck’s breakout should have been in 2007, when he turned heads as a frantic private investigator in Gone Baby Gone, directed by his older brother, Ben, and earned an Oscar nomination as the callow antagonist in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. “I’ve been a nobody all my life,” Affleck’s Ford says in the film. “I know I won’t get but this one opportunity, and you can bet your life I’m not going to spoil it.” But then Affleck made a curious move: he spent the next two years chronicling his brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix’s pseudo-transition from actor to hirsute rapper in the gonzo mockumentary I’m Still Here. The movie seemed both to confound and enrage the media and moviegoing public, who felt like the joke was on them when it was revealed to be a big hoax. 

In Hollywood, if you don’t work for a couple of years people just completely forget about you.

“It was about how celebrities bemoan their circumstances and think it’s so hard, and act and behave terribly,” says Affleck. “I intended for it to be a very broad and absurd comedy done in a very ultra-realistic way, so I was surprised that people didn’t see it for how absurd it really was and bought into it. We had to say the entire time that it was real because that was the only way we were going to get the performances we got, and also the production value of having concerts—we couldn’t afford to hire 1,000 extras. It was done partly out of necessity, and partly out of choice.”

He adds, “I think [Joaquin] was more perceptive and attuned to how people were feeling. I didn’t realize people were feeling duped.”

Before this year, Affleck had starred in only two live-action films since his big 2007—as a killer sheriff in the ultraviolent NC-17 rated The Killer Inside Me, and an accomplice in the Brett Ratner dud Tower Heist.

“I lost a lot of momentum,” he says, admitting that he turned down some “juicy roles” while filming the doc. “In Hollywood, if you don’t work for a couple of years people just completely forget about you.”

In person, Affleck comes off like a normal guy. He’s slight—about 5-foot-8—and is dressed casually in jeans and a Henley shirt. His wide blue eyes, baby face, and soft, mumbling voice are less pronounced than they are onscreen. We casually discuss the gentrification of New York, his home from ’95 to ’05 (“I’m waiting for it to get cool here again. Maybe de Blasio?” he says), his admiration for Brando and Duvall, the 2016 presidential election (“I think that the country is more sexist than it is racist, so I think electing Hillary [Clinton] is going to be very hard”), his Elizabeth Warren fandom (“She’s tenacious, all over Wall Street”), and the idiocy of Ted Cruz, whom Affleck recently saw on Leno.

“That fuckin’ jackass!” exclaims Affleck. “Unbelievable what this dude was saying. I wanted to throw my TV. He’ll go on Leno and say, ‘I want to change America for the better so it helps single moms and the working class,’ and in the same breath say, ‘I’m going to cut taxes, cut spending, and we’re going to have less regulation.’ Those things are incongruous, but people just believe it anyway.”

To prepare for his role in Out of the Furnace, Affleck met with military veterans’ groups and discussed PTSD, as well as the obstacles they faced when returning home from war. He also took sparring lessons with Mike Tyson’s former sparring partner, John Bray. He admits that he “hates” watching fights and that the last time he threw a real-life punch was “back in the ’80s.”

“There were some very, very nasty fights at [Cambridge Rindge and Latin],” he says. “There were about 3,000 kids, and it was very diverse—but mostly working class. I saw fights that I still remember. I saw one in the locker room when I was getting ready to do swimming, and I was about 5-foot-3 as a freshman, so they looked like giants to me just pummeling each other.”

Affleck attended Cambridge Rindge and Latin in Cambridge, Mass., along with Ben and his pal Matt Damon. The three were inspired to act by their high school drama teacher Gerry Speca, who used to have his students improvise scenes for months, the take their work and transform it into an original play to compete in the New England Drama Festival.

“He was genius,” says Affleck.

The two Affleck boys would also make home movies, including a music video for Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” (“It had three different storylines, and I saw it recently—it’s awful”), as well as another short film about made-up superheroes. After high school, the younger Affleck moved to Los Angeles to try his hand at acting. It was ’93, and he lived in an apartment in Eagle Rock with Damon and one other friend, but the only roles he was auditioning for were teen daytime television like Saved by the Bell. He struck out for an entire year. Then, after making plans to leave L.A., he auditioned for Gus Van Sant’s To Die For and landed the role of juvenile delinquent Russell Hines, one of several teens who falls under the spell of scheming weather woman Suzanne Moretto, played by Nicole Kidman.

During the filming of To Die For, Affleck shared an apartment in Toronto with his costar, Joaquin Phoenix. The two became best friends, and Phoenix eventually set up Affleck with his younger sister, Summer. They married in 2006 and have two children together.

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“She was going out with someone else and I said, ‘Man, she’s cute,’ and [Joaquin] said, ‘You should see if she’ll go out with you…don’t worry about that dude,’” says Affleck, with a chuckle. “So he was leaving town one day and said, ‘My sister’s in my apartment and she’s all by herself—would you mind checking in on her?’ So I checked in on her, and it stuck.”

After To Die For, Affleck moved to New York and attended Columbia University for two years, majoring in physics and astronomy. He was having a blast and wasn’t even thinking about acting. Then Damon and his older brother called and said they had a part for him in a new movie they wrote, Good Will Hunting, also directed by Van Sant. After weeks of convincing, Affleck finally agreed to take the part and left school.

What followed was, according to Affleck, a “dark, dark period.” After Good Will Hunting, Affleck once again struggled to book roles in Hollywood, leading to regrettable turns in movies like Drowning Mona and Soul Survivors. He was rescued, in a sense, by Van Sant, who took him under his wing.

 “I don’t know why, but Gus was so nice to me…he included me,” says Affleck. “We did To Die For, Good Will Hunting, and then he let me be an editor on Finding Forrester. No one was using Final Cut, so it was this Proto Editing program. We set up a computer on the stage, and Harris Savides was shooting it, so I’d get the video tap feed from the camera and would be editing while they were shooting, so by lunchtime, I’d have a rough assembly of a scene they shot. And then Gus and Harris would talk about it over my shoulder. It was the best fucking film school anyone could have. And then we did Gerry.”

Gerry, directed by Van Sant and starring Damon and Affleck (who also cowrote the screenplay), centered on two hiking companions lost in the wilderness. It was a metaphysical flop, but it renewed Affleck’s faith in acting, and filmmaking. A lead role in the underrated indie Lonesome Jim and a supporting one in the blockbuster Ocean’s Eleven films followed, before Affleck’s big ’07.

After Furnace and next year’s Interstellar, Affleck is pursuing a number of projects, including a biopic of Boston crime lord Whitey Bulger, with Damon attached to star as Bulger—although the future of that is “a little uncertain,” with several competing Bulger projects in Hollywood. He’s also written—and hopes to direct—his first feature, about the life of Josh Hamilton, who went from blue chip baseball prospect to drug addict to Major League Baseball’s MVP, but he’s having trouble casting a movie star who has Hamilton’s 6-foot-3, 220-pound build. And there’s a screenplay he penned with his brother, Ben, called The Trade, which tells the real-life story of New York Yankees pitchers Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich, who caused a huge scandal in the ’70s when they admitted to swapping wives. Affleck describes it as “a fun sports movie—like Slap Shot.”

As far as acting goes, however, Affleck isn’t sure what the future will hold.

“Nothing booked next,” he says, with a shrug. “I’m just back to waiting.”