Being a parent in real life helped Casey Affleck delve into his character in “Manchester by the Sea.”
“If you didn’t understand the emotions that are in play here, Michelle [Williams] wouldn’t have been able to do as good a job as she did — and I wouldn’t have been able to approach my role either,” said the actor.
“Yes, being a parent does make it hard, because the material is so intense and rough, but I also think it makes it easier to do it as well. It’s kind of a double-edged sword thing.”
Kenneth Lonergan wrote and directed “Manchester by the Sea” (now in theaters), inspired by an idea originally brought to him by Matt Damon and John Krasinski. The initial thought was that Damon would direct and Krasinski would appear in the film, until the busy stars’ schedules made it impossible for them to tackle the project, beyond Damon helping produce.
The story focuses on Lee Chandler, a very solitary Boston janitor (Affleck) whose life takes an unexpected turn when he returns to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, to be the reluctant guardian for his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). The Chandlers are a working-class family who have lived in the coastal fishing village for generations.
When Lee takes a leave of absence from his job and returns to Manchester, he also has to deal with the reasons he had separated from his wife, Randi (Williams), as well as the community where he was born and grew up. One of the biggest challenges to the relationship between Lee and Patrick is that the bond that cemented the family had been provided by Lee’s late brother (and Patrick’s father) Joe Chandler. His death has created a problematic vacuum for the entire family.
For Williams, making the film was indeed “one of the more challenging things I’ve ever done. … We’ve all imagined our worst case scenarios in life about loss. For me, I just shut down that kind of thinking, because it’s a horrible thing to think about. It’s a horrible thing to consider. You wonder constantly how you could get through that, or if you could get through that.”
Affleck, who this week was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for the role, admitted that by the time the film wrapped, he felt a sense of relief. The subject matter had been so difficult to get through.
But it helped to have a director he respected and, in Williams, a key co-star who “made me better as an actor.” The actor said it was like “following a road map of where you’re supposed to go. There are boundaries set for you, and if you do your job and follow those parameters, you should be fine.”
For Affleck, the biggest issue was portraying a character who has to carry around “a huge burden, a huge amount of secret guilt that totally affects the way he interacts with others. At times, it’s clear others don’t understand why Lee acts the way he does, but of course it is all about that guilt. … That was something I did have to try and escape, when we weren’t shooting the film.
“Of course, this is difficult to discuss here, since we don’t want to ruin the storyline for the audience who will be reading this,” Affleck said with a soft chuckle. “I hate it when people spoil it and share a film’s secrets, before someone has the chance to see it! That’s so, so wrong!”