Casey Affleck liberated by ghosts

Star talks Oscars, Rooney Mara and hiding under a sheet

by Richard Mowe

"[David Lowery] hires me so that makes me keep coming back!" - Casey Affleck Photo: Jan Handrejch, Film Servis Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Casey Affleck began acting as a way to get out of going to school. His mother’s best friend was a casting director in Massachussets, and when a film came to town a call would go out for extras. Casey and his pals naturally thought it would be fun.

Affleck, 41, has gone from those youthful extra days to leading man, notably winning an Oscar for Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea earlier this year. He starred in Gone Baby Gone, which was directed by his brother, Ben Affleck, and he was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his performance in The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. Now he reunites with Rooney Mara and director David Lowery after Ain’t Them Bodies Saints on A Ghost Story (receiving its European premiere at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival) in which he spends a considerable amount of time hidden by a white sheet with two slits for his eyes.

"Rooney Mara is one of my favourite people to watch in movies, regardless of whether I am in it or not" Photo: Film Servis Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Richard Mowe: Was it useful creatively being re-teamed alongside both Rooney Mara and director David Lowery, with whom you had worked on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints?

Casey Affleck: Rooney Mara is one of my favourite people to watch in movies, regardless of whether I am in it or not. She has a way of being very expressive and also very mysterious at the same time. She is the perfect person for this movie because so often in this film one of the actors' faces is not being seen so you have to have somebody who is doubly interesting in the scene to make up for that. She can show a huge range of emotion on her face and in moments when she is just alone she does not need a whole ton of dialogue to communicate what she is feeling. I love working with her and it all seems effortless. I have to work very hard to find a way into a character and serve the director’s vision but Rooney does it all as if it were second nature.

RM: And what is it about working with David Lowery that keeps you coming back to him?

CA: He hires me so that makes me keep coming back! Seriously though I really like his sensibility and the things he likes, from the costumes to the production design. As an actor you show up on the set and all these decisions are made by the director well in advance and you are working in to a world that has been created. If you feel like you are at home and can live in that world then it makes your job that much easier. I appreciate the worlds he creates. Any good movie is an experiment and just like an experiment in laboratory its success should be judged not on whether the results match up to what you thought you were making but rather how much you have learned from the experiment. With David I felt I had learned a lot and he is a very experimental kind of director, both as a visionary and as a collaborator. There is lots of room to try things out and to fail and to change them and to succeed. It is a process that I like as much as I like the end result.

RM: What are the differences in the acting techniques between you and your brother?

CA: It has been a long time since I have been on set with him so I really don’t know - without trying to sound evasive. I would be hard pushed to describe my own style never mind somebody else’s. I do love watching him though.

RM: Do you always feel a close connection with the characters you are playing and how do you prevent yourself taking them home?

CA: There has been a lot said about actors who take their characters home and have to be called by their character’s name and actors choose different methods. I am not really like that but you can help but spend so much time with a character that he does not affect you just a little bit. I have to try to stave off that kind of insanity rather than welcome it where you become that person day and night. You are there every day playing the scenes and obviously it brings out certain parts of you. Then when you go home and start playing with the kids then you start acting like a parent. Then you go back on set with David and put a sheet over your head and start acting like a dead person.

Casey Affleck greets the fans at the Karlovy International Film Festival
Casey Affleck greets the fans at the Karlovy International Film Festival Photo: Film Servis Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

RM: Do you have any special criteria in choosing roles?

CA: I usually just go by who is directing it and if I feel connected to the script.

RM: Are you drawn to any particular kinds of films as a viewer?

CA: I like all kinds of movies, especially ones with good dialogue and intriguing stories and that have a strong visual sense. The movies that I reject are ones that are very violent because it seems more and more upsetting. I am attracted to films that are poetic in the way they look, and that have a kind of more positive message without it being heavy-handed. David’s films are generally about good people trying to do good things even if they are making mistakes along the way.

RM: There must be some films which now may make you feel embarrassed - like American Pie 2?

CA: Thanks for bringing up American Pie 2 - some of those films were done so long ago when you were just starting out and you take whatever jobs you can get. Generally they are films that are not important to you and do not reflect who you are. I am still OK with most of the movies I have done.

RM: Did you have a sense when you were making Manchester By The Sea just how successful it would become?

CA: I did not think too much about how successful the film would be, but I liked it a lot… it was very well written and was incredibly moving on the page. I knew it was a challenging and scary part, and that means there is something worth watching in there. For me the most important thing is who you are working for. You are working for the director and it is his movie and you have to be willing to put aside your preconceptions going into it and open yourself up to the director’s ideas. That does not mean you do not air your ideas and have lots of conversations but the relationship with the director is that they are so many different things to you. I knew Lonergan and I had faith in him. As with A Ghost Story, David [Lowery] had written out the story and even with just a few conversations it was very exciting. It sounded bizarre but I had faith in him. I did not know how it would work out, or whether it would be a film no-one would want to see, but I knew it would be interesting journey at the very least.

"Any good movie is an experiment" Photo: Film Servis Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

RM: You said in one of your introductions that if you were making films that no-one would want to see then you were doing something right. Does that sum up your approach to your roles even although you have just won the Oscar?

CA: If my career to date is any indication then I am sure there will be a little of that in the future. I don’t want to think about whether people are going to go and see the movie. I would rather concentrate on what is interesting to me. These are not usually dead centre, mainstream movies. That said I do not have anything against those kinds of films which I love to watch but I am not usually one of those people who gets hired to do them.

RM: How have you coped with being in the Oscar glare?

CA: The Oscar does not feel like a big change has happened in my life. There is my life and who I am and there is the part of me that goes out there to promote the movies. Some times that is comfortable and some times it is uncomfortable. There is always a difference between who you are and what strangers think about who you are. And where do I keep it? In a closet at home!

RM: Was there a lasting impression you took away from your new film?

CA: Normally I like to prepare a lot on films, both beforehand and during the shoot, but on A Ghost Story I learned just how liberating and fun it is not to do any of that.

A Ghost Story is released in US & Canada on 7 July; Australia 22 July and the UK on 11 August.

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