Casey Affleck’s performance in ‘Manchester by the Sea’ has critics raving

Casey-Affleck-Rea
In "Manchester by the Sea," Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, an apartment building janitor and handyman.

The guy Casey Affleck plays in Manchester by the Sea - Lee Chandler, an apartment building janitor and handyman - is broken, sad to the core. A startling tragedy has made him who he is today, and as writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's beautifully constructed, brutally resonant film flashes back to Lee's past, audiences can see the daunting prospects that face him, the chance for hope or grim resignation.

Affleck, who was on the receiving end of wild accolades a decade ago for his twin performances in 2007's Gone Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (for which he received an Academy Award supporting actor nomination), is getting that kind of attention again. His performance in Manchester by the Sea is haunting, unforgettable, filled to the brim with heartache - but not in any kind of heavy-handed or histrionic way. Affleck just carries the weight of his character's grief in everything he does. 

How did he shrug off such sorrow at the end of the shooting day?

"I'm not quite good enough to be able to do that, to turn it on and off when you show up in the morning, when you go home at night," Affleck said on the phone from Los Angeles last week. "On the other hand, I'm not one of those people who makes a big show out of staying in character and only wanting to be called by his name, and walking around like a crazy person.

"You put a lot into the performance, but the performance also puts something into you," he said. "And, over the course of the movie, having played that character day in and day out - especially one who is in such a funk and such a particular attitude - that funk and that attitude lingers inside of you a little bit.

"And so it isn't like we would wrap and then go out and have fun. . . . Everyone was working really hard. Really long days. So we'd mostly just go home and sleep it off. Get ready to start again."

"Everyone" includes Michelle Williams, who plays Lee's wife in the film; Kyle Chandler as Lee's brother; and Lucas Hedges, who has the role of Lee's nephew - a smart, sort of smart-aleck New England high school kid. In Manchester by the Sea, which opened Friday at the Ritz Five, Bryn Mawr Film Institute, and Carmike Ritz Center in Voorhees, Lee is presented with the opportunity, the responsibility, of looking after his brother's son. Hedges, who has had significant parts in Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom and Jason Reitman's Labor Day, shines. He and Affleck project the easy rapport of kin. 

"Lucas was cast after six auditions, I believe - only two of which I was a part of," Affleck said. "He's an exceptionally mature, smart, sensitive, talented guy."

Name ring a bell? 

Affleck, younger brother of somebody named Ben, was just about the same age Hedges is now - 19 - when he made his screen debut as Joaquin Phoenix's sociopathic comrade and coconspirator in the 1995 Gus Van Sant/Nicole Kidman black comedy To Die For.

From there, Affleck went on to forge an independent path, steering clear, for the most part, of the Hollywood blockbusters that have marked his sibling's higher-profile career. Brother Ben directed him in the taut Boston kidnapping mystery Gone Baby Gone. He was part of the cool-cat troupe of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven franchise. He was chilling, scary, playing the sexually violent small-town lawman in the little-seen-but-unforgettable noir The Killer Inside Me

He also directed his pal and brother-in-law Phoenix in the controversial 2010 mock-documentary I'm Still Here. (Affleck married Phoenix's sister, Summer, in 2005; the couple have two children. They reportedly separated this year.)

In early September, Affleck was one of the actor honorees at the high-profile Telluride Film Festival. He was the subject of a whole tribute: clips from his films, an award presented by Lonergan. 

For someone who projects an air of modesty and humility, was all of that high-wattage attention uncomfortable? Strange?

Affleck pauses on the phone. Finally, he responds.

"It felt really nice, I'll tell you!" he said loudly, laughing. "I had never won anything. I was thinking back in my life if there were any - what hardware I had accumulated over the course of my life. 

"I've got one Little League trophy and I've got one from 2014, when my baseball team won the Los Angeles City Men's Recreational Baseball League championship. So when Kenny gave me this gold medal and chain at Telluride, that was a new feeling. It was great. I didn't feel funny about it at all."

Chasing Kenny 

Affleck says he has wanted forever to work with Lonergan - the award-winning playwright and director of 2000's Oscar-nominated drama You Can Count on Me, with Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo. As a struggling young actor in New York, Affleck would eagerly go up for parts whenever a new Lonergan play was announced. 

"Even when Kenny was much younger, the people who knew about his plays were passionate about them," Affleck said. "And whoever had seen them, or read them, it was like when you're a kid, a teenager, the first time someone says 'Have you ever read On the Road?' 

"There was a kind of cult about Kenny and his work," he said. "I was really young, and so I saw one of his plays, then I went and read them all. And then I auditioned for - anytime anything was happening, a workshop or a one-act play, I would audition for it. And I never got any of them."

In the early 2000s, Affleck moved to Paris for a time.

"I liked to travel - I still do, and I take long trips by myself," he said. "I wasn't pursuing acting at all. And then I got a message from my agent, my agency. They said, 'We know how much you love Kenny Lonergan; you're always badgering us to get you into one of his plays. Well, they're doing one in the West End of London. You're over there anyway, you might as well take the train to London and see if you can get the part.' "

Affleck traveled to London, where he read for - and landed - the part. It was in Lonergan's acclaimed 2002 play This Is Our Youth

"So we became friends, stayed friends, and over the years, I've done a couple of other things with him. His theater work. And then Manchester by the Sea came along."

Making 'Manchester' 

Shot in just a little over a month in and around the titular burg on Massachusett's Cape Ann, Manchester by the Sea was a classic independent project - low-budget, high-pressure. Despite its layers of flashbacks (overall, the story spans about seven years), budgetary and logistical issues required scenes to be shot out of sequence. 

"We were not able to shoot chronologically," Affleck said. "Sometimes, we would even shoot the second half of a scene first. It was independent filmmaking in all of its glory. . . . Sometimes, we would show up to a location and the person who owned that location would have changed their mind. And we'd say, 'Well, guess were not setting this scene inside - we're going to have to do it on the sidewalk.' "

In some of those scenes, Affleck's Lee is fine with the world, happy with his life. In others, the misery and despair are crushing. Was it hard for the actor to make those shifts, sometimes on the same day, on the same set?

"You would think so, but it didn't feel that way," he said. "Every time we got to do a scene that was in the past, it just felt like a big breath of fresh air. And so I never once was bothered by the fact that we had to shoot things out of order.

"It felt like we were making a movie - a story that was present tense. Everything that happened after the tragedy, that's where my mind was, and my focus. And then when we got to do these scenes in the flashbacks, it was something that just felt really comfortable slipping into. And then they were really fun to shoot, and everyone would have a nicer time. 

"It just meant that I got to play ping-pong instead of go kiss a corpse."

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