'The Accountant' director Gavin O'Connor talks Affleck, autism, and playing linebacker at Penn

Gavin O'Connor with Anna Kendrick and Ben Affleck. O'Connor says Affleck, "having walked in [director's] shoes, what he does as an actor is he shows up and he knows his lines, he's never late."

What happens when you're 6 years old and your father - a New York City cop - agrees to take you to the new movie everybody's buzzing about, a family-friendly little number about a hot-headed, foul-mouthed police detective chasing down heroin dealers, a movie called The French Connection?

What happens is you grow up to make movies of your own. How can you not?

"I would never take my kid who is 6 years old to see The French Connection, but my dad did," says Gavin O'Connor, laughing. (The director and his wife are expecting their first child next year.) "So since I was a little boy, pretty much since that day, this was always my dream. I didn't know how to do it, how to go about it, but this was my dream."

Dream realized.

O'Connor's new movie - his seventh - is called The Accountant. Ben Affleck has the title role: a math savant who is 1) on the autism spectrum, 2) trained in the Indonesian fighting arts of pencak silat, 3) moving vast sums of money for dangerous criminals, and 4) wanted by the feds.

O'Connor's movie - his first since 2011's Oscar-nominated epic sibling rivalry MMA fight pic, Warrior - opens Friday. Its cast includes Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, John Lithgow, and Cynthia Addai-Robinson.

"It's a thriller, it's an action film, it's a character study, and it's a puzzle movie, and there's a kind of odd little love story in there, too," O'Connor said this week in an interview in Philadelphia – or rather back in Philadelphia, where he attended the University of Pennsylvania (Class of '86) and played linebacker for the Quakers. "All of that was part of the DNA of Bill Dubuque's script.

"I remember reading it," he said, "and thinking this is a high-IQ script: You have real sleight-of-hand, moving parts. It's a shell game, a mind-bender. And I thought, if I can do all that and give people an emotional experience, as well . . . that's what I wanted to do."

He has. Deploying flashbacks to Affleck's character's itinerant, traumatic childhood - "like an origin story," O'Connor says - the film presents Affleck's Christian Wolff struggling to make social connections, retreating into intense, repetitive, painful rituals, and, occasionally, being funny, too.

"Here's what we did," says O'Connor. "We met a lot of autism specialists and educators. And then we met a lot of guys on the spectrum. And then, just as I started this journey, I was sent a three-hour rough cut of a documentary called Asperger's Are Us.

"It's about four guys on the spectrum who are comedians, who have a comedy troupe. And I laughed so hard and I called Ben and said, 'Dude, you've got to watch this with me.'

"So I went over to his house, and we laughed, and that was liberating. That was my introduction to the humor [that can be found in autism]. I knew I wanted to have that element in the film, and so did Ben, but it needed to be proven, needed to be substantiated. This film did that." (Alex Lehmann's documentary is scheduled for theatrical release in early November.)

The Affleck effect

The Accountant marks the first time O'Connor - who made his writing/directing debut with 1995's Comfortably Numb and who steered Janet McTeer to her best actress Oscar nomination for her performance in his 1999 mother-daughter road pic, Tumbleweeds - has worked with Affleck.

The Hollywood A-lister came aboard The Accountant as its star, but he also comes with an impressive directing resumé of his own: Gone Baby Gone, The Town, Argo, the forthcoming December release Live by Night.

"There was never any kind of encroachment, nothing like that," O'Connor says about collaborating with Affleck. "Ben is a really talented filmmaker, and as a director, having walked in those shoes, what he does as an actor, is, he shows up and he knows his lines, he's never late.

"You know, Ben is kind, he's generous, he knows everyone's name. He's that guy. So I don't have to worry about the lead in my movie being a pain in the ass."

The Philadelphia story

The last time O'Connor visited Philadelphia was in 2010, when he was prepping Warrior at the other end of the state, in Pittsburgh. That city, and its "working-class poetry," felt right for Warrior, which starred Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, and Nick Nolte.

"But I love Philly," he adds, recalling the days and nights of foreign films, art-house films, the old three-screen Ritz, and the greasy spoon Troy's around the corner from his West Philadelphia digs.

"I have really fond memories of being a student here. I played football here. Great memories of Franklin Field."

Football, at that point in O'Connor's life, was huge. "From when I was 7 until I was 22, I played football," he says. "That was always my struggle as a kid. I always wanted to be an artist, but my parents were divorced and my dad really wanted me to play sports, and that's how I got to see him. He would come pick me up, or take me to practice, and he was always at my games.

"But my dad also loved movies. He was a cop, but he would sit in his squad car and play his guitar, he was an eccentric kind of cop."

Eccentric like Popeye Doyle, Gene Hackman's unforgettable French Connection role?

"You know what was amazing?" O'Connor asks. "I hadn't seen the movie on a screen, a print of it, since I was 6 years old. And I just have these memories of it, like Hackman in the Santa suit, like 'I'm gonna nail you for picking your feet in Poughkeepsie.'

"But two weeks ago, they had a screening of The French Connection in L.A., and [director] Billy Friedkin was there doing a Q&A. It was the greatest night.

"And I'm watching the film, 40-whatever years later, and it's a masterpiece. I was blown away. It was really educational to watch that film and realize, wow, no backstory, you know nothing about the guy at all, the movie is continuously moving forward, forward, forward, until it's over."