Putting Up a Fight: Casey Affleck on ‘Out of the Furnace’ and the Things You’ve Read About Him That Definitely Aren’t True
Casey Affleck loves talking about movies, performance, filmmaking and story. He doesn't love how those conversations can be steered towards and twisted into portraits of his personal life, where gossip about his brother Ben Affleck and childhood friend Matt Damon wind up stealing the momentum of whatever project he's promoting. “Celebrity” often interferes with “actor” and, judging from his tone, it bugs the hell out of Affleck.
Luckily, for those aware enough to appreciate it, Affleck's career offers an abundance of meaty, provocative work worth talking about. The Oscar-nominated actor's recent credits include 'Ain't Them Body Saints,' 'The Killer Inside Me,' 'ParaNorman,' 'Gone Baby Gone,' and 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.' His latest, 'Out of the Furnace,' continues Affleck's trend of dissecting modern men as they stumble the throes of classic, dramatic storytelling. His character Rodney is an Iraq war vet struggling in the impoverished Rust Belt. To make ends meet, he bare-knuckle boxes — a hobby that causes friction with his brother (Christian Bale), and puts him and his boss (Willem Dafoe) in the crosshairs of a local gangster (Woody Harrelson). An implosion is imminent from the first time we see Affleck step on screen as Rodney.
I sat down with Affleck to talk 'Out of the Furnace' and the misconceptions that emerge from the never-ending maelstrom of gossip. Which eventually lead us to the actor's directorial debut, 'I'm Still Here,' the Joaquin Phoenix moc-doc that stands as one of the most under-appreciated films of the past decade.
There's a lot bubbling underneath Rodney — present emotions and haunting memories — but it's never dredged up directly. How much did Scott Cooper give you to live with and mull over versus the information we're given through dialogue and action?
Scott wrote this script and what I loved about how he did is that, sometimes, the biggest events in these peoples' lives are unseen. Whether it's the time that Christian has to spend in jail, the time I spend in Iraq, when Zoe falls in love with Forrest Whitaker — it all happens off-screen. In other movies, you would hear people explain it, an expositional scene that would be boring. He just doesn't do that. He doesn't do that. He takes it all out and lets the rest of the story unfold on-screen.
The thing that I was drawn to first about the character is… I loved that it was someone who had seen horrible things and couldn't get them out of his head and couldn't share them with other people. Some of the veterans I talked to would use words like 'a black hole in their center' or they felt trapped inside, they felt hollow. Descriptions of their own inner life. It was grim. I thought that was a great opportunity to explore that kind of experience. I was a little intimated by the prospect of getting it wrong. It meant a lot to me that we tried to get Rodney seems authentic. We tried to predict that experience as accurately as we could. Obviously, thank god, I'll never know what that's like. But we can study it in a way and hope that we get it right.
He's alternately sulky and dour and introverted and imploding, and then swings to the other end of the spectrum and is explosive, has too much energy. He's mocking and needling with Wilem Dafoe. Then he's blowing up at Christian. I like that big pendulum swing. I just wanted to make sure it made sense.
What does it take to fake bare-knuckle boxing? I imagine it's slightly more difficult.
[Laughs] A great cinematographer and amazing stunt men. So when some idiot actor who can't control his punches so well hits them by mistake, he doesn't kill them. Actually, I may have hit them once or twice by accident, but I don't think they even noticed. These guys throw themselves off roofs and stuff. They're the best stunt men in the business. These dudes would miss my chin by a quarter inch. And I had trust them. But it felt like their hand went right through me. 'How did that not hit me?'
I picture you as being a daring guy who could have spent his life jumping off roofs.
I definitely could not. I think I'm brittle.
The New York Times ran a profile on you recently where they recount a scene you did with Christian that left you so awestruck, you drove over to Matt Damon's house to tell him about it. What was that scene? What happened?
I'll tell you the truth. That's fiction. "I was shaken and had to call Matt Damon..." That's one of those things that only exists in the world of entertainment writing. Exaggeration to the point of flat out fiction. Sometimes when people write things they try to create a narrative, try to fit the information they've gathered into a structure they've invented in their mind.
Knowing that you, Ben [Affleck], and Matt are closely knit is like gold ready to be manufactured.
I understand it implicitly. People want to create a story that they want to believe about their celebrities. So they take bits of information and plug them into the beats of that storyline and their content with their myth. That's OK. It's entertainment writing, not the Warren Report. The fictionalization is something you can only spend so much time gnashing your teeth over. It happens when people make movies about other people. Biopics, for example. I'm sure they're viewed by the subjects, if they're still living, as total fiction.
This reaction to the outside world viewing you as both a performer in your films and a performer in real life makes me immediately think of your directorial debut 'I'm Still Here.' The reactions to that film were all over the map after people started realizing it was a fictional "documentary." Looking back, was that ultimately a fulfilling experience for you?
That was an incredibly positive experience as a filmmaker. I learned an enormous amount. I learned a lot about acting from working so closely with Joaquin [Phoenix], who is uniquely gifted. Extremely talented, extremely hard-working performer. And I learned a lot about filmmaking from having to do it completely on my own. Because of the way it had been devised… every movie starts with the question, 'How are we going to make it?' What effect do we hope that process will have on the viewer?' That movie began with the best context for this performance and this subject matter is going to be one with the greatest verisimilitude. If we can make it truly appear real, then the satire is going to be that much more absurd. So we set about to make it as real as you can. It's what you do on almost every movie.
The fact that so many people mistook it for actual documentary is a testament to how great Joaquin was and the level of reality we were able to achieve. We always talked about it as a very broad comedy and laughed a lot when we watched it. As a filmmaker, it was really satisfying. Except that no one saw it. That comes with the territory. I discovered some things that were original, an original way of making a movie. I got some great performances out of other people. But personally, it was a more complicated experience because people felt inexplicably irritated. They didn't like it. It left them with bad feelings. People were close to the process, people who weren't close to it, journalists, celebrities who were around — it bothered some people. It made them feel hurt. That was the last thing I wanted. I've never been comfortable with people being angry at me.
Is subversive material attractive to you? I'm Still Here certainly was going to push buttons, but Out of the Furnace doesn't hold any hands. It's raw. Is that quality what ropes you in to a role or project?
Not at all. I was a kid who loved fairy tales. I love Joseph Campbell. I love the history of storytelling and mythology. My mom was a fifth grade teacher and she always taught Greek mythology so I know those things back and forth. That's what I'm drawn to. You said I'm Still Here was going to push buttons and I did not feel that way. That might seem obtuse, but I honestly thought we were making something funny. If you saw what was cut out of that movie, you would know the world we thought we were in. Music videos he made and was trying to put out… really broad, stupid stuff.
With a movie like 'Borat' having caused a stir, did you not see 'I'm Still Here' provoking people in a similar fashion?
The thing with 'Borat' is that it's intended to trick people. We never intended to make anyone look silly. The person we thought was looking the silliest and the worst was Joaquin. That was the idea. That's why it was so risky, so brave of him. He looks ridiculous — a total fool. People were never supposed to look bad. So it was a bit confusing in that way.
So when are we going to see you as one of these Greek mythological heroes?
Oh, I'd love to. I've pitched movies, I've tried to. It doesn't have to be an actual, well-known mythological figure, just the idea of archetypical characters, the age-old structure. That's what Campbell is about. A Hero with a Thousand Faces, that there's one elemental journey. From Odysseus to Luke in 'Star Wars.' It resonates in me. I love how we tell stories and how they're put together. Trying to find a new way to tell those stories.