The Other Affleck
Casey Affleck is supposed to be late. He’s always at least a half-hour late, his publicist says, and when he does show up, he’ll want to stay off certain topics such as his more famous older brother, Ben. Instead, we should focus the conversation on Ocean’s Twelve, out this month, in which he stars alongside George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and his longtime friend Matt Damon. He’ll want to meet for lunch, but it’ll have to be somewhere that serves vegan food — like the hole-in-the-wall Middle Eastern restaurant in Greenwich Village near his apartment. I’m ready to wait as long as it takes for Casey Affleck to show up because Casey Affleck is going to be late.
But Affleck is someone who defies expectations. He shows up right on time, offering a firm handshake and a quick smile. Wearing jeans and a blue oxford, Affleck is looking clean-cut: His brown hair is a little tousled, on the short side, and much less curly and unruly than it often appears on screen. The gunmetal gray eyes and matching steel-wool voice (sometimes so slow and drawling it gives the mistaken impression of slacker indifference) are the same, though, and so are the sharp angles of his chiseled, porcelain face. And, as if to prove that he isn’t your typical Hollywood lightweight, he carries newly purchased copies of two Nabokov novels, which he says he’ll dig into later tonight.
Truth be told, few people seem to know what to expect from Casey Affleck, because few people know much about him. This Affleck has stayed out of the limelight rather than embraced it, chosen small, meaty roles, like the one he has in Ocean’s Twelve, instead of blockbusters. He lives a simple life in the Village rather than a splashy one in Tinsel Town. He may just be the smartest Affleck of all.
That hidden intelligence under the indifferent demeanor is exactly what makes Affleck’s Ocean’s Twelve character work. The Malloy brothers (Scott Caan plays Turk to Affleck’s Virgil) are the broad comedic foils to the refined Danny Ocean, the fools who fool everyone. They are the least subtle in a cast of sharply defined characters, one that now — after one blockbuster and one sure-fire hit sequel — works together like a machine.
“Comically I think Casey’s a genius,” says his Ocean‘s costar Caan. “On the first day [of shooting Ocean's Eleven ], we showed up on set and there wasn’t too much written for our characters. Steven [Soderbergh] just said to go ahead and improvise. So right away, Casey insulted me, and I insulted him back. And that’s how the characters happened.”
Intentionally or not, Affleck has earned himself a part in the next-generation Rat Pack, a group anchored by George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon (“the classy Hollywood all-timer, the super-charming, fabulously good-looking guy you can’t take your eyes off, and the brilliant actor,” as Affleck describes them). What all the actors in the Ocean’s movies have in common is that they often choose their roles based on the characters, not the box office numbers, preferring acting over stardom, which, predictably enough, has only made them bigger stars. It’s a method that the younger Affleck has stuck to throughout his career, from his first big role playing a troubled teen in To Die For to his performance alongside Matt Damon in the film Gerry , which the two cowrote with director Gus Van Sant.
“The specificity of his choices can be so precise, and he doesn’t let up until he arrives where he wants to be, which is the challenging part,” says Summer Phoenix, Affleck’s girlfriend of four years (and fiancée since last winter). “When he finally gets there, you realize he has raised the creative bar of the entire project.”
Affleck has chosen the unassuming little restaurant for our interview simply because it makes a good bowl of lentil soup. Nothing on the menu costs more than a few dollars, but the waitresses are friendly and recognize Affleck thanks to the many meals he has eaten here. The last time he came in, he didn’t bring enough money, a debt the staff has already forgiven, but one he insists on paying before he even sits down. He then pulls out a complicated-looking PDA, and, like any proud father, scrolls for pictures of his son to show off. Since their son, Indiana August, was born in late spring, Affleck has spent most days nesting with Phoenix, famous sibling to River and Joaquin and also an actress.
“You know when you’re going through something and you’re in the middle of it so you don’t have much perspective?” Affleck, who hardly looks old enough to order a beer let alone be a dad, says about his son’s birth. “Everyone told me, ‘You’ll love this thing more than you’ll love anything.’ And he came out, and I felt moved, but I also felt like, ‘Who is this stranger?'”
Indiana was born in Amsterdam, where Affleck was working on Ocean’s Twelve. The first month of the baby’s life was spent in northern Italy on Lake Como, where the cast wrapped up scenes for the film and lounged in the sun near George Clooney’s villa. Now back in New York, Affleck is living a happy, bohemian existence. He was introduced to Phoenix by her brother, Joaquin, who has been one of Affleck’s closest friends since they met on the set of To Die For nearly 10 years ago. All three share a passion for left-leaning causes from animal rights to politics to veganism.
“He is a bleeding heart,” Summer says of Affleck. “He is the most generous guy I have ever met.”
Conveniently, Joaquin lives upstairs from the couple in the same apartment building, and Affleck’s childhood pal from Cambridge, Damon, lives just around the corner. For her part, Phoenix has been enjoying favorable reviews for her leading role in a small film called Suzie Gold, released in the U.K. this spring and billed as a Jewish version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Before the baby was born, she kept herself busy between films tending to Some Odd Rubies, the vintage clothing store she opened on the Lower East Side last year with Damon’s ex-girlfriend, Odessa Whitmire, and Ruby Canner. Affleck has been staying close to home, doing some readings with Damon of a Kenneth Lonergan play in New York, catching a Red Sox game or two (he came home to Boston for the World Series victory parade), and mulling over a part in a Broadway play that will be produced next spring.
“I’m more conscious of being able to make a living now and being able to support a family,” Affleck says about finding his way through the new territory he’s exploring as both a father and someone plotting the next step after Ocean’s Twelve. “If you look at the paths of other actors, most people have a curve where you hit it and there’s a time where you make a lot of money and they let you make your movies, and then they take it away and it’s gone. So maybe I should work more and take advantage of the opportunities I have now, and save as much as I can so I can send Indiana to college. But I don’t really care that much about being a matinee idol.”
Casey Affleck was born in the sum mer of 1975, the second son of Chris, a Harvard-educated elementary school teacher, and Tim, an aspiring actor who paid the bills by working his way through a series of odd jobs. One of those jobs was tending bar at the Cantab Lounge, where Ben and Casey would sometimes visit on their way home from school.
“I remember going in there to visit him and they’d give us ginger ale, but I could tell it was not nice in there,” Casey says. “You know, it was dark, very dirty, with postal service guys who just got off work from the post office and they’d just be passed out.”
While the Affleck boys were still in grade school, their parents split up. Chris kept the house in Central Square and raised her boys herself, while Tim, a heavy drinker, moved to California, eventually landing in rehab. Though the divorce had a big impact on the Affleck brothers, life in their neighborhood was decidedly mundane. “We’d just run around in the street and get in trouble,” Casey says, laughing. “Throw firecrackers off the library roof, go down and play baseball, run around throwing rocks at each other, play football in the street. There were a lot of kids on the street where I grew up. It was very interracial and it was working class.”
Credit for maintaining that normalcy, Affleck says, goes to his mother, who despite being a single parent, worked hard to provide for her kids in both material and intangible ways. “She’s very conscientious. She made us stay inside when Skylab was falling. I couldn’t use the blender until I was 15. I’d go, ‘Mom, I’m not gonna cut my hand off with the fucking blender. I’m 15 years old.’ And she always made us go on family vacations. When you’re a kid, you just want to stay home and hang out with your friends. You don’t want to go to your grandparents’ house. But tradition meant a lot to her. She just insisted. We had a lot of fights about that. But now I love it and those are some of my favorite memories.”
To give the kids something to keep them out of trouble in the neighborhood, Chris Affleck, with the help of her college roommate from Harvard, casting director Patty Collins, encouraged Casey and Ben to audition for roles in commercials, local productions, and TV movies. Ben landed himself a Burger King commercial and some small roles in made-for-TV movies, while Casey had a part in a TV version of the Lanford Wilson play Lemon Sky, starring Kevin Bacon.
“I don’t know if we were really acting,” Affleck recalls. “We were usually extras. My mother was really supportive. But we didn’t really care that much about it other than it was a day off from school and 20 bucks.”
When he entered high school at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, Affleck followed his brother and Damon into drama classes taught by then-teacher Gerry Speca, who became a mentor to Ben, Casey, and particularly Damon, who constantly credits Speca in press interviews with fueling his passion for drama.
“He was inspiring as a teacher, and he wasn’t like ‘theater,'” Affleck intones in a lofty British accent. “I had a public school education — 3,000 kids when I was there. And there were a lot of teachers who would just sit there. You’d come in and sign your name and the teacher would just sit there at the head of the class and you would literally just have to stay in your seat for 40 minutes and that was the only thing you’d have to do in class. Then you get Gerry, who just demanded of everybody there that they really be the best that they could be.”
That the education they received at Rindge & Latin was unusual — it’s not every public high school that turns out at least three Hollywood stars — is without doubt. By the time Casey graduated in 1993, Damon and Ben had already taken what they’d learned in Rindge’s drama classes and put it to work in films like School Ties and Dazed and Confused. Casey, too, was ready to join the cast.
“After high school, I drove out to L.A. with a friend of mine who had just graduated also and I started auditioning,” Casey remembers. “I got an agent, but it was all Saved By the Bell auditions. So I was getting pretty discouraged and the year had almost passed and I thought, ‘If I don’t get any jobs this year’ — which I thought was a long time, though now I think I wasn’t really giving it the old college try — ‘If I don’t get a job, I’ll go to school,’ which my mother was pressuring me to do. I got a job as a busboy at some restaurant in Pasadena, and I had an audition every two weeks for some bad TV show. It kind of sucked. And then right at the end of the year I got To Die For. ”
The part was far from those sunny, perfect teenage TV roles Affleck had been offered. He played street-toughened delinquent Russell Hines, who embodies teenage rage and uses it to conspire with his friends and weathercaster Nicole Kidman, eventually ending up entwined in a murder scandal.
“I went in and auditioned, like, five times with the casting director,” Affleck says. “Finally I met Gus Van Sant and read for him, and basically he said, ‘Alright you got the job.’ I was shocked. By that time I’d been in a dozen times, so I knew I must’ve been doing something right. I’d like to say I was humble, but there was a part of me that felt like it’s about time, you know what I mean?”
Affleck beat out several other actors, including Damon, for the part of Russell Hines, largely due to the street-tough attitude he could bring to the role.
“I thought he looked great for the part,” Van Sant says now. “I liked his Boston accent. Neither Matt or Ben have that, but Casey, I guess, is more of a scrappy Boston street kid. Or at least he was. I thought that was one of the main things about him. That, and his good looks.”
To Die For was a critical success and a career-making one for Nicole Kidman and Joaquin Phoenix. For Affleck, it promised to lead to better and more substantial roles, yet the values his mother had taught him back in Central Square kept swirling in the back of his mind.
“The more success I had, oddly, I thought, ‘Okay, I should go to school,'” Affleck says. “‘I’ve got so much, I should walk away from the table right now. Let me just go to school and get that out of the way.’ It was just the program — you’re supposed to go to school. The chorus of voices was still nagging me.”
Affleck headed east to George Washington University to study politics, a topic he says has always interested him, thanks in large part to the political mindedness of his Cambridge youth. But he quickly grew bored in Washington, DC, and transferred to Columbia University after his freshman year, finally quitting after his junior year to return to acting. “I was at Columbia and I was just sitting in the library reading by myself for 12 hours a day, and I thought, ‘I could be doing at this at home and not paying $30,000 a year.'”
Around this time, Affleck received a phone call from Van Sant about a new project the director was considering. “I hadn’t heard from him in a year, and he said, ‘I read this script and I think it’s written by your brother and some other guy.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, did you like it?’ He said, ‘I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m really rooting for the main character, and I think that’s a sign of a really good story.’ They met at Denny’s in Hollywood and then it all happened.”
The “good story” that was Good Will Hunting extended well beyond that memorable final scene of a beat-up car heading west. It pushed Matt and Ben onto the A-list. It gave Casey a taste of movie stardom. The film was nothing less than a celluloid love letter to Boston, both to the city’s quirky intellectualism and its true-blue working class roots — attributes that Damon, Ben, and Casey all had in common and that had for many years kept them grounded.
But Good Will Hunting ‘s success, including a screenwriting Oscar for Ben and Damon and a directing Oscar nomination for Gus Van Sant, had a life-changing effect on everyone involved. How the three friends chose to deal with the next, open-door phase of their careers says as much about their personalities as anything.
Damon, the most gifted actor of the three, sought out strong personality-driven parts, such as the tortured title character in Saving Private Ryan or the psychopathic social-climbing lead in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Ben opted for the fame and celebrity that comes from big-budget hero flicks like Armageddon and Pearl Harbor. And Casey continued building his career in smaller steps, taking familiar turns as side characters in movies as wide-ranging as American Pie and Hamlet while also branching out from screen acting. In 2002, Casey starred with Damon and Summer in the well-received London stage production of Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth, and later the two childhood friends cowrote and starred in Van Sant’s Gerry, a cerebral drama about two friends lost in the desert.
“My life hasn’t really changed all that much, to be honest,” Casey says of the post- Good Will Hunting fanfare. “I’d been in movies before. My role in To Die For was bigger than my role in Good Will Hunting. I would just see people walking around reading the fairy tale, and I knew that I was a character in here somewhere. Parts of my life were now part of pop culture and public life. As a topic, [celebrity is] like poison ivy: If you go anywhere near it, you get some of it on you. You can’t talk about it without saying something that’s wrong, or saying something that can be misconstrued or seemingly ungrateful. I try to avoid the topic. I mean, I do kind of live a normal life. Celebrity never really served me that well; it serves other people well. See, there you go: You try to say something about it, I hear something coming out, and it doesn’t sound quite right.”
Affleck’s attitudes toward fame and celebrity go a long way toward explaining the complex relationship between him and his brother. Consider the tedium of being asked over and over about your brother’s career or struggling to carve out a name in your own right. And consider having to do that when your brother is making baffling decisions, like taking out an ad in Variety to advertise his feelings for Jennifer Lopez and buying her a Bentley and that famous multicarat pink-diamond engagement ring. Or taking roles in box-office bombs like Gigli, Jersey Girl, and now Surviving Christmas. All of these things have to be tough to weather for someone who shares a last name with Ben.
“Sometimes we’re close, sometimes we’re not,” says Casey. “Sometimes we hate each other like siblings do. We’re very different in a lot of ways, and we’re really too much alike in a lot of ways. We know each other so well that it’s hard to fool each other. A lot of people go through their life wearing different masks. You want to get into movies, so you tend to be this guy who drives fancy cars and dates starlets but that’s not who you are, and then you want to get into politics and do this and do that. I can see the masks where other people don’t on him, and he can see when I’m pretending as well. So it makes it sometimes tumultuous. But we also love each other and make each other laugh harder than anyone else can.”
Over the years, Casey has grown closer to Damon — who has a similar levelheadedness about the bizarre world of celebrity — perhaps even closer than he is to his own brother. “Ben kind of went his own way and doesn’t stay in touch as much. But Matt is better at that,” Casey says carefully. Then he stops. He is uncomfortable with this tack. He knows what he’s implying, and he catches himself. He seems to recall his own thoughts about fame and celebrity and poison ivy and his strong feelings on the value of family.
“My first memory of Matt,” Affleck says instead with a wry smile, starting over — “I was in fourth grade and I was going out with this girl, and Matt was in eighth grade, and he had a girlfriend. We took the same bus in school because we lived right down the street from each other. I got to sit in the back because of Matt, and the two girls were sitting together. I wore my karate outfit — I’d been taking karate lessons at the time — and I wore my karate outfit in school, and Matt was like, ‘What belt are you, man?’ And I was like, ‘I’m a yellow belt.’ And he was like, ‘Well, I’m a black belt in street fighting.’ And we were always friends after that.”
Affleck, in fact, is the kind of person who makes friendships and keeps them for a lifetime. He has a natural calmness and self-assurance that just draws people to him. “He’s very loyal and he’s really a great dancer. He keeps this a big secret around everyone, including his brother, but he is a great ballroom dancer,” Van Sant says. “He’s seen that movie Strictly Ballroom almost 80 times, last time I asked. I personally had to sit and watch it more than 10 times because he made me. But you should have seen him at my sister’s wedding. Oh, God, is he good. Too bad Ben and J.Lo. never got married.”
Van Sant says he has no doubt that we’ll see more from the younger Affleck brother. “I think that he’s gotten used to the way a movie works, but I don’t know if [his acting] has gotten better than he already was — he started out really good and has remained good,” Van Sant says. “I think he wants to create ideas for movies. I don’t know if he wants to direct really, but I think that he’ll maybe act as a producer. Acting isn’t the only thing for him.” His Ocean’s costar Caan agrees. “He should be in the position of picking and choosing what he wants to do,” Caan says. “Casey will be around for another 20 years, or doing this for as long as he wants to.”
With film-industry allies like that, Affleck likely will continue to have the chance to push himself further, to concentrate on his acting, to define his characters. He bears a movie star’s self-confidence that attracts Hollywood heavy hitters like Van Sant and Ocean’s director Steven Soderbergh. But Casey is not about to go for those headline roles in the $100-million summer blockbusters that his brother loves. “Now that I’ve been really close to people who have been super famous, it just ain’t what it’s cracked up to be. At least not for me,” he says. “It works for people who love it, and need it, but I don’t really. It makes me feel uncomfortable, and it’s a distraction from other things that are satisfying.”