NEW YORK — Casey Affleck clearly doesn’t spend any time reading his press clippings.
Despite his famous name and the fact that he travels in rarefied Hollywood circles, Affleck comes across as humble, unassuming, and mostly unimpressed with himself, his own celebrity, and his accomplishments as an actor. Which stands in stark contrast to the array of critics and cinephiles who have been singing his praises for years, despite the lack of high-profile roles and awards on his shelf.
As the less famous, more soulful and enigmatic Affleck brother, Casey has quietly toiled for the past decade building a reputation as an actor of subtly powerful gifts, praised for his empathetic, deeply unsentimental performances, at once idiosyncratic yet unfussy, in indie gems such as Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry,” Steve Buscemi’s “Lonesome Jim,” and David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” which opens in the Boston area on Friday.
He played a wiry, unconventional leading man in his brother Ben’s 2007 directorial debut, the acclaimed Boston-set crime thriller “Gone Baby Gone,” leaving Globe critic Ty Burr to marvel that Casey was blossoming into “a leading man of richly watchable savvy and intelligence.” That same year he was widely applauded for his deeply layered turn in Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” playing the famous outlaw’s disillusioned follower, who went from celebrity stalker to fawning underling to seething killer. Affleck stole the film from Brad Pitt in a performance that was dubbed “revelatory” and “mesmerizing” and garnered an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.
Then there was the gruesomely violent “The Killer Inside Me,” in which Affleck vividly brought to life a soft-spoken, small-town psycho, deftly hinting at the uncontrollable sadistic impulses lurking beneath his surface gentility. Even big brother Ben, 41 to Casey’s 38, has insisted that his younger sibling is the better actor.
I’m grateful for the ways in which I’ve been able to keep my anonymity — that people don’t wait outside my door to follow me to the store and take pictures of me.
All of which leaves Casey largely unmoved.
“I don’t really feel like I’ve done all that much that’s all that great, in truth. I don’t really feel like I’ve had an opportunity to play all these different kinds of roles or that I’ve even really been in that many good movies,” says the raspy-voiced actor, with a hesitant laugh, during a phone interview from Los Angeles, where he’s at home tending to a sick kid the day after his 38th birthday (he has two sons with wife Summer Phoenix, whose brother is his best friend, Joaquin Phoenix). “But I’m immensely grateful for the few projects that I look back on as good learning experiences or good movies that I’ve been able to do. And I accept all the ones that you have to do sometimes for money or just to keep working.”
When given a chance to talk about his acting choices and his work, Affleck, who grew up in Cambridge, quickly deflects the attention away from himself and toward others, lauding his directors for doing most of the heavy lifting and allowing him to reap the rewards.
“I think the director can shape and determine so much about a performance,” he says.
His self-effacing modesty is no act, insists Lowery, the director of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” “I think he is harder on himself than on anyone else,” says Lowery, in a phone interview. “He is extremely humble and doesn’t take anything for granted.”
In the moody tone poem “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” which recalls such 1970s touchstones as Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” and Robert Altman’s “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” Affleck plays a young Texas outlaw, Bob Muldoon, who lands in prison following a robbery and a subsequent shoot-out with police. His girlfriend Ruth (Rooney Mara) winds up killing a cop in the fray, but Bob takes the fall for her crime. She gives birth to their daughter, the two exchange yearning letters, and he vows to reunite with her. The film picks up four years later, after Bob has escaped prison and methodically makes his way back to their small Texas town, trying to evade the authorities.
Unlike some of the assorted bad guys Affleck has played in recent years, the actor insists that Muldoon is a good, if misguided, character at heart — selflessly taking the blame for a crime he didn’t commit so that his girlfriend can remain free.
“That seems like a pretty noble act in many ways. But because of that decision, he suffers this arrested development,” Affleck says. “He’s sitting in prison for years, while his girlfriend is raising his child and gets to grow and mature in different ways. By the time they meet again, he is still in some ways the kid who went into jail at age 18 or 19. And that’s what makes the movie really compelling to me — seeing how that drama plays out.”Affleck was attracted to the way that everyone in the film is complicated and decent and flawed. “But you always really cared about all of the characters despite all of their mistakes,” he says.
Casting Affleck was a no-brainer for Lowery once he met the actor, who had been on the top of his wish-list.
“I love listening to him speak, and I love his sensibility, and I felt that it was very appropriate for playing Bob, who is such a dreamer and a child at heart in so many ways,” Lowery says. “I felt that Casey’s exuberance and his own natural optimistic and idealistic personality would be a great fit for this character.”
Affleck says that he was intrigued by the idea of two people who are really in love but are drifting apart and “how sometimes you can do something heroic and it can go completely unrewarded,” he says.
Listening to Affleck speak, the rangy actor projects a more down-to-earth, regular guy vibe, in contrast to the natural movie-star aura of his brother. He acknowledges that he’s always been conflicted about the trappings of celebrity, and he’s proven to be particularly choosy about his roles, sometimes taking extended breaks between movies. Save for Steven Soderbergh’s massively popular “Ocean’s Eleven” films, and Brett Ratner’s less successful “Tower Heist” a few years back, Affleck largely avoids action blockbusters.
“I want to be careful of the parts that I choose, so that when I’m doing a movie I feel safe and can be completely reckless with the choices I make as an actor,” he says. “I need to feel free to make mistakes in an effort to find what I need for the character.”Lowery appreciates the fact that Affleck is not trying to please anybody but himself — both in his performances and in his choice of roles. “He’s picky. He wants to do work that is really good and that will last and will make a difference,” says the director. “And I really admire the fact that he is sticking to his guns and making things that matter to him.”
Indeed, Affleck has long been conflicted about his celebrity and appreciates the lower career profile he has carved out.
“I’m grateful for the ways in which I’ve been able to keep my anonymity—that people don’t wait outside my door to follow me to the store and take pictures of me.” he says. “I understand that making a choice to not do all the publicity that I could and not doing certain movies has made other things in my career more challenging. But I totally accept the choices I’ve made, and it’s given me different benefits.”
Of course, then there are the high-profile flameouts. Namely, his widely derided debacle as a first-time feature director, “I’m Still Here.” The guerilla-style mockumentary about the faux public meltdown of Joaquin Phoenix blurred the lines between reality and fiction and seemed to be a commentary on the public’s obsession with watching movie stars crash and burn. Affleck and Phoenix thought they were making a meta-comedy about an actor who turns into a drug-addled, narcissistic train wreck after he quits Hollywood to pursue a rap career. But the film industry, and much of the public, reacted angrily to being duped into what they saw as a hoax and a stunt, not a conceptual piece of public performance art.
At the time, Affleck said that the film had been misinterpreted. But chastened, he now laughs that off. “Listen, anyone who makes a movie and no one goes to see it, they will very often tell you it was misunderstood,” he says. “I just think that people didn’t like it that much.”
That setback behind him, Affleck is busy with both acting and producing projects. He flies up to Calgary soon to shoot Christopher Nolan’s new sci-fi epic “Interstellar,” and he’s developing a film with the writer Chuck MacLean about the Boston Strangler murders, a project that’s been optioned by Warner Bros. Affleck would produce and likely star as a detective working the case. He describes the script as “a speculative movie that dramatizes a theory about the Boston Strangler case — in the way that Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK’ sort of speculated.” If it gets the green light, he hopes the film will be shot in Boston.
“I only live in LA because I have to for work. I really think of Boston as my home. Knowing a place the way that you do when you grow up here, that’s something that really helps when you’re an actor in a movie that’s set in Boston.”
Indeed, his hometown boosterism knows no bounds. “Sometimes I’ll say, ‘Listen, if you guys will shoot in Boston or in Massachusetts, I’ll do it,’” he says. “And they go, ‘The movie is set in Miami!’ And I’m like, ‘Well, can we change a few things?’”
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@ gmail.com.