Casey Affleck Gets Philosophical About Life, Time & The Whole Damn Thing

Casey Affleck
BLAZER: Thom Sweeney
SWEATER: Falconeri
TROUSERS: Ralph Lauren

Photo Credit: Mark Squires


Casey Affleck
SUIT: Officine Generale
SWEATER: Thom Sweeney
SHOES: Johnston Murphy
WATCH: Ulysse Nardin

Photo Credit: Mark Squires

“Time,” reflects Casey Affleck, “is something I have been thinking about lately. It is ironic how the older you get, the better you are at being patient. With less time left, people become better at waiting. But this year, I feel much older and a lot less patient. I guess you’ve got to accept that time is never wasted? That doing is no different than not doing? That you can’t kill time no matter what you do, and that no matter what you do you can’t prevent the opposite from happening either? I don’t know. It’s a double-edged sword.”

It’s a Wednesday afternoon in early January, and Affleck and I are doing the Zoom thing, ostensibly to discuss his two new movies, the recently released indie Our Friend and the upcoming 19th-century period drama The World to Come. Yet our virtual tête-à-tête has become far more interesting, jumping wildly from his love of trains and travel to weightier topics like family, the future and the search for something more, something meaningful.

“I like the idea that time is an illusion. That past, present and future are all happening at once. I like it even though I can’t totally get my head around it. But either way, the me in the mirror gets older every day.”

Like most of us, he’s not only had plenty of time on his hands in recent months, housebound in L.A., but he’s tried to use his downtime wisely. “I tried to use this year of quarantine constructively,” the 45-year-old Oscar winner says. “I tried to see it as a winter season for shutting down and restoring something inside, but I just couldn’t. I’m not that evolved, I guess. I didn’t take up a new hobby or learn an instrument or get better at ‘self-care.’ If anything, I let my better habits and routines fall off. It was all I could do to keep my head above water and help buoy my friends and children when I could.”

As a guy with two teenagers at home — Indiana, 16, and Atticus, 13 — it hasn’t been easy, but he’s doing his best. He tried taking his sons on their annual camping road trip over the summer, but it was short-lived. Instead, he’s been focusing on making a happy home. “My kids don’t get to see their friends a lot, so I’m doing a lot more stuff with them, coming up with activities for the three of us, which they mostly hate, and I mostly let drop. And then I try again with the same outcome 90 percent of the time.”

While trying to create innovative plans to sustain his boys, he came up with one he thought might do some good, too. In June, he launched Stories from Tomorrow, a social-media initiative focused on creative writing by kids.

“At the beginning of all this last March, the first thing that occurred to me was that the quarantine would have a big impact on young people’s emotional well-being — the disruption they’re going to feel is really going to affect their mental health more than anyone else,” he says. “When I would sit down to write creatively, I felt better. But I couldn’t get my sons to journal or do creative writing much. I didn’t want to twist their arms about it. So I was like, ‘I’ll make a social media platform that inspires young people to write creatively, because it is such a good way of working out difficult feelings. And the way I will do that is have well-known people read the kids’ writing publicly.’ I knew that hearing your own writing read was exciting. I thought it would be really inspiring, that creative writing would be a great outlet for
kids stuck at home.”

He enlisted some of the biggest names in Hollywood, including Robert Redford, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Jon Hamm, Matthew Broderick, Kyle Chandler and Danny Glover, as well as two current costars, Vanessa Kirby and Jason Segel, and arranged for donations made through the program to go to children’s hunger nonprofit Feeding America and Room to Read, which supports female education. He reached out to schools in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Haiti, hoping to create a global community.

Affleck was excited to make progress, to have done some good, but the initiative didn’t take off as planned. “In the end, an Instagram account for creative writing by tweens just couldn’t possibly compete with the quintillion bytes of daily data generated online. I don’t know. But I tried! And anyway, since then lots of other organizations started doing basically the same thing, and they are more organized than I am, and they have done a better job. So be it.”

Yet, adults have been disrupted, too, including Affleck himself, who is aware that, relatively speaking, he has gotten through mostly unscathed. “Am I happy? I mean, I’m relatively okay. It’s been a hard time to find balance and to keep it. I would say it’s been a hard time in my life, but I know that it’s been harder for other folks. So far we haven’t lost anyone, and we haven’t lost our house. And I rediscovered that when you’re feeling bad, there’s nothing better to do than to try to help other people. Being of service not only helps others but is a great way of getting outside of yourself. Also — and I really believe this — I think this time will be remembered as one when our country made leaps and bounds in the right direction; we are changing and growing and it’s uncomfortable, but we will be much, much better. I wish I could see the next couple hundred years. It’s going to be amazing.”

At the end of the day, it’s family that’s keeping him going. “Having my kids around and being able to spend so much time with them has been amazing. It is the brightest silver lining in all
of this. They are what gives me the most joy. They are funny and smart and interesting and interested. They are just the best company ever,” he says. “Anytime I try to parent out some ‘teaching moment,’ I find they are two steps ahead. They help me make sense of stuff just as much I help them, if not more. I don’t have any answers, but batting the questions around, back and forth, is a good way of coping.”

Casey Affleck
COAT: Theory
T-SHIRT: Cotton Citizen

Photo Credit: Mark Squires

CALEB CASEY MCGUIRE AFFLECK-BOLDT feels he is luckier than most. Although he and many of his peers have gone jobless for a full year, he spent 2019 working hard. He had not one but three films done and dusted prior to the start of the pandemic; the last one wrapped a week before mandatory quarantine. Two of these have back-to-back release dates: the tearjerker indie Our Friend came out in January, and sweeping period drama The World to Come will be released February 12. Thriller Every Breath You Take is slated for later this year. “I am so, so, so glad I spent 2019 working that much. It is what kept us afloat all through 2020,” he says.

The films themselves are radically different, but there are a few common threads. In both of his winter releases, Affleck plays a man who has lost a family member and whose marriage is in shambles. In both, he is a man in pain.

In the LGBTQ masterpiece The World to Come, which revolves around the love that blossoms between two married women on the mid-19th-century American frontier, his character, Dyer, says very little but manages to convey a wealth of emotion with his eyes alone. He may seem stoic, but he is suffering.

The World to Come is a story about a couple who have lost a baby. They’re dealing with the grief in totally different ways and having a very hard time coming together again,” he explains. “My character wants to heal that by having another, but his wife [played by Katherine Waterson] is coping in a different way. She is severing all emotional attachment to him because it triggers more and more grief. She [only] seems to come alive when she is with their neighbor, a woman on the next farm [played by Vanessa Kirby]. He wants his wife happy, but he also would like her to love him. To me, this is the story of how couples can have their relationship shattered by a sudden loss. And it’s definitely a beautiful story about two women who feel that they have to hide their love and find the courage to love each other anyway.”

Affleck likes layers. He himself has many, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he’s drawn to roles written as fully formed characters, not caricatures. With Dyer, that’s abundantly clear. “Crisis is fun to play, [and Dyer] is in an interesting crisis,” he says. “I think he’s a really good person — a really decent, solid, loving person — which is what I loved so much about playing him and what I love so much about the writing. It’s more interesting when there’s no bad guy, just a conflict of circumstances and feelings that get so complicated that it drives two people apart.”

In Our Friend, a different set of circumstances drives the leads apart. Affleck and Dakota Johnson take on the true story of Matthew and Nicole Teague, whose imperfect marriage was strained by his long absences and her affair, neither of which seem at all important when she’s diagnosed with terminal cancer.

“To me, Our Friend is really a story about how petty grievances between people can divide them and then be forgotten when a gigantic tragedy is dropped in their laps. [Matthew] was wronged, it’s true — his wife cheated on him. On the other hand, he wronged her in a bunch of ways; [they] were just more passive and not quite so salacious. He wasn’t around. Matt got to be a dad and he got to travel the world as a journalist. He left her to take care of the kids. She wanted to have a life too, she had dreams of her own — she wanted to be a singer, she wanted to work — but she didn’t get to do that. She just got to be a mom. She was left holding the bag, and it wasn’t fair.”

He spent a fair amount of time immersing himself in the journalist’s life while filming in Fairhope, Ala., in 2019. (The film’s title is taken from Teague’s award-winning Esquire essay, “The Friend: Love Is Not a Big Enough Word.” The friend in question — played by Jason Segel — is a man who puts his life on hold to help the family during their darkest days.) But he did not become Matt Teague, which is an important distinction. “[Director] Gabriella Cowperthwaite asked that we not portray the personality traits of the real people. No accents, no mannerisms. [But] I did steal his style, because I had never seen someone nail the dad look any better than Matt. I say that with affection.”

As for the dreams Nicole gave up for her family, Affleck says, “If you were to ask Matt, I’m sure he would acknowledge that he was neglecting his role. He was neglecting her dreams, and that is a part of marriage, supporting what the other person wants. Like all relationships, it was complicated.”

Like life itself, really. This is why he can identify with both sides. He understands Nicole’s pain about the deference of her dreams as well as Matt’s desire to escape through travel — especially now, when Affleck himself has been completely grounded. Since the age of 17 he’s taken 20 cross-country road trips. His love of driving is secondary only to his enthusiasm for trains: Amtrak is his jam. He even fantasizes about owning his own train car one day.

Immersing himself in each location — whether it’s the sleepy Alabama town of Fairhope or the more exotic locale of Romania, which served as a stand-in for the East Coast of the U.S. in The World to Come — is actually one of the most desirable parts of the acting life, he says. “One of the things I love about working as an actor is that you go to some brand-new place and the community invites you in in a way that they don’t usually if you’re a tourist,” he confides. “You get to see what it’s like to really be there and imagine yourself living there.”

And he has — over the past ten years he’s spent so much time in cities including his hometown of Boston; Vancouver, British Columbia, the location of Light of My Life; Atlanta, where he shot the 2016 action flick Triple 9; Argentina, where he made Gerry; Dallas, for A Ghost Story; Calgary, Alberta, where much of the epic western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was filmed; Our Friend’s Fairhope set; Cincinnati, for The Old Man and the Gun; and Braddock, Pa., where he filmed the 2013 drama Out of the Furnace. “I have loved moving in and settling down and living a character’s life and then moving on. But I feel most at home in places that are struggling to get by. It reminds me of the neighborhood I grew up in. I feel lighter in those places, more relaxed. I feel like myself. I fit in.”

For him, the where is almost as important as the who — immersing himself in the place is imperative to understanding his character. This is part of what makes him such an accomplished actor — he and most of the parts he plays merge. I draw a crappy analogy about how the characters are like a coat, which he very obligingly works with. “You have to build the coat from all of the scraps and pieces of yourself; all these characters are made up of little pieces of me,” he says, noting, “Obviously, sometimes they can’t be. Sometimes I have no connection whatsoever, and those are the jobs I look back on and I either feel nothing for, or worse. But sometimes you have to take the job that is available, like most people in the world. You know? I don’t think my dad wanted to be a janitor. But he did it.”

Casey Affleck
COAT: Todd Snyder
SWEATER: Eleventy Milano

Photo Credit: Mark Squires

He’s won an Oscar, a BAFTA, a Critics’ Choice Award, a Golden Globe and an Independent Spirit Award, among others, and appeared in films that run the gamut from box-office juggernauts like the Ocean’s 11 franchise and Tower Heist to indie darlings like brother Ben’s directorial debut Gone Baby Gone and Manchester by the Sea. He has even written and directed, most recently 2019’s Light of My Life, a bizarrely prescient movie about raising children in a pandemic. At this point in his career, he should have his pick of parts. “Not really,” he says. “There are a lot of people out there who have done good work, who are driven, and who have something to share. I have never been someone studios embraced as a ‘movie star,’ never knighted. I have always had to fight for the parts I have gotten. And you know what? That’s fine. Let me fight. It’s how I cut my teeth, and it is how I will keep them sharp. You can’t ask for more than a chance to be in the ring. Also, movies and TV aren’t all I care about. Sometimes I think, ‘Well, jeez, I have to work, and there are two jobs available to me, and the one that isn’t as good is the one that is close to home and I can see the kids, so I guess I am doing that.’ I love movies and really try hard to make them good. I really bust my ass every day when I get the chance to make one. I care more about my family than any movie. It’s not [always] the job I love, but this is the reality of my life. But maybe life will be long enough for a few more chapters.

The forward momentum of his future is an interesting topic. At the moment, he isn’t so much planning for the future as he is exploring it, because Affleck is not someone who likes to live with regret.

“I guess [at the end of the day], regret should be reframed as a reminder to be different,” he observes. And so, with this in mind, he embarked on a personal journey several years ago and decided to go back to college (at the Simon Fraser University in British Columbia). He had completed two years at Columbia University, but he never graduated — his film career kept getting in the way.
“I went back to school because I hadn’t finished, and I wanted to think about new things in a way that school can help you do,” he says. “I couldn’t go in person, so I found a strong online school and got started. You know, I’m 45, and I just thought, ’This is halftime. This is where you hit the locker room and think about how you want the rest of the game to go.’ You know what I mean? Like, ‘Okay, we went out, we played our best, we didn’t know what the other team was going to be like, we made some mistakes, we are in the game, so let’s adjust like this.’ Also, I’m not sure I want to be an actor forever. I had made a small pivot from acting into directing, and into producing more. And I like to direct movies. The most satisfying creative experience I’ve had in a long time was being a director. But ultimately it wasn’t quite enough. So I wanted to go study some of the things I was interested in. I wanted to do more with my life.”

Although he needed general credits to graduate, he found an unexpected passion for juvenile justice along the way, with a particular focus on alternative accountability programs. “I don’t know where this will lead me, or why I am so interested in it, but finding and implementing better systems for addressing harm and conflict among kids, adults too, but mostly young people, is something I care about. And the work that I have done so far has been fascinating and deeply rewarding.”

When I ask if this stems from his own experiences as a troubled kid growing up in Cambridge, Mass., with Christine, a single mom — his parents divorced when he was 9; his father, Timothy, an alcoholic tradesman, checked into a rehab facility in Indio, Calif., when Affleck was just 14 — he muses thoughtfully, “I love my parents and think they both did the very best they could and cared a lot. Period. Did I get into some trouble as a teenager? I got into some trouble when I was a kid, and I struggled a lot through high school with depression and substances, yes. Much of it I didn’t even know wasn’t normal. I don’t know if I was ‘troubled.’ Either way, as an adult, I’ve come to see that, regardless of how I compare to anyone else, I want less conflict in my life. That might be part of the reason why I’ve been so interested in learning about better ways of resolving conflicts, both with children and with grown-ups. It isn’t something they teach in school for some reason. Man, there is a lot they don’t teach you in school, huh? A lot you’ve got to learn on your own.”

And on this journey, mistakes will be made. That’s par for the course, and Affleck is no exception. “I have made so many mistakes, but life is the time for mistakes. I do believe people should hold themselves accountable and repair harm they have caused. That is important to me, and I try hard to do that whenever it is called for: apologize for mistakes and repair them,” he admits.

This is when our conversation, as such conversations are wont to do, comes full circle. Before we say goodbye, Affleck remarks, “You know, I heard Bono talking on Howard Stern’s show, and he said something about Frank Sinatra that was interesting. He said that he heard two versions of Frank singing ‘My Way.’ One version was recorded when Frank was young, and the other version was recorded when Frank was old. Each had the exact same words, same arrangement, same everything. But when Frank was young the line ‘I did it my way’ sounded proud, and when Frank was old it sounded humble. Whatever else time does to a person, I think it also does that.”

Casey Affleck
SWEATER: Eleventy Milano
PANTS: Todd Snyder
WATCH: Ulysse Nardin

Photo Credit: Mark Squires