TORONTO — On a warm and breezy September afternoon during the Toronto International Film Festival, Casey Affleck was stuck inside of a stuffy hotel room doing interviews.
Based on the reception of his new film, “Manchester by the Sea,” it was becoming clear that the list of requests for Affleck’s time would keep growing. It was the third film festival where the Kenneth Lonergan-directed drama was buzzed about as an Oscar frontrunner. In Toronto, critics and reporters talked about Affleck as a contender for the best actor prize, like it was a sure thing.
In the hotel room, Affleck’s eyes got wide at the suggestion that he’d have to participate in an Oscar campaign. His posture went rigid.
“You don’t have to do it,” Affleck said, of the schmoozing that can come with an Oscars push. “If a movie is great, it’s great, and people will find it. It’s not mandatory.”
Affleck, 41, stars in the lauded local drama — which opens this week — as a janitor who’s called back to his hometown, Manchester-by-the-Sea, after the death of his brother, played in flashbacks by “Bloodline” and “Friday Night Lights” star Kyle Chandler. It’s a bleak story that follows Affleck’s character, Lee Chandler, as he becomes a caretaker for his teen nephew. Michelle Williams plays Lee’s ex-wife.
After the movie earned raves at its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, distribution rights were sold to Amazon for $10 million. The deal boosted the profile of the film, which meant that in Toronto, Affleck was the center of attention.
The Falmouth-born, Cambridge-bred actor admitted he doesn’t always know how to embrace this kind of spotlight. He’s prone to being introverted about his work, partly to protect his private life. “I’m probably known for doing less than people would like me to do,” he said, of interviews like this one.
Lonergan — of “You Can Count On Me” — and “Manchester” producer Matt Damon asked Affleck to star in the film after Damon’s schedule prevented him from taking the role himself. The director said Affleck wasn’t a second choice; it was clear the role was his as soon as Damon got too busy.
“I had gotten to know them at the same time, when they did my play [“This is Our Youth”] in London in 2002. We had talked about doing other projects together before, and as soon as Matt’s schedule looked wonky ... [Casey] was the automatic go-to person,” Lonergan said. “He’s such a complicated and outstanding and original actor. I just remember watching him in movies, and my wife and I were both saying, ‘He’s so good,’ whether it was a big part or a little part.”
Lonergan said that if Affleck ever comes off as shy or aloof, it’s because he’s the kind of actor who just wants to act.
“I think he finds it genuinely embarrassing,” Lonergan said, of the attention.
It doesn’t help that he has an older brother (Ben) who has always seemed more comfortable with the limelight.
“I don’t think of him as the ‘other’ one or the ‘indie’ one,” Lonergan said. “I think of him as an actor who does really good work.”
Affleck said it was all of the above that made “Manchester” an ideal project for an actor like himself. During production, which lasted about two months, he lived on Cape Ann, staying in a guest house owned by a friend of the family. It was barely spring, so it was quiet. He spent many nights during the shoot staying up late with Lonergan, rehearsing and talking through scenes.
“Manchester” was the second film that Affleck made in Massachusetts that season. At the end of 2014, he filmed Disney’s “The Finest Hours,” costarring Chris Pine. Affleck was back in Los Angeles before the record-breaking snowfall, and returned to film “Manchester” that March. It was the right time to be home, he said, despite the cold; he said he’s the kind of Boston person who was disappointed to miss the snow.
“I usually feel the loneliest when the weather is nice,” Affleck said. “I really like being in Massachusetts in the winter.”
The only uncomfortable part of the project might have been that “Manchester” marked the first time Affleck was forced to look at himself while playing someone else. With previous films — which have included the “Oceans Eleven” movies; “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”; his brother’s directorial debut, “Gone Baby Gone”; and his Oscar-nominated performance in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” — Affleck has avoided sitting through screenings, explaining that it makes him uneasy, and that he becomes too critical of his own work.
“Most of the time I don’t watch the movies that I’m in,” he said. “I like playing scenes, working with the director and other actors.”
He said he feels more comfortable admiring the work he did when he had construction jobs in Cambridge as a teen. When he’s home, he said he’ll pass a house where he worked on something like a staircase, and stop to appreciate what he accomplished.
“I will drive by those places and say, ‘I made that,’” he said. “With movies I just don’t feel that way.”
But Lonergan made him look.
“I really wanted his feedback,” the director said. “I couldn't get it if he didn’t watch.”
Affleck’s next projects are “The Old Man and the Gun,” which re-teams him with “Saints” director David Lowery, and “Light of My Life,” a narrative that Affleck said he’ll direct and star in himself. (Affleck’s last directorial project for film was the oddball music mockumentary “I’m Still Here,” starring Joaquin Phoenix.)
“I wanted to do something more conventional and contained,” he said, of “Light of My Life,” which he calls a father-daughter tale.
Affleck knows that directing himself in a feature means he’ll have to watch his own performance, take after take, shot after shot. He looks uneasy about it, but stays focused.
“I did see this one,” he said, of “Manchester.” “I’m getting a little bit better at being objective about it.”Meredith Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.