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(Kerry Hayes/Relativity Media)
(Kerry Hayes/Relativity Media)

Casey Affleck: Stepping out of his big brother's shadow Add to ...

The other brother. The less famous one. He can be just as talented, perhaps even more so, but due to a small accident of biology – a weaker chin, say, or a bulkier frame – he’s not as likely to be considered leading man material. Think Beau Bridges, Randy Quaid. And these days, Casey Affleck.

Affleck, 38, has played his share of kid-brother, part-of-the-posse roles in films, including To Die For, Good Will Hunting, and the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy. In 2007 he came into his own with a leading role in Gone Baby Gone – directed by his brother Ben, who’s three years older – and a supporting-actor Oscar nod for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. In 2010 he directed his first feature, the much-talked-about I’m Still Here, starring another famous younger brother, Joaquin Phoenix. (Phoenix is also Affleck’s brother-in-law: Affleck and his wife Summer Phoenix have two sons, aged 9 and 5.)

In his latest film, Out of the Furnace, which opened in select cities last week, Affleck plays a doozy of a younger brother: Rodney Baze is the kind of guy who can’t catch a break, who’s felt the screws tightening on him for as long as he can remember. He joined the military to escape his rust-belt Pennsylvania town, but after he served his time in Afghanistan, they wouldn’t release him; they stop-lossed him until there was almost no him left. He’s haunted by what he’s seen, but can’t unburden himself. His older brother Russell (Christian Bale), a steelworker, tries to help, but he’s fighting to keep his own disintegrating life together.

The film is directed and co-written by Scott Cooper, whose Crazy Heart earned Jeff Bridges a best actor Oscar, and also stars Sam Shepard as a hunter, Forest Whitaker as a cop, and Zoe Saldana as a daycare worker. As you probably gleaned, the film is an elegy for blue-collar America, for the folks who work hard and try to do right by their families, only to watch their dreams disappear in a plant closing or a cancer ward or at the bottom of a bottle of booze.

Rodney hastens that decline by making one disastrous decision after another, gambling himself into a hole, borrowing money from a ruthless backwoods crime boss (Woody Harrelson), agreeing to take the fall in a bare-knuckle boxing match. Spoiler alert: Things do not end well.

In a recent phone interview, Affleck’s voice is thinner and raspier than his older brother’s; there’s less assuredness in his delivery, more hesitance and modesty. But he’s second to no one in thoughtfulness and charm. “Rodney feels both derailed and like he was imploding,” Affleck said. “Those questions – What is moral behaviour? What should one do in the face of certain struggles? – are a central part of being a human being. One of my favourite poems is Wallace Stevens’s How to Live. What to Do. It’s about that overwhelming question: How does one live? What should one do when no choice leads to a positive outcome?”

(I didn’t know the poem, but I looked it up. It’s one of the more original things an actor has ever quoted to me.)

Affleck likes to take a long time to prepare for a role, and Rodney was no exception. “I start doing research, taking in as much as I can, but without moving toward a specific goal, a place I have to get to,” he says. “I just start learning about what this person’s life would be like.” He talked to veterans, watched documentaries about war experiences, read about coming home. He gleaned a lot from an “amazing” photo essay of young men who were photographed before going to war, while in combat, and after returning home.

“It was an astonishing series of images; it said so much,” Affleck says. “I try to just absorb that stuff, let it bake in me, so when I’m doing a scene, I hope it has somehow changed me and will inform the moment.”

“Of course,” he adds, “I’m usually terrible for the first week of shooting. I’ve seen other people who are much better than I am do it differently, so maybe I ought to change.”

While shooting Out of the Furnace, Bale reportedly remained in character and somewhat aloof, but Affleck had no problem with that. “I think it’s great,” he says. “I like it when people give their all. You only have so much time to make a movie, and you don’t get a second chance. So when I’m there, I want it to be the only thing I’m doing. I can’t really sleep. I don’t go home and watch TV and call my friends. I want to maximize it.”

Making I’m Still Here, however, was almost too immersive. (For those who missed it, it’s a gonzo experiment in mock documentary-making, in which Phoenix spent a year living in character as if he were spiralling into drug addiction and madness.) “The character was abusive and horrible,” Affleck says, “and the world of the film was one of real darkness and unpleasantness, the seediest underbelly of celebrity culture, just prostitutes and drugs and people being mean to each other. It felt pretty gross to me. It was hard to, ugh, be a part of it. And because of the nature of the movie, it was all really intimate, right there in my face. It took a lot of detoxification to get that out of my system.”

Viewers’ outraged reactions when the film was revealed to be a fiction also pained him, Affleck continues. “Directors say they would rather have harsh criticism than no reaction at all,” he says. “I experienced extreme reactions, largely negative, so I’m not sold on that. I’m somebody who, jeez, I don’t like unpleasantness. I’ve never liked having people be mad at me. Even if I’m driving and turn left and someone yells, ‘You asshole!’ I can’t just brush that off, I’ve never been able to. So even though we made a movie that’s unique, and funny and beautiful in moments, I felt awful for a while.”

Here’s where having a savvy, successful older brother who’s also been through the wringer really helps. “It’s heartening because we can share our experiences,” Affleck says. “He knows exactly what I’m talking about before I get two words out. Boy, that is comforting.”

“I know there are much harder ways to make a living, and I know I’m lucky, sincerely,” he sums up. “But it’s nice to have family doing this with me.”

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