Casey Affleck isn’t the best-known member of the Affleck clan, but over the past several years, he’s amassed a collection of performances that’s difficult to beat. In Gone Baby Gone (directed by his big brother Ben) and The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Affleck’s off-kilter intonations and his ability to insulate his characters from an awareness of themselves added a layer of captivating, sometimes frightening intensity. That quality is key to his performance as Lou Ford, the psychotic sheriff in Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of Jim Thompson’s noir classic, The Killer Inside Me. Although he presents the outward appearance of a small-town yokel, Lou harbors intense, unstoppable urges that express themselves in horrific acts of violence, which have provoked similarly violent audience responses. Since its debut at Sundance, the film has been labeled misogynistic for its unsparing depiction of the beating deaths of Lou’s mistress and fiancée, an issue Affleck addressed at length when he spoke to The A.V. Club in New York. In addition to talking about why the movies he’s in are the ones he likes the least, Affleck also got into the process of directing his first film, a documentary about the burgeoning rap career of Joaquin Phoenix.
The A.V. Club: It would be difficult to play a darker character than Lou Ford. What compelled you to spend the length of a film shoot in his shoes?
Casey Affleck: I think he’s just a really interesting character. It never felt like, “Geez, it will be a lot of work to find something compelling about him.” There’s nothing where the movie won’t support any kind of psychological analysis or psychological portrait; that’s what the movie was. It was just about why he does what he does. Why people do what they do? That’s the juiciest stuff of acting. Why are they saying that, and why are they behaving that way? That’s what it was all about, what happened to him. The sexual abuse and the violence and how it begets more sexual abuse and violence. So let’s see that played out, let’s see that dramatized. I just love the conflict. Also, he’s this super-conflicted person. He has these really strong feelings that he keeps secret. He’s kind of got mixed up sexual and violent impulses toward women, and he just has to hide them away because they’re so extreme, and in such contrast to the culture in which he lives, the time and the place. There’s really no way for that stuff to survive. There’s no way for him to get a therapist. It’s all or nothing, and I thought that gave me something to play, something to think about. I thought “There’s gonna be a lot there, more than can be achieved in the performance, for sure.”
AVC: During the most brutal scenes, as he’s killing these women, he’s apologizing to them. Do you think he understands what he’s doing? Not just does he know it’s wrong, but does he feel fully justified in his mind at that point?
CA: I don’t think it’s justified. I think he really understands exactly what he’s doing, and why it’s happening to him. That just breaks my heart. First of all, when we’re talking about the character, let’s just imagine that we’re talking about the book, because it’s too hard to talk about it in terms of the movie. It implies a certain amount of accomplishment on my part, and that’s an assumption I’m not comfortable making. If I go, like, “Oh, the character is so amazing because blah blah blah,” I’m not saying that’s what I did. I don’t even know about the movie. A movie’s very different from the book, and it’s different from the script, and it’s usually one person’s vision. In this case, it’s Michael Winterbottom’s vision, and I think he did a fine job, so it’s just easier to talk about the book, because I feel really enthusiastic about it.
So anyway, I think he knows what’s happening to him, and that’s really the thing that makes it such an amazing character. It’s heartbreaking. Every time I read it, I felt really bad for the guy. I know it sounds crazy, but he knows what he’s doing. He knows he’s hurting people. He knows how it’s going to hurt them. He just can’t control himself. He really can’t, and he feels completely trapped by his own violent impulses. There’s no way out for him, and he just digs in deeper and deeper and deeper. It’s like he says, “I’ve got a foot on both sides of the fence, and it’s been that way for a long time, and there’s nothing I can do. I’ve just got to sit here until I split right down the middle.” That’s a great description of what is happening to him. It started when he was abused as a little kid, and then it went straight on through. Most of the time, he feels guilty, resentful, and angry. I think those are the three emotions. It starts with guilt, and then it becomes resentment that he has to feel guilty, because he feels like it all happened to him, and then that makes him just furious, and he lashes out.
AVC: As an actor, the control you have over how your performance is presented is circumscribed. You don’t get to choose the takes. How much are you thinking in the moment about how it’s going to look in the editing room, or where the movie needs to be at that point, and how much is just about the scene and what’s going on with the character at that precise instant?
CA: It depends. Definitely, my approach is me-oriented. I feel like my job is to safeguard the believability of the emotions of the character. It sounds sort of lame and pretentious. If all the actors are doing that, then the director can worry about the context. Sometimes the director—in this case, Michael Winterbottom—will engage you in that kind of dialogue, like, “In order to tell the story, you have to do A, B, and C, and what you’re doing is X, Y, and Z. Even though I get it, I believe it, I understand it, it’s not working, so can you find a way to make A, B, and C work? Because that’s what I need to happen in this situation.” Then you become a participant in the storytelling. Until that point, you’re just a character. You’re not the storyteller. I prefer to be that way. I’m happy to be a participant in the storytelling, but I’ve worked with a lot of directors who do it so many different ways.
With Gus Van Sant, it’s like, “You can do X, Y, and Z; you can do whatever you want, and I will always make it work for the movie, because the movie is what happens.” Some directors will say, “Listen, you’re missing the target by two feet. You’ve got to come right a little bit.” Gus is the person that just moves the target so you’ll be hitting it any way you’re pointing. Someone like [Assassination Of Jesse James director] Andrew Dominik will give you the exact coordinates that you need to go, and he’ll help you do it. Both those guys are really brilliant at doing what they do so there’s just different ways. I think you have to kind of work for the director. It’s his movie, so whatever his style is, you have to be the one adapting. I think that best serves the movie. You just play your part.
AVC: You weren’t at the Sundance première, but that screening quickly became notorious for the reaction some audience members had to the movie’s most violent scenes. It’s easy to blow it out of proportion—one woman was very upset, and took it upon herself to express that during the Q&A. But that reaction has been borne out in some of the later reactions. Did that surprise you?
CA: I heard about that, and I went online, and there was an audio recording of what happened. There was this woman who stood up who sounded like a real curmudgeonly old cranky lady, and she was like, “How dare you!” It didn’t seem like it was a considerate objection in any way. When I was growing up, the next house over was only about 10 feet away, but we still put up this makeshift basketball hoop. We used to play basketball out there between the houses. This woman, our neighbor, after school we’d be out playing ball in the early evening, and she would be in her nightgown and poke her head out and say, “Do you know what time it is? You’re out here playing basketball and it’s 6:00 p.m.! What is wrong with you people?” She was outraged that we would be playing basketball at such an hour. It was inconceivable.
That woman [at Sundance] kind of reminded me of that. I mean, what movie were you coming to? This is called The Killer Inside Me, the book is available. There is a pretty good description of the content of the film in the brochure. Did you just walk in off the street? What are you thinking? What’s more, I think there is a lot to object to as far as violence goes. What is acceptable in our culture, I think, is really detrimental. I think we ought to have a little more ownership over the kind of material and the content that we put in front of people, especially young people. I think it’s offensive, it’s objectionable, it’s bad, mostly because a lot of the violence is depicted without ramification, and it is, over time, desensitizing. I’m the one millionth person to say it, but it’s true.
This movie is not an example of that. This is a movie that is only about the reasons for the violence and the repercussions. It’s not like I beat some woman to death and the rest of it is some charming romantic comedy. It’s all about why this guy did this, it’s about the kind of culture that doesn’t talk about sex and violence, that is afraid of it, yet still it’s happening, because those are human impulses. But because no one can talk about them, they just get buried away. So I just thought it was ridiculous.
AVC: It’s an ugly thing, and depicting it as an ugly thing seems only fair.
CA: Maybe that’s the only way violence should be depicted. I’ve been in fights, and I’ve seen them. They can be really upsetting, and they’re not nearly as brutal as it was in this movie. I was happy it had such an unflinching stare at the violence. It was something that Michael talked about when we did the movie. We talked about Irreversible before we started, and I wanted to see that. Otherwise, it really is kind of gross if the movie doesn’t do that, if it doesn’t take a realistic look at the violence.
AVC: There’s such a history of falseness built up in movies that it can seem odd when they don’t conform to it. That classic thwack when someone lands a punch; no punch in history has ever sounded like that in real life. But even ostensibly realist movies end up using the same sound effect, because it feels wrong when you don’t.
CA: I was just mixing this movie that I directed, and there was this other movie on the next stage over, the same mixers, and the guy was telling me a story. What they do is what you just described. They tweak the levels of the punches and whatever it is. There was this director who was also acting in it—it was kind of an action movie—and they said he came in one day and said, “When the guy hits him in the chest, we’ve gotta hear that, we’ve gotta feel that.” So they give their notes, and they come back the next day to listen to it, and he hadn’t actually changed the sound of that thing, because he had changed other things, and he played it again, and the guy said, “Are you kidding me? You hit someone that hard in the chest, you’re gonna kill him!” [Laughs.] He hadn’t changed the sound, yet on one hand he’s saying, “You’re gonna kill someone,” and on the other he’s saying, “I wanna feel it more!” I think that, in a word, is the problem with movies and violence.
AVC: The violent scenes in the movie are a small part of it, but the psychic toll they take is formidable. The balance is a tricky thing. You alluded earlier to maybe things not turning out as you had envisioned when you were making it. Is that balance not where you expected it to be?
CA: No. It’s always a surprise. I think that the movies I do are the ones that I really like the least. I don’t like watching them because of that problem. Movies are collaborative, and that’s part of what makes it a great experience. They’re different from a lot of other art forms, but also it makes it seem like when you see the final product, you go, “I wouldn’t have done that. I wouldn’t have done this.” On the other hand, when I have those opinions, I see the movie eight years later, and I disagree with everything I thought when I first watched it. It’s impossible to have a good opinion, to see something I’ve been a part of clearly. Yet because I was a part of it, I have very strong feelings about it, so it’s better to just stay away from it. This movie, it comes from a book, and it’s been said a million times—it’s just impossible. Great books don’t make great movies. There’s too much information in there. I read the book and I think, “Well, this is the movie we’re going to make,” and then someone else reads it, and they take a completely different movie from it. And both are valid. This is Michael’s movie, and I think he’s really happy with it, and people seem to really like it. There are parts that I really think work.
AVC: The book is certainly funny in a way the movie is not. Maybe you can’t square the humor in the book with the physical evidence of a woman being beaten until her face caves in. Maybe that would be obscene. But one of the things that makes the book compelling and frightening is that juxtaposition between lunacy and farce.
CA: It was funny for me too, because it always took me off-guard. That was where I found the humor. I remember reading it and thinking, “Okay, I get this world. I’m familiar with this language, this territory, the genre.” There’s this character narrating it, Lou Ford, and he’s telling us about how he’s going to have to go out to this small town and look up this fella and check up on this fella, and it’s kind of mundane, and for a minute you just fall in sync with him. You’re shoulder-to-shoulder thinking, “Okay, this is the guy I’m going to follow. He’s my protagonist.” At a really odd time, I came to understand that the protagonist was completely insane, and I’m like, “Oh my God.” I felt almost tricked, and that was a real accomplishment, hard to do. From there, it does become funny, because the things he’s saying and the way he perceives things is really funny. The contrast between who he is on the surface and the things he’s feeling on the side are disturbing and funny, and it’s all mixed up together.
AVC: He has that passive-aggressive way of wasting people’s time by talking in a flagrantly circuitous fashion, which is a hilarious way for a sadist to get his kicks.
CA: That’s not so much a part of the movie.
AVC: Would that just be boring on screen?
CA: I don’t know, I think there might have been a way to include that. It was part of what we shot.
AVC: It’s in the narration, but it’s not in the movie very much.
CA: It’s not explored, though, and you don’t come to understand it. He’s needling people. He wants to needle because he’s angry. You don’t get that. You just get that he’s this hokey, small-towny guy, but underneath is this dark side. I think there’s a real awareness in the book of what he’s doing. He’s like, “I’m not a small town hokey guy. These motherfuckers are small town, hokey, small-minded provincial people and their ideas about things are maddening and they’re killing me, but I don’t know how to express it so all I can do is passive-aggressively make fun of them.” I do know people that do that, that have a weird way of making fun of people in conversation by mimicking them, but they just do it so subtly that other people don’t even know. I just think that’s such strange behavior and I was relishing the idea of exploring that and putting it out there. That’s the kind of example of the things that get cut out of a movie and you just say, “Okay, well, it wasn’t for this movie.”
AVC: How does the experience of having things not turn out the way you thought they would affect how you approach directing I’m Still Here, your documentary about Joaquin Phoenix?
CA: It’s very different, because when you’re the guy behind the camera, you’re aware of the reasons for the compromises or the changes that get made. As an actor, you go and do your thing, and someone else down the line then does all the math and goes, “We can’t include that thing where he’s pretending to be dumb and needling those people, because it takes a minute and a half, and it ruins the next scene. It doesn’t make sense.” If you’re directing, you’re the one doing that. You’re much more aware of it, so it’s a little easier. Not to say that the flaws of the filmmaking don’t hurt. In my limited experience as a director, they’re more painful, because the flaws are your own, and you go, “Oh God, I didn’t do that thing,” you know?
It was challenging. It was probably one of the better filmmaking experiences I’ve ever had. I learned an enormous amount. I sort of did the whole thing by myself because I started really small, and I thought, “Won’t this be an interesting experiment?” I don’t think anyone else has the opportunity to make this kind of a movie. I don’t remember this movie being made, really—unless it’s like Don’t Look Back. But in Don’t Look Back, there was still a distance between the filmmaker and the subject. They didn’t have video, for one thing. There were certain advantages that I had. I could shoot 450 hours of somebody just picking their toes. It just so happened that it was two years of just the opposite. There was a small amount of toe-picking, but there was a lot of really, really dramatic, interesting stuff that happened in his life over the course of those two years, and he let me capture it. In that way, I feel like I just lucked out.